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Do Public Librarians Have any Standards?

Over the years writing this blog, I’ve come to learn about certain sensitive and insecure groups. Southerners, for example. Merely point out that the the poorest and least educated states are in the south, and some insecure southerners will complain that it’s really great and that I don’t know anything about the south.

Point out that a lot of homeschooling parents are doing so because they don’t want their children exposed to science education, and they’ll come out of the woodwork to tell you that’s not true, and that the earth is only 6,000 years old and you should just believe it and shut up already.

Apparently romance writers are one of those sensitive and insecure groups as well, as the comments from last week’s post on Amazon reviewers shows.

I merely opined that romance novels are all bad books and no one reads them for their literary qualities. There’s nothing wrong with reading escapist trash, but don’t try to dress it up as literature.

One commenter begged to differ: “No, they’re not. I can understand that the basic plot of romance novels may not appeal to you, but unless….”

I stopped right there, because the comment made my point. If there is a “basic plot” that gets repeated from book to book over thousands of books, it’s escapism, not literature, especially if its appeal is almost exclusively to one gender, like romances and westerns. It’s like most books, movies, and TV shows, little works of escapism designed to entertain and distract.

You can do it well or poorly I suppose, but it’s like doing a paint-by-numbers well or poorly. It’s still not art. Instead of “bad books,” I should have just said “bad literature” instead.

I’m happy to have a little fun goading romance readers and writers so they can have a chance to defend their genre and tell me how great it is. Doesn’t matter to me.

The most amusing comment came from a librarian, though, which brings me to the question of the title: do public librarians have any standards? Here’s the opening of the comment:

You discuss being a “professional” librarian throughout your blogs. I am afraid that with this post you have highlighted that you are far from professional. As all professional public library staff and readers’ advisors know, it is not our job to pass judgement on readers’ taste nor to diminish the work of authors because we don’t personally understand the appeal of a specific genre. With your vitriol against romance novels you have shown yourself to be ill-informed and misrepresent our profession.

Oh, my, where to