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"Urban Fiction" @ Your Library

There sure are fun things going on in libraries these days. The New York Times has been reporting lately on some of those things. Doesn’t this sound like fun: "And then there’s Angel, a Versace-clad seductress who shoots her boyfriend in the head during sex, stuffs money from his safe into her Louis Vuitton bags and, as she fondles the cash, experiences a sexual frisson narrated in terms too graphic to reproduce here." Sounds like a date I had once.

Not that this is going on in the library, but instead within a book that’s part of genre called "urban fiction," and some librarians are eagerly snapping this up, despite, as the Times notes, that "it’s not the kind of literary fare usually associated with the prim image of librarians." Then again, neither is this blog. At this point, you’re thinking, oh, not again, the AL is going to criticize librarians buying crappy books for the library. Well, you’d be wrong. I don’t care what libraries buy. What I found interesting was the claim that libraries "are embracing urban fiction as an exciting, if sometimes controversial, way to draw new people into reading rooms, spread literacy and reflect and explore the interests and concerns of the public they serve." Let’s take a look at these motivations for buying crappy books.

There’s no denying that it might be a way to draw new people into reading rooms, and more new people in reading rooms means…well, I’m not sure what it means. Fewer empty chairs? A warmer room because of the increased body heat, so libraries can save on heating bills during the tough winter months? There’s something to that last one. My library is always very chilly during the winter, and sometimes I want to import ten or twelve people into my office just so I can luxuriate in their natural heat. Or at least I wanted to do that until I actually did it once and was so overwhelmed that my neurasthenia started acting up. But let’s just say in theory this is a good thing.

What about spreading literacy, though? Does more people reading trashy fiction equal the spread of literacy? I suppose if we consider literacy merely the ability to read anything, but does that definition help us much these days? I realize there are some people who can’t read at all, but it’s an open question of whether reading garbage is any better than reading nothing. We don’t have to consider just this so-called "urban fiction." We can add some of the lesser genres such as romance novels, westerns, and manga. Are people who read only romances, westerns, or urban fiction particularly literate? After all, why do we value literacy? Is it so people can enjoy their leisure time reading about drug dealers killing each other during sex or studly studs fondling ripped bodices? Or is it so that people can read and understand the information necessary to act as intelligent citizens? But if people never read anything beyond their trashy novels – and probably that’s the case – then what’s the point of their literacy and why should the public support it? Is it our duty to pay taxes so people can cultivate the taste for trashy fiction (or videogames)?

Then we’ve got the last motivation, to "reflect and explore the interests and concerns of the public they serve." That certainly important sounding, isn’t it.  This is a good thing, right? Or is it instead just encouraging ignorance and provincialism. As one of the persons interviewed said, "I read what I can relate to." Is this anything libraries should be encouraging? Whatever happened to diversity and the encouragement of the understanding of others’ points of view? We certainly don’t get any of that by only reading things we relate to. Should libraries start purchasing Ignorant Rube Fiction, so that the ignorant rubes can read stuff they can relate to? Why, we wonder, aren’t libraries eager to explore the interests and concerns of the no doubt significant numbers of ignorant rubes within their jurisdiction? (Admittedly, there aren’t many rubes in Queens, but just apply this generally to the libraries scattered throughout these United States.)

So there we have it. Libraries doing absolutely anything possible to get people through their doors (which is the essence of Library Five-O ), promoting the popular cause of amusing ourselves to death while avoiding any actual knowledge or education, and encouraging cultural isolation and provincialism. Time and money well spent!

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Comments

  1. Dan Kleinman of SafeLibraries.org says:

    It’s like Pam Spencer Holley of YALSA saying Gossip Girls books are substandard then making a new ALA list of books just like Gossip Girls.

    “Pam Spencer Holley of the [ALA and leader of YALSA for youth, said] … [s]he’s happy to see teen girls reading. Eventually, girls who are reading Gossip Girls will move on to better books, she says. ‘Unless you read stuff that’s perhaps not the most literary, you’ll never understand what good works are,’ says Holley. …. Besides, she says, what’s the worst thing that can happen? ‘Nobody complains about the adult women who read Harlequin romances.’” Source: Racy Reading; Gossip Girl Series is Latest Installment in Provocative Teen Fiction, and It’s As Popular As It Is Controversial, by Linda Shrieves, 6 Aug 2005.

  2. PublicLibGirl says:

    Hmm. I think the idea is that if people are used to reading as an activity, then they’ll be more familiar with doing at–and able to do it–at any time, without thinking of it as an odd pursuit. I don’t think the numbers support it, but that’s the theory.

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  3. PublicLibGirl says:

    Okay, so the HTML cut out the second paragraph.

    On the other hand… eh, nothing especially wrong with trashy fiction. Nothing especially right with it, either, but it’s a harmless enough pastime, no sillier than arranging flowers or making scrapbooks, both of which are subjects that no one questions having books on. I don’t think the fact that the hobby happens to *be* books makes it less worthy of library shelf space! Why they need to make it sound deeply important is the bigger mystery. It’s just enjoying the printed page. Shrug.

  4. Mr.Kat says:

    In the last blog we had a commentor state that reading is a Passive Actvity. The book simply happens to them. This is not true for me, however; a book is an active, real adventrue into the depths of the imagination. Or on the reverse, it is an exploration of philosophy and alternative solutions asside from the normal path of least resistance. But alas, explain this to the unwashed masses.

  5. librarydude says:

    Libraries are losing customers so they’re trying different things to lure customers into their business. What’s so hard to understand about that?

