For years, I have been somewhat baffled by the books the libraries in my area choose to display. Usually the adult department seems to make beautiful, relevant displays featuring seasonal reads (gardening books, holiday baking and decorating books, beach reads, and so forth). The children’s department, however, often seems to lack a designated display area, and so workers will simply face books out on the ends of shelves where there is empty space. The choices made for these faced-out books are puzzling, to say the least. They seldom seem to be new, relevant, or popular titles–quite the opposite, in fact! So what’s going on? Why aren’t the books displayed in the children’s area books with appealing covers, titles, or content? Why aren’t the books on display as relevant as the books in the adult department?
For a time, I thought perhaps workers were simply grabbing books at random and displaying them without thought. This may be particularly true if the workers putting books on display are not the children’s librarians, but part-time shelvers who have no interest in or knowledge of children’s books. But, still, it seemed odd that the workers would not realize a beat-up cover with a tasteless design or lack of vibrant colors would not exactly entice the average child to pick it up. Definitely not in the renaissance of the children’s graphic novel! Children know good, appealing design when they see it. They know they want to pick up something colorful and somewhat recent-looking.
I think sometimes workers really do pull books at random and they really do not care if the book is thirty years old with yellowing pages and a faded cover. However, over time, I began to notice more of a definite trend happening in the books on display. Many of the books being chosen are old on purpose because the workers are choosing classics or books they somehow see as worthy–old award winners, old school list titles, old favorites. The librarians are saying, “These are the types of books we think you ought to be checking out.” And so the YA section displays show Aristotle, Homer,and Jane Austen, while the children’s section proudly promote titles such as Caddie Woodlawn and Tom Sawyer. The graphic novel section, meanwhile, almost always has an educational title on display, like “Oceans Explained in Comic Form!”–not something as good as the Nathan Hale Tales. Popular and recently-published titles are usually missing.
Now, there is nothing wrong with classics; I happen to love reading them myself and I loved reading them even as a child. I have read many of the older titles being displayed regularly at the library. I do have to wonder, however, if the libraries I am familiar with are using the displays to their advantage. Library displays are basically a form of advertising, a way to get patrons to see what new or interesting titles the library has, a way to get overlooked books noticed, a way to encourage patrons to “impulse check out” an extra book. But, to advertise effectively, one has to know the market. The adult displays do this very well because they connect with readers on topics they are already thinking about–entertaining for the holidays, eating healthy for the new year, starting that new home project. The children’s displays fail (I know because the books on display never change, meaning patrons never check them out) because they ignore what children today are actually reading and actually like, and try instead to encourage the children to read something the workers perceive as “good for them.”
The fundamental difference between the adult displays and the children’s displays is that the adult displays respect their readers and trust them, while the children’s displays (perhaps unintentionally or unconsciously) have taken on a sort of didactic role. But readers who like classics do not need Jane Austen or Homer or advertised to them, and readers who do not like classics are not going to pick up Homer on a whim. The workers assumed that simply placing any book on a display stand would move it to check out, but the results indicate that their choices are not resonating with many readers.
The workers would create more effective displays if they could think thematically like the adult displays, focusing on relevant issues like a new school year, friends, video games, etc, or choosing books that might appeal to fans of Rick Riordan, Jeff Kinney, or other popular authors. It would also help if they would pull a mix of recent and older books that are worthy because they are well-written or thought-provoking or relevant to the community–not just because the librarian remembers reading that book when they were growing up. Finally, the older books should probably have updated covers that will be appealing and eye-catching in the age of Instagram–not a cover that says, “Yes, I am from the 1980s.”
I love older books. I really do. But the purpose of library displays is not to convince children that they really ought to be reading more classics and award winners. The purpose is to draw attention to exciting or interesting resources the library has, some of which patrons may have overlooked. The libraries I’ve seen could create more effective displays if the workers would feature a mix of old and new books that would appeal to the types of readers coming into the library, rather than the types of readers they apparently wish they had.
How does your library display books? What would your ideal display look like?