Monday, 29 November 2010

Browsing - Josh Lacey

About a month ago, I visited a couple of schools in Basingstoke as part of the Wessex Book Festival and had lunch with some librarians from the Hampshire School Library Service. Over our sandwiches, we were talking about the future of books, reading and libraries, and one of the librarians made a fascinating observation which has lingered in my mind since.

Children aren't being taught to browse, she said. If they can't browse, then they can't use libraries and bookshops properly. They can't discover books for themselves.


Of course, children know how to browse on the internet. They can use search engines; they can hunt down information; they can leap from page to page. These skills are taught to them at school.

But no one teaches them to browse the shelves of a library or a bookshop, hunting for new books, new authors, new connections.

I'd never thought about browsing before. To me, it's an almost instinctive activity and feels so everyday, so ordinary, that I could hardly even imagine it as a teachable skill. I wander into a bookshop, glance at the array of covers spread out on tables or stacked on shelves, pick up a book, skim the blurb, read the first line or two, and, usually, put it back and look for something more interesting.



I'm always hoping that something will snag my attention: a cover, an author, the distant memory of a review or a recommendation. But, even more, I hope I'll find something by accident, a new writer, a book that I've never heard of. I'll open the book. The first few sentences will suck me in. I'll have to hurry away and find a quiet place and read it to the end.

According to those librarians in Hampshire, most of the children who walk into their libraries don't have this skill. Unable to browse, they're bewildered by the array of books on offer. They don't know where to start or how to progress from one author to another. So they are very conservative. They pick the next in a series. A book by an author that they know or have been ordered to read at school. Rather than discovering new authors, new books. Rather than exploring.

Josh Lacey

12 comments:

Joan Lennon said...

This is very interesting! How can we teach our children this skill? Other than by example - seeing adults browsing - but as so much of it is internal, it might not work that way ...

Ms. Yingling said...

This is very true. Students don't know how to make good choices, and many don't really want to read, so are disconcerted when they end up with a book they dislike. I recommend a lot of books, which is good when the students can come and ask me for titles, but this is a concern for when they leave my library. How to teach them to browse? I will contemplate this at length!

Penny Dolan said...

Josh, well said! A worrying observation. Glad there are still librarians out there - even if fewer than before - who spend time helping children learn about libraries and browsing.

Stroppy Author said...

"To me, it's an almost instinctive activity and feels so everyday, so ordinary, that I could hardly even imagine it as a teachable skill."

This says it all. It's not a teachable skill, and no-one ever taught us to browse. It's a facilitated skill: it requires children to have the time - possibly enforced time - in a library or bookshop so that they learn to do it. Because we are always rushing our children to choose and get out, they never can learn to browse. We learned because our parents dumped us in the kids' section while they went off to browse themselves and there was nothing else to do. Now, even if kids are so dumped, libraries are full of other 'attractions' because they're scared books will put people off and bookshops sell toys and other crud that attracts children's attention.

They just need the chance to browse, not lessons!

Sue Purkiss said...

I agree with Anne - I don't think children need to be taught how to browse. It was ever thus, and it still is - you read a book by one author, so yopu look for another by the same person, and then when you've read all those, you start to look around. It's surely part of the reason why Enid Blton, J Wilson and Micheal Morpurgo have been so successful - they've written lots, so there are lots of books to go onto.

I'm getting a little bit sceptical about this urge to teach children everything - how to be happy, how to spend their spare time, how to be emotionally intelligent. Maybe we just need to give them a bit of space and time and let them get on with it. Perhaps they can muddle through without an over-anxious adult constantly peering over their shoulders!

Leila said...

When I used to work for Reading is Fundamental, UK, we'd do author events with children in bookshops, and before the readings someone from RIF would always ask the children some questions to check they knew how to browse for and select a book. For many of them it would have been their only/ first ever visit to a bookshop, so they did need that bit of extra help.

Leila said...

"We learned because our parents dumped us in the kids' section while they went off to browse themselves"

This is it, though, isn't it? Less children than you'd think have parents who would willingly step inside a bookshop, let alone browse.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Interesting post. If I go into a shop with rails and rails of designer clothes or even something as innocuous as Zara, I feel totally overwhelmed. I think the sheer volumn of Primark would kill me! Yet I can spend hours browsing a bookshop or a kitchen-ware shop or a hardware store or a stationers. Isn't it what we're comfortable with. If children are given time and made to feel comfortable with books from an early age, they'll be natural browsers... inquisitive to discover what the covers hold and confident to make selections based on their own feelings and judgement. Giving children confidence in any area will turn them into natural browsers and discoverers.

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

I'm taking my youngest (aged one) to the library tomorrow morning for an organised rhyme time. Afterwards, I let him roam, pick up books, drop them where they fall. I had wondered if this was quite the right approach, but now I'm not going to worry any longer. It's generally about catching their interest when they're young. I hope the library will do this. Thanks for the post.

Josh Lacey said...

My own ease in bookshops and libraries came from growing up in a book-filled household. Many children don't, and so they do need help learning to use books. Leaving them next to a packed shelf just won't do it. I'm not suggesting that we should peer over their shoulders; I'm just saying that some children need help "learning how to learn".

Miriam Halahmy said...

Well, if schools continue to have libraries - no, don't get started you lot - then teachers should be doing what I used to do with my classes. Take them to the library and we all browse. That way they get to see what I do in a library and they learn browsing really quite quickly. Well observed Josh, many thanks.

Sue Purkiss said...

Sorry, Josh, I think I had a bit of a rant there. I wasn't brought up in a household with many books - though we did have an old set of encyclopaedias that I used to browse through - but then I was a naturally bookish chikd, so I guess I was going to work out how to browse anyway. And I used the school and town libraries regularly - it seems the way things are going, there are going to be precious few of those around for much longer. And, like Miriam, when I was a teacher I used to talk to the kids about how to choose books, and take them into the library regularly. I guess the issue is not just whether or not they're being taught to browse - it's whether they have access to libraries and their teachers demonstrate an enthusiasm for reading.

A though-provoking post, Josh, and sorry again if I snapped!