  6. nolajazz says:

    Ahh, the classic bodice rippers finally got upgraded! It’s like trashy romance novels 2.0! While they may be absolute rubbish as it was somewhat recently noted by Joe Janes, they will be the last hold out in the book world to become digital. That’s got to count for something, right ?

  7. penn girl says:

    A library adding things to the collection that people actually want to read. Imagine that! News flash: libraries exist to provide material that people want, not material that we think they SHOULD want.

  8. AL says:

    “Libraries are losing customers so they’re trying different things to lure customers into their business. What’s so hard to understand about that?”

    Are the people who come into libraries “customers”? What are they buying? And if the goal is to give everyone what they want, then why not try more things? Why don’t the reference librarians give foot massages? Why not private Internet viewing booths? Why not rent cars?

    “News flash: libraries exist to provide material that people want, not material that we think they SHOULD want.”

    Thanks for the news flash. I’ll keep that in mind. Is there actually a good argument for that, or are you just spouting the party line. For example, libraries provide all sorts of information about politics and government that almost nobody really wants. Should they get rid of those books, magazines, etc. and replace them with urban fiction and westerns and videogames? Are you really arguing that there are no books and other materials in libraries that are there because the librarians think they’re necessary, not because of public demand? That’s the implication if libraries are there merely to provide what people want.

    Also, is there really a public justification for funding libraries if they’re merely entertainment centers? How is the public good being served, and if the public good isn’t being served, why support a public institution?

  9. penn girl says:

    Yes, libraries should get rid of the stuff that nobody wants and replace them with things that people do want. That’s public service.

  10. Brent says:

    If we are mainly supposed to provide books the patrons want, I think a librarian should only be required to have a high school education.

  11. Forever Anon says:

    AL, at my library we want more patrons in the winter simply because the city won’t put forth the money actually fix the heat. It normally ranges from 40-50 degrees inside the library during those long winter months. We’ll do anything to get people to stay at the library to keep us warm!

  12. Matt says:

    Here’s the thing: Romance books are cheap and push the circulation numbers up. Higher circulation equals an argument to raise the book budget, thus allowing us to buy the more literary or academic works that don’t necessarily circulate well. In other words, it’s the trashy or escapist stuff that allows us to stay in existence to provide the deeper stuff.

  13. Lancelot says:

    I am tossing down the gauntlet.

    I would love to see the AL tell us what they want to see from libraries. Tearing down is easy, show us where we should build.

    Obviously, in the eyes of the AL, we are all too stupid to understand where the future lies and what we should do. I want the AL to guide us and take us to the promised land.

    If the AL dares.

  14. AL says:

    But if nobody wants the “deeper stuff,” why provide it at all?

  15. AL says:

    I’m glad you tossed down the gauntlet. It looked really silly on you.

  16. Mithrandir says:

    The material a public library purchases is not, and should not be based on some universal standard or belief. There has to be a balance between purchasing what the library customers want to read and providing material that fits the “classic” literature mold. In other words, be both an educational and recreational outlet for the community the public library serves.

  17. penn girl says:

    Some people want the deeper stuff. If your customers want it, supply it. If they don’t want it, get rid of it. Like any business, you need to get to know your customers. Find out what they want and give it to them – don’t try to tell them what they should want.

  18. Mithrandir says:

    Penn Girl,

    do you work in a library or are you commenting as a library customer. I ask because your comments are intriguing in that you don’t seem to place much emphasis on the educational role that a public library should play.

  19. AL says:

    Good question. Does the library have an educational role? Because if it does, it can’t be run by the policy of “just give ‘em what they want.” And if it has no educational role, is it worth publicly supporting?

  20. penn girl says:

    I’m both a library employee and a library customer. If customers want educational materials, then a library can play an educational role. If customers don’t want them, we shouldn’t have them. If customers only want a small amount, then we should have a small amount.

  21. Matt says:

    But if nobody wants the “deeper stuff,” why provide it at all?

    There are always a few people who want it, and fortunately real change doesn’t take the masses reading the “deeper stuff”. It only takes a few reading the right material to change things. It’s always been that way.

    And btw, I do believe libraries should provide escapism (important to bringing peace of mind) as well as deeper material.

  22. penn girl says:

    AL says: “Does the library have an educational role? Because if it does, it can’t be run by the policy of “just give ‘em what they want.”

    I disagree that customers don’t want some educational materials. The whole library shouldn’t be full of educational materials, but there seems to be demand for some. Find the balance that your community of customers wants, and supply it.

  23. Forever Anon says:

    Obviously AL has never encountered the old men who read only political nonfiction or historical nonfiction. She has never encountered homeschooling parents who use the library for supplemental educational material. AL has never encountered patrons that come in several times a week with tough reference questions that requires actual research. Peole do want the “deeper stuff” as well as the lighter stuff. The “deeper stuff” just isn’t cool or hip enough to make the news.

  24. Dances With Books says:

    Ah, treating the library as a business. As AL points out, what are people buying if that is the case? Whatever happened to ideas like “The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty.” So, by Penn girl, if people want to remain dumb, barely literate, uninformed, provincial, and just close-minded, the library should cater to that. Notions of the public good and self-improvement be damned in her world?

    And yes, I do read a good share of “fluffy” literature (trashy if it makes some happy, manga if people need to know), but I also happen to read broadly in a few other areas. AL does raise a good point: if libraries are for the common good, why then support them if they are nothing more than entertainment centers? Want entertainment? Go to Blockbuster, Borders, GameStop, etc. In the end, the point is about questioning what a public library should be doing. Me? I think it probably should be some balance between recreation and education, but excessive pandering is not the mission.

