Origins of Opening the Book
Opening the Book began in 1991 when Rachel Van Riel first offered training and consultancy in the reader-centred approach. Rachel brought together her experience in university and adult education, where she learned that people have a hunger to be stretched; community arts, where she found that everyone enjoys expressing their own creative views; and libraries, where she discovered the community-based, flexible institutions for the kind of audience development work she wanted to do.
Opening the Book grew with Olive Fowler joining full-time in 1995 and a group of creative trainers who became a close team in delivering face-to-face workshops across the UK. Anne Downes and Fiona Edwards became permanent staff as our training programme expanded. Anne Caldwell is now well-known for her poetry and is a leading light in the north-west literature scene; Rommi Smith is a successful poet, playwright and the first ever Parliamentary Writer in Residence; while Ann Cleeves’ achievement as a crime novelist is known from the bestseller lists as well as TV adaptation. All three contributed substantially to the growth of Opening the Book in its early years.
New training programmes
Opening the Book tackled many library training needs for the first time – promoting Black British writing, promoting gay and lesbian writing, understanding customer behaviour, working with visually impaired readers, promoting poetry, introducing narrative non-fiction, reader development in prisons. This led to long-term national training programmes, in partnership with the Society of Chief Librarians of England and Wales and SLIC/CILIPS in Scotland, funded by the national Arts Councils of England, Wales and Scotland. Consciously investing in key librarians as agents of change, Branching Out (England), Estyn Allan (Wales) and the Reader Development Network (Scotland), changed practice across UK libraries and embedded reader development in policies, job descriptions, collection management, promotions, staff training and reader-centred websites. Tom Forrest, county librarian for Oxfordshire, led on Branching Out for SCL and joined Opening the Book full-time for a period before moving on as an independent consultant.
The company also worked with leading publishers, booksellers and educational organisations to promote reading as a creative activity, on projects such as the Reading Group Toolbox, produced with Waterstone’s, the Creative Reading course for the Open College of the Arts and the first online directory of independent presses in the UK.
Our expertise in collections development was recognised when we were commissioned to devise a measure for adult fiction stock quality by the Audit Commission. The Stock Quality Health Check was used by most local authorities in England and Wales and created a bank of longitudinal data across 125 services.
We currently focus on library design, training and reader websites. Since 2003, we have designed and installed 150 unique library designs. The Frontline course was launched in 2005, re-designed and re-engineered in 2009 and has reached over 10,000 library staff. The interActive course was launched in 2011 and is being used in Australia, Scotland, Canada and the USA.
Origins of Opening the Book Furniture
Opening the Book Furniture was set up as Opening the Book Promotions in 2001 by Rachel Van Riel and Helen Thomas, after they worked together on the first national reader-centred promotions in public libraries – Open Ticket, created to showcase literature from round the world for Branching Out and The Mind’s Eye, a promotion of narrative non-fiction for the Public Libraries Group. Open Ticket was an instant hit with hundreds of library service points from across the UK participating. The Mind’s Eye followed a year later, included all Scottish library services and showed that reader-centred approaches could be applied to non-fiction just as much as fiction.
Opening the Book Furniture established itself in Birmingham, at the Custard Factory – now an arts complex but formally Birds Custard powder factory. During the first years, the company offered a mix of furniture units (some of which are still best-sellers like the Table Unit) and high-quality reader-centred graphics and promotions. We brought in Roy Farrell, who had designed many successful Waterstone’s bookstores, to work with us on adapting retail designs to work in libraries.
The company pioneered the concept of quick choice, a collection of face-out paperbacks at the front of the library space, designed to offer an intriguing range to people who are looking to be tempted and can’t spend much time choosing. Quick choice has had a direct impact on library performance wherever it has been introduced and we continue to offer furniture and graphics to support it.
Showroom and warehouse
In 2007 the company moved to new premises in Birmingham’s historic Jewellery Quarter where we have space for a small Showroom as well as our offices. In 2010 we expanded to manage all our own distribution, with a large warehouse, transport and great new staff.
BookSpace and WordSpace
Following an extensive period of research into primary school needs and prototyping of different units, we launched our BookSpace range in 2011. BookSpace is a whole new concept to make book corners and reading areas in primary schools into attractive discovery spaces. WordSpace followed soon after with exciting resources to support creative writing activities. A dedicated website gives lots of free advice, resources and competitions as well as showcasing how the ideas are being used in schools.
Quite a journey …
We began by promoting reading and soon found that libraries needed more creative concepts and graphics to get their message across. So we brought in commercial designers to raise the design quality and share costs across services while keeping the unique reader-centred values of a library. Then we found that creativity was stifled by the lack of good furniture to display books properly and an assumption that bookshop style would solve all problems. So we brought the best designers from bookselling to help us create beautiful, high-performing library furniture which uses retail principles but understands the different library context. We concentrated on quick choice areas and specific displays for many years but our research into library customer behaviour and our work with library staff led to a complete rethink of how to approach the physical layout of libraries from the customer experience point of view instead of the traditional collections management approach. We applied this thinking in consultancies from 2000 (Blackburn Library and Swiss Cottage Library were our two first) and in full library design and installation from 2003. In all this work we sought to develop the cultural role of libraries and celebrate their unique potential.
We worked with young entrepreneurs and digital artists at the height of the first dot-com boom to create reader-centred websites which are different and fun to use. This developed as an in-house web expertise which enabled us to create award-winning large-scale online training programmes as well as the whichbook.net website.
The future …
In 2013 we complete our first academic library, following out of a consultancy on how physical space can best express vision and values. We launch a new range of furniture for schools and downloadable bite-sized training modules to support its use. WelkBoek, the Dutch version of whichbook, goes live and we take reader-centred graphics and book promotion to the United States for the first time. Sign up to our email newsletter to keep in touch with all our new developments.