  25. penn girl says:

    People are buying library materials with their tax dollars, so yes they are customers. And libraries should start acting like businesses if they want to remain in existence. Or we can continue to spout about notions of public good and enlightenment while the customers go other places that are more responsive to their needs and wishes.

  26. AL says:

    “Spout about notions of public good and enlightenment.” Interesting perspective. How about another one. There are people who rarely use public libraries who support them only because they’re a public good. The people who supposedly are “paying customers” are having their entertainment budget subsidized by people who believe that libraries are there to serve a public good. If the philosophy of librarianship becomes that of a business, there are plenty of people who wouldn’t want to support libraries. If those people are paying customers, let them go pay at Blockbuster.

  27. Hathead says:

    Aww let’em read what they want. It’s OK to pander to the trashiest taste. Remember, to every book its reader, and to every reader, his/her book.

    Reading is always better than not reading. And of course romance and western readers are ‘particularly’ literate. Compare us with Haiti, where 50% of the population is illiterate.

    I myself alternate between trashy reads and Shakespeare.

    PS why is it if I put quote marks anywhere into my comment, the rest of the post is dropped????

  28. soren faust says:

    John Dana Cotton said these two things: The public owns its public library. This fact sheds much light on the question of public library management. It means that the [PL] must be fitted to public needs. It must suit its community…it must attract its public; it must please its public; all to the end that it may educate its public. And, he finishes this off with another “suggestion;” The library…is a center for public happiness first, of public education next.

    The point is—I think—is that ultimately the public ought to be supplied with the materials it wants. Granted, JDC was living in a very different time and I’m not sure what he would think about the public wants today, but I think this is ultimately irrelevant. The foremost point is that if urban lit constitutes a (most likely) insignificant percentage of the materials a library offers, than so be it. No where does Cotton or other “fathers” of the public library mention librarians as moral shepherds over the public flock.

  29. soren faust says:

    Correction: John Cotton Dana

  30. penn girl says:

    Blockbuster will never have the same collection as a library, and vice versa. So comparing the two is irrelevant.

    There will always be people (tax payers) who don’t agree with the library collection policy. So the library should listen to its customers (tax payers) who use the library the most. Simple business model that has worked for centuries.

  31. Degolar says:

    I think much of what I wanted to say has already been said. It’s a balancing act between our different purposes, which encompass a wide variety of things including education and recreation. (Tangent: parks are primarily recreational; does that mean they shouldn’t be publicly funded or that they don’t serve the public interest or a greater good?) And the fact that the library has a reference collection and informational sources isn’t “sensational” or new enough to get media attention, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still there.

    Question for you, AL: The conclusion I draw from reading this post is that you feel public libraries shouldn’t have “trashy fiction.” Do you believe they should have any fiction at all? How do you (you, the AL, not the generic you) determine what is trashy fiction and what is quality fiction? How should public libraries make this determination? Where do you think we should draw the line?

  32. Forever Anon says:

    Penn girl: Comparing Blockbuster and the library is irrelevant not because of difference of collections, but because Blockbuster is a business not funded by tax funds. And if we follow just what the people want, who says the library won’t end up with the same kind of collection as Blockbuster? In my experience, the frequent patrons have a variety of needs, from recreational to educational. We should also cater to the infrequent patrons. The ones who come only once a year for tax forms or only use the library for their visiting grandkids in the summertime. It’s called meeting the needs of the community, not just the select few.

  33. HippieMan says:

    Lots of libraries are adopting a commercial model, hence the proliferation of crap books. The market should not determine the totality of a library’s collection. Yes, we need mass market crap for those who want it–but it’s the responsibility of a library to keep the classics on hand. It’s a balancing act. But like everything else in the US these days, the glorification of “the Market” has turned a lot of stuff to, well, crap. Not everything has a price tag.

  34. Lancelot says:

    AL would never show true beliefs because that would mean being heckled by snarkers out there.

  35. jmo, mls says:

    Wow, we’ve sure come a long way from the “outrage” over Bret Easton Ellis’s fictionalized yuppie murder spree w/product placement.

    Does “urban” here signify the same thing as it does in “urban” music?

  36. jmo, mls says:

    PS-There is a place where you can be enthralled with tales of consumerism, s3xual violence and murder already. It’s called television. The library need not be populated with this junk or it’s [likely] non-tax paying fans.

  37. librarEwoman says:

    I work in a public library, and I also check out quite a lot of resources from the library. Most of the reference work I do is children’s and audio visual reference. I must admit that when a little girl comes to the reference desk requesting Hannah Montana books, I cringe. Hannah Montana books are the children’s equivalent of the “lesser genres” for adults. However, I think there is something every librarian can do to encourage increased readership of ALL parts of their collection: When a patron requests a “trashy” urban fiction book, romance book, etc, we can say, “Hey, I know of another book that you might like, if you like this,” and offer them something with similar themes but a little bit more depth. In that way, the patron gets what they want to read, but they also get another book that was suggested to them to expand their reading options. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing, anyway, as librarians–giving people suggestions based on what we know they like.

  38. Happily Anonymous says:

    Actually AL and PublicLibGirl there is good research to suggest that any old reading helps improve literacy, and literacy is necessary to function in this society (that’s why we call it functional literacy). There is also research that demonstrates that if people find books they enjoy and begin to identify themselves as ‘readers’ they will spend more time reading (thus improving their literacy) and will be more likely to try other material later. People’s tastes change, develop and are varied. I read well written fantasy (Jasper Fforde, Terry Pratchett, Tolkien), historical romance (Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer), recently I’ve moved into some contemporary romance (Trisha Ashley, not racy, and very funny) but I also read Sci Fi (Asimov, Douglas Adams), Mysteries (Agatha Christie), Old and New YA fiction of various genres (John Marsden, Tim Winton, Victor Kelleher, Brian Caswell, Eoin Colfer, JK Rowling, Jonathan Stroud etc)and Classic Literature (Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Shakespeare, etc), and I have also recently been branching into Manga (though not very much yet). Peoples tastes can be eclectic and I think that part of the joy of the public library is being able to access both the serious literature and the light and fluffy, as well as some of the more academic materials you might need such as statistics, text books, and at some public libraries even more academic materials ordinarily found in university libraries.

  39. Happily Anonymous says:

    The public library is a blending of the educational and recreational which allows it to perform important educational and social functions. One of the most important factors in literacy development is a print rich environment, which can be facilitated by access to a public library. Libraries can help to address social inequalities by providing access to materials which assist in the development of literacy, which is an important factor in academic achievement. If you want to check out the OECD PISA reports there was one in 2000 which found that academic achievement was strongly correlated with the amount of time spent reading for pleasure, and that this overcame the socioeconomic status difference which existed otherwise.
    “Fifteen-year-olds whose parents have the lowest occupational status but who are highly engaged in reading achieve better reading scores than students whose parents have high or medium occupational status but who are poorly engaged in reading.” p 106 ‘reading for change’
    The report also notes that “15-year-olds reading a diversity of print material are more proficient in reading than those reading a limited set of print material. But the gap in reading proficiency between those reading comics and those reading fiction is not huge. Daily engagement in reading magazines, newspapers and comics – a kind of reading that is perhaps less valued by school than fiction books – seems, at least in some cultural contexts, to be a fruitful way of becoming a proficient reader.” and that “By contrast, access to books at home is strongly associated with profiles of reading. Fifteen-year-olds who have access to a limited number of books at home will, on average, be poorly diversified in reading. They mainly read magazines and newspapers. Students who have access to a larger number of books at home are more diversified in their reading and are more interested in reading other material, such as books (fiction and non-fiction) or comics.”
    Libraries can provide that reading material.
    http://www.oecd.org/document/30/0,3343,en_32252351_32236159_
    33688670_1_1_1_1,00.html

  40. God says:

    Unless people are toiling away studying the Holy Bible they are frittering away their time they have. Don’t let anyone fritter away time in your library. For the sake of their souls, you have to be forthright and strong.

  41. Post Postmodern Librarian says:

    The Theory of the Good Book vs. the Theory of The Dime Store Novel.

    This argument has been with libraries for decades at least since you got the dime store novels. I think its really important to understand the difference between High culture and low culture in order to get a grip on this. High culture is by traditional art, opera, theater, classic books, architecture all those things stuffy shirts drink three martinis over. Lower culture is TV, movies, video games, dime store novels.

    Libraries and museums and by extension the people that work in them are public sources of high culture. We are also sources of education. We traditionally educate people on high culture. Unfortunately since the mid twentieth century the masses have rejected high culture. Its easier to just be yourself then it is to grow and improve. Besides high culture can lead to bad things like fascism or socialism or communism. Because of this the libraries are switching to low culture to justify themselves.

    Now if you are one of those people who believe in libraries being a source of high culture then what do you do to improve the image and to bring people into the library. We have one of the best looking buildings in town. We have the best collection of public art. Reference provides classic both traditional and modern with list of critics, and author biographies in the back. The new reader advisor program will be an active not passive service. All of it focused on information literacy so that the public can improve society. We try to make high culture available and cool!

    On the other hand we know culture has moved away from high culture and its forced libraries to adapt to the new environment. Its buy dime store novels or disappear. That is a great motivation to go commercial.

    I think its really up to the community to determine the way this balances out. In my town its 70:30 in favor of high culture. This will change as traditional people are replaced with others who were not raised this way. I dread the day and I will fight till I have no choice but to give in.

  42. Rumpdaddy says:

    A lot of people consider the classics to be crap, so you will never be right when you start judging the quality of the items people are reading. Just give them what they want and they will be happy and people will continue to use the library and we will continue to have jobs.

  43. Mr.Kat says:

    Before we accept Cotton’s definition of the public library, we must look straight and deep into the founders of the public library. We can look into the foundation of our educational system: “The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty,” which in short tells us that education is for the political awareness of our population.

    I suppose you have to look into each library foundation for these things, but I think you will find that we the people have wandered quite astray from our adult duties to our country. We want all places to be like our favorite places – Borders, Amazon, or Blockbuster – becasue the hip and new is cool and entertianment is the number one important thing over all else…At least, it would appear to be.

    We have let ourselves become distracted by inane things. Baseball games, Concerts, the Cinema, the TV – these things are nothing more then elemtns for the entertainment and distraction or diversion as the spanish word closely emulates. I urge that we cannot be distracted all the time, and since the rest of the world is stocking the entertianment sections very well and the meaty boring subjects very poorly, we the libraries, the educational outlet for those over highschool age, must be there to keep our populations not only literate but also informed of both the past background as well the current tangents of thought. As soon as libraries become businesses we might as well shut the doors.

  44. soren faust says:

    Low culture is too enchrenched in society. The triumph of high culture depends absolutely on an “aristocracy” of sorts for its perpetuation and legitimacy. Since none of us will ever belong to or be accepted by an aristocracy, the chances of high culture touching the public library is near nil. Btw, an excellent read on this subject is: Rock Music In The Mirror of Romanticism by Robert Pattison. It’s a great read and maintains a very cogent argument as to why low culture is pretty much here to stay.

  45. soren faust says:

    Correction: Triumph of Vulgarity: Rock Music In The Mirror of Romanticism by Robert Pattison

  46. HippieMan says:

    Nope, crap is crap. This is where I’m an elitist. Nothing wrong with standards in the arts. Does that make me a conservative? Nah. Actually, high art was always supposed to break the rules and norms of society. Think James Joyce, my fellow hippie freaks! The commercial dross we have today is corporatized swill manufactured for the masses.

  47. HippieMan says:

    Hey, not all rock music is low culture. What about King Crimson or Yes or early Genesis?

  48. Anon says:

    Standards in the arts.

    What you read/watch/enjoy is crap.

    Whay I read/watch/enjoy is highly educational, worthwhile, and makes my bathroom smell like lilacs.

  49. rumproaster says:

    Neil Young is way highbrow!

  50. Snob says:

    Sorry, any music that has not passed the test of at least seventy-five years is low-brow and should not be tolerated at any library.

  51. soren faust says:

    By “aristocratic” standards, i.e. those preceding the 20th century, I mean tastes produced and decided upon by the small minority of those in power. The masses have always had their arts, which were not considered high art (or any art) by the ruling elite. The sensibility informing the movement of Romanticism was that of the aristocracy. It was high art slumming it, in other words. And the experiment caught on surpassing the few and thus imploding the experimenter’s rarified world—vulgarizing it.

    The eventual outcome is what predominates now. Democracy has everything to do with this because democracy is a system that embraces the majority along with individualism, something anathema to traditional aristocratic tastes. You can’t have equality of the masses and high art co-existing. Like it or not, the vulgar are the new aristocrats and the public library must serve the servants, dude. Viva Vulgar!

  52. yall r stupid says:

    yall r stupid. if im payin my hard erned money for the books in that buildin they better darn well tootin be books i wanna read. i dont need any of this sikology nonsense just give me a couple magazines and im happy. it’s simple yall. im not payin my taxes for some know it all to read more useless books. want to make our soceity better? only provide one book in the library: the bible.
    amen yall

  53. CBF says:

    Nothing wrong with that type of fiction. Looking back at some of the old book lists from the 1930′s and 40′s from our library, I see a good bit of pulp fiction. I am sure that if you were to look back at some of the oldest libraries books from last century, then you would find copies of Ivanhoe. A book that in its day was not considered a “classic”, but was a popular reading title.

    Libraries exist to promote reading and to provide services to the community. They are repositories of books and knowledge, we out in public library land also tend to develop popular reading collections based on what people are reading and what we are asked to purchase. My particular library has a very strong collection in mystery novels due to the clientele we have. On the other hand, our collection of westeern novels is much weaker and we do not have a lot of them sent from other locations for our patrons to pick up.

    If the public does not want this type of novel in their collection or indeed, only want the high brow type of literature that you seem to be suggesting is the only type appropriate for a library, then all they have to do is yank our funding.

    Remember, Public Libraries have a different mission than Academic Libraries and what works for you in an academic setting is vastly different than what works for the public libraries.

  54. MLIS Student says:

    Soren has a point. I have not read any “Urban Fiction,” but maybe some of it has a certain artistic quality to some people. A lot of “low culture” is rejected at first, only to later be praised. For example, a lot of people had a racist attitude toward jazz music, but today it is a highly respected American art form.

    On the other hand, it seems that investing too much in these new and unvetted genres could become problematic.

    Some questions to consider: Does reading a romance novel have absolutely NO educational value? Is it necessarily true that reading trashy novels only leads to more trashy novels, or do these readers eventually move on to something better? And if trashy novels do provide some sort of gateway or stepping stone to something better, is it the libraries job to provide that stepping stone? Can people learn about basic grammar and spelling from romance novels?

    Even IF the purpose of the library is to provide a more educated citizenry, it is unclear that trashy novels serve no purpose in that cause. Some people may be very poor at reading. These people may have very simple vocabularies. A romance novel or two might get them on the right track, teach them a few words and grammar rules, whether they know they are learning it or not.

    That being said, I doubt that trashy novels have enough educational value to be collected by libraries, but until I can make concrete arguments against some of the points I’ve laid out above, my doubt about trashy novels remains only a doubt.

  55. Mr. Kat says:

    The Blible is the LAST book one should look for societcal betterment. That damn doorstop has led to more ills than any other book INCLUDING Hitler’s Mien Kemph. And it’s part of the reason our market and our governement is in the turmoil it is in now; we stopped voting and investing on reason and intelligence and started going purely on Blind Faith. File it where it belongs – next to UFOS, Bigfoot, and Computers!!!

  56. FreeBird says:

    If you want to raise your brow level, just kick back and put on some Skynyrd. Works every time. Who’s got the lighter?

  57. bluegrass gerl says:

    Rhonda Vincent is the best bluegrass singer out there right now.

  58. jmo, mls says:

    *A lot of “low culture” is rejected at first, only to later be praised*

    Yeah, I can’t wait to live in the future society that elevates 2nd-rate, 2nd generation Bret Easton Ellis wannabe junk like “She shot him in the head and stuffed his money in her Louis Vuitton bag”, etc. to the same level as Shakespeare. O brave new world, indeed.

  59. Axel Rose says:

    The new ACDC album is coming out this week but they’re only selling it in Wal Mart. This is a troubling development.

  60. soren faust says:

    j, don’t forget that Shakespeare was originally performed for the smelly masses. The actors were viewed as complete scum. The audience loved the bawdiness and vulgarity. This eventually became high art. So, yes, I look forward to the time that a future Harold Bloom sits like Yoda and pontificates about how society is sliding down a slug-hole because they jus’ don’t read dat urban lit sh_t, anymore

  61. MLIS Student says:

    Jmo, I never said that all of it would later be praised. My point was that we should be open to the idea, even if 99.9% of it is garbage. You can’t look at one passage of one book and right off an entire genre.

  62. MLIS Student says:

    *Write off.

  63. Original Anonymous Librarian says:

    I recall back in the 1980′s there was a sub-genre called the Adult Western. I don’t know if it survived. Then of course there was NAKED CAME THE STRANGER, a hoax of round-robin-bad-writing by legitimate writers who wanted to show that utter garbage could be foisted on/by a publisher with a straight face, then unmasked. They even had a woman who had nothing to do with the writing present herself to Lyle Stuart, the publisher, as the author. Urban Fiction sounds like flack-spin for something like the above, only with drugs and gunplay. And we wonder how the economic mess got this bad and why we have an election like something scripted by the Coen bothers, with Ms. Baked Alaska running for VP, and Joe the Plumber giving more press conferences than her. Beam me up Scotty!

  64. Mr.Kat says:

    I find that authors can even vary in quality within their own writing. Look no further then the Harry Potter series; Book One is Quite good. Contrast this to Book Seven and it feels like AL feels for some of the older readers: watered down, rehashed, rushed, and repetitive. The word choice and the structuring of sentences and plot advancement simply seems to decline. But the first book was good – and perhaps too the second. The fifth book was the book my dad and brother, who were reading it together aloud, simply put down half way through and never returned. Leaves one to wonder about other authors.

    Oh yeah….James Fenimore Cooper; Deerslayer was tolerable. But Last of the mochicans was simply overkill. I mean seriously, each paragraph is a single fricken sentence that takes up half the page, and that single paragraph merely describes the nearest blade of grass. And in the next paragraph is the blade NEXT to it. And then the blade BEHIND it. And before we get done, we will also get to know the rocks, the clouds, the sky, the cricket, and maybe the other three million blades of grass that jsut happen to be groing next to our main character, the blade of grass! W-T-F!!!

  65. Mr. Kat says:

    Another example: Catch-22 was absolutely excellent; Wildly fun to read. Good As Gold…OUCH. That was NOT a fun book. And THICK too!!

  66. rumproaster says:

    Another example: When Oliver joined the cast of The Brady Bunch, the show went straight downhill.

  67. anonymous says:

    re: Does more people reading trashy fiction equal the spread of literacy?< <

    The short answer is yes, and there is plenty of scholarly research that supports this somewhat counterintuitive result.

    The AL is a cultural elitist whose agenda is untrammeled by scientific research and actual evidence.

    People learn to read by associating what they read with things that are culturally and personally relevant. This is the basis for the cognitive ability to construct meaning. It really doesn’t matter if the resources don’t meet some kind of cultural litmus test.

    Read, Baby, Read. (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

    Once again, the AL is shooting ideological blanks.

  68. brad says:

    I always thought Marcia was overrated. Jan was always a little over-sensitive but she really grew into quite a young lady by the end of the series.

  69. MLIS Student says:

    Should I drop out of library school and become a lawyer? I’m starting to think I should.

  70. colldev says:

    Just wanted to thank AL for the Urban Fiction @ Your Library post and for being the generator of the VERY fascinating discussion which has resulted from it.

  71. Mr. Kat says:

    MLIS student, i can only suggest you do what you can afford. If youc an afford and hack Law school,w ell, go for it; all the same, I met quite a few lawyers in LS school who simply did not want to practice. So you will need to make a choice here and it’s all up to you.

  72. marvinteller says:

    Urban fiction is primarily written by African-Americans for African-Americans. Many of these books are, at their core, romance novels for young people. There is nothing shocking here, really. Unless you work at a public library in an urban area you probably won’t need to know much about this genre either. Most public libraries have scores of Harlequin novels. To help us stay in business (so to speak) so we can make other materials available to the general public—materials that expand the mind. And these materials are used as well.

    I don’t see what the problem is…I certainly don’t think we need to shut down all public libraries because we aren’t ”

  73. marvinteller says:

    I certainly don’t think we need to shut down all public libraries because we aren’t “educational” enough…and I don’t think we need to distance ourselves from our “customers” even more by forcing things down their throats that they don’t want.

    It is all about balance. Entertainment and educational information. What a boring (and stressed out) world it would be if we could not escape, relax, etc. These materials help people do that. And who are you to judge where fiction crosses the line of unworthiness for the hallowed shelves of the library? Should we just get rid of fiction altogether? Become more like the public libraries back in the day that eschewed non-educational literature? Why don’t you go work for an academic library instead? It might be a better fit.

  74. cookies says:

    Hey Brad, no way was Marcia overrated. The only thing better was Laurie Partridge. And don’t even get me started on the whole Ginger vs. Mary Ann thing.

  75. another anonymous says:

    So, in other words, the AL is saying that the institution of the public library has jumped the shark…

  76. HippieMan says:

    The AL is an academic librarian. Lot different than being a public librarian, let me tell you! It’s not a closed environment. Anyone can come in. That’s why, to a great extent, academe looks down on the public library. The unwashed peasants are allowed to roam the stacks! Unfortunately, this “taint” makes it hard for public librarians to secure academic jobs because there is a perception that we are not as competent.

  77. academicdude says:

    That depends on how you define competent. We in academia know that you in publicia are much more competent than we are when it comes to dealing with homeless, crying babies, stinky patrons, etc.

  78. Pro Bono says:

    Don’t go to law school. The field is saturated and you think it is hard to get a good job as a librarian.

    You want to to into a good profession, try plumbing.

  79. HippieMan says:

    I bet I do as much database searching as you do–besides dealing with “stinky” patrons. Stereotypes. The AL is good at that. Remember her rant about how unatractive granola guybrarians are? The age of Reagan made the gray-suited corporatist the model of the attractive male. But I digress…

  80. academicdude says:

    Databases searching is supposed to impress me?

  81. HippieMan says:

    So what do you do that’s so important?

  82. Lancelot says:

    Sayeth the HippieMan

    So what do you do that’s so important?

    That is what I would like the AL to answer. Besides snarking and being a general smartass.

  83. soren faust says:

    Public librarians are much more agile thinkers and problem solvers than are academic librarians.

    –God

  84. academicdude says:

    We help to mold and shape the young minds that will become the world leaders of tomorrow.

  85. AL says:

    “Besides snarking and being a general smartass.” That’s pretty much what I do, and you keep coming back for more. Addictive, isn’t it?

  86. jmo, mls says:

    *j, don’t forget that Shakespeare was originally performed for the smelly masses. The actors were viewed as complete scum. The audience loved the bawdiness and vulgarity. This eventually became high art. *

    And rap music rhymes. What’s your point? Oh, wait, I know: people are lousy and you’ll never change them, so give in and be a participant in humanity’s further slide into the gutter. Yippee!

  87. Happily Anonymous says:

    The AL says something inflammatory precisely to generate this discussion, so there’s no need to get cranky about it.
    Fiction plays several important educational roles. Any reading of any kind improves literacy, there’s plenty of good research to demonstrate that. Fiction, even the trashy kind, can also play an important role in developing empathy, as books, particularly when written in the first person, encourage the reader to put themselves in the position of the character in a way not achieved in other media. Similarly the imagination is stimulated when reading fiction, whether it be trashy fiction or not.
    Mr Kat: It rather depends on what you are looking for. I thought that the 7th book was in some ways the best (although I did find book 5 trying on the first read). What was most enjoyable about book 7 were the ideas explored and the pulling together of the overarching story about good and evil, redemption, personal sacrifice, the capacity of individuals to change the world for better or worse, and the ability of all people to do so.

  88. jmo, mls says:

    *The age of Reagan made the gray-suited corporatist the model of the attractive male. But I digress…*

    Jeez, give it a rest. What are you, stuck in 1984? Besides, the attracive males in the Reagan era wore pastels–didn’t you ever watch Miami Vice?

  89. JanBrady says:

    It’s always Marcia Marcia Marcia!

  90. Happily Anonymous says:

    Different genres are often used to explore ideas, so we should be careful of terming anything that hasn’t been classified as ‘Literature’ as not being of value. There are many who look down on the genres of fantasy and sci-fi but these genres (when at their best) are often used to explore complex and interesting concepts, particularly moral, ethical and philosophical issues.

  91. AL says:

    I don’t generally like men in grey flannel suits, but that Gregory Peck was a good looking gent.

  92. Mr. Spock says:

    If your library allows anyone to check out sci-fi or fantasy, you have contributed to the fall of our great nation.

  93. Mr. Kat says:

    HA – You are correct – But the writing itself used to convey these points was really quite exhausted in a literary sense.

  94. publibchik says:

    We can’t keep Growing Up Brady on the shelf. It always has several holds on it. We should probably order two more copies.

  95. Teed Off says:

    Mr. Kat wrote,“HA – You are correct – But the writing itself used to convey these points was really quite exhausted in a literary sense.”

    Of course we could never let the patrons see the postings on this list. If we did, we would have to take them out back and shoot them.

  96. JOE EKAITIS says:

    In a few years, this’ll be Newbery honors material.IAG

  97. yoyoyo says:

    Who’s Newbery?

  98. ExQueenslibpatron says:

    Do any of you have any idea about the content or structure of “urban fiction?” To say they are romance novels is generous. Not only are the majority poorly written, many qualify as soft-p-rn (LJ won’t let me spell it)and are typical romances only if gang life, drugs and se-ual exploitation are “normal.” And yes, for parts of Queens that is how people live, but it is not normal.

    I must admit the poorly written part gets me the most, at least my crappy sub-genre favorites are readable, if completely mind-numbing, which is goal of reading genre fiction. And yes, libraries should carry some entertainment reading.

    This should be a great Reader’s Advisory moment as there is a fair amount of well written works about urban life, but urban lit, street lit, gangsta lit isn’t it. But an entry point to recreation reading,possibly.

  99. Holly Jahangiri says:

    I feel like jumping off a cliff, now.

    You’ve just confirmed for me why I so rarely venture into the public library; everything I’ve seen since leaving the ivory towers of a major university just disappoints. I want more from my local library than what I can buy at Wal-Mart or borrow from a neighbor. Granted, I enjoy a trashy novel now and then, but I can pay for my own guilty pleasures – that’s what Amazon is for, right?

    Then again, there is SOMETHING to be said for basic reading skills. Otherwise, we would have to spend 90% of our time explaining things like how to use a toaster, instead of having heady debates on religion, politics, and philosophy–

    Wait, this is my life; I’m a mother and a technical writer.

    Pass me the trashy romance while Calgon takes me away…

  100. Al Gonquin says:

    I thought this was a discussion of urbane literature. I am so sorry.

  101. Darrell says:

    Just tell me when I can put nothing but good and intelligent and educational materials on the shelf, and have nobody come in and nobody check anything out, and still keep my job and still get my salary, and I will.

  102. nhlibrarian says:

    Ugh, a colleague told me about this NY Times story and I found it so annoying. I will admit that I work at a very wealthy private institution, so I don’t have to worry about circulation statistics and justifying the existence of the library, etc.. I get that if some city council is questioning the need for a library, then doing absolutely anything to get people into the library makes sense, from a certain perspective. But many academic libraries that don’t have to justify their existence are doing the same sort of thing (maybe not with trashy urban lit, but with videogames, cafes, etc.) and this annoys me to no end. People need to take a step back. Is there value in merely getting people into the library? Maybe, if those people look around, see all the other resources, think “wow,” and start using them. Otherwise, well then we lured people into a building, which just happens to be a library, but the people are not using it as a library. So how is this valuable? Ah, you say, the concept of the library needs to be redefined. I’m young (30) and realize that people now have all sorts of new learning tools and ways of learning, and we should embrace those after careful consideration. But going back to a public library example… should we be redefining the library as a place that carries trashy books of the sort you probably wouldn’t want your patrons viewing if they were viewing them on a computer in the library? As a place for kids to play (non-educational) videogames? As a place to eat? There are other places for those things. So again we come back to doing these thing just to get people into the building. We say we’re redefining the library but really we’re just trying to get people into the building, and if they’re in the building and don’t use anything but the new things that lured them in there… what’s the point?

    As for this violent trash increasing people’s reading… I doubt it. Is reading trash better than reading nothing at all? Maybe, but I highly doubt that the people who read it wouldn’t also pick up a trashy magazine somewhere else (therefore, they’d do reading at a similar level) and I highly doubt these trashy books are TEACHING the patrons to read. They’re not increasing literacy.

  103. libgirl says:

    Why is it that you equate “getting people in the library” with “trashy” material? Popular isn’t the same thing as trashy. Harry Potter isn’t trashy but people will definitely go to the library to read it.

  104. nhlibrarian says:

    Reread my post, please. I was talking about taking extreme measures to get people into the library – maybe you should read the NY Times piece. I was specifically referring to Urban Lit when I used the word trashy.

  105. nhlibrarian says:

    And, I am not suggesting, and I don’t think that anything in my post suggested, that there is a problem with offering popular literature that meets a certain quality standard. I have read the entire Harry Potter series, and love it. I think it promotes literacy by getting kids interested in reading – and it’s written at a relatively high reading level. What I am opposed to is offering poorly-written violent soft-core p0rn and calling it “Urban Lit,” to get people into the library, especially if once they’re there, all they use if the urban lit. Same thing with certain videogames and other gimmicks. Unless you’re talking about a public library that is on the brink of being shut down for wrong reasons, people should remember that there is no virtue in simply having people “in the library.” There’s no virtue in packing the library with crap just to attract bodies to the building, unless you know for sure that once those people are there, they’re going to take advantage of the quality parts of your collection. Remember that the library is there for a reason, to educate the public (or students, etc..) Yes, it is a social place too, but that is not its primary role.

  106. Mr. Kat says:

    nhlibrarian, I am behind you 100% – very well articulated!

    What’s the point of redefining the library if it merely means the new poeple only come for these new features, demand these features ot be increased, and then demand that the “Library” part of the name be removed altogether along with the books and replaced with “Community Center” – because its no longer Just a place for books.

    I subscribe to the “there’s time and place for everything” maxim; the library is a place for learning at any time. Our society places such a low value on learning that now places of learning including schools are having to redefine their roles and programs in a way that keep the people engaged with the process. In turn, we se these places losing their role within society. Libraries are losing their role in soceity – because it will not take long before the library is declared nothing mroe then a publicly funded video arcade/cinema/cafe, all of which are already well represented around town by a number of other organizations. If the town is small enough, and the local theater closes because they have to compete with the local library [in towns so small they get the feature films almost in time for it to come out on DVD], I fear we will see the public become resentful or even scronful of the library. Ugh.

  107. DirectorWho says:

    I was preparing a Reader’s Advisory list on “Urban Fiction”, and so looked it up on Google to narrow it down. One library had a list prepared! Hooray, less work! Wrong.

    From that list:

    Urban Fiction: Stories about the bright lights of the big city

    Block, Lawrence: Matthew Scudder Series

    Connelly, Michael: Harry Bosch Series

    Dreiser, Theodore: Sister Carrie

    McBain, Ed: 87th Precinct Series

    I’m surprised Parker, Robert B. Spencer series wasn’t listed!

    Anyway, how would you like to visit that library and ask for Urban Fiction, and be given THAT list? What would you think of the Library staff there? Would you go back?

    Weird.
    (oh, to find that list, type in the heading they give on Google. It will take you there.)

  108. Adam Smith says:

    Liberalism emphasizes individual rights and equality of opportunity. Within liberalism there are various streams of thought which compete over the use of the term “liberal” and may propose very different policies, but they are generally united by their support for a number of principles, including freedom of thought and speech, limitations on the power of governments, the rule of law, an individual’s right to private property, free markets, and a transparent system of government. All liberals, as well as some adherents of other political ideologies, support some variant of the form of government known as liberal democracy, with open and fair elections, where all citizens have equal rights by law.

    Modern liberalism has its roots in the Age of Enlightenment and rejected many foundational assumptions that dominated most earlier theories of government, such as the Divine Right of Kings, hereditary status, established religion, and economic protectionism. Liberals argued that economic systems based on free markets are more efficient and generate more prosperity.

    The first modern liberal state was the United States of America, founded on the principle that “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to insure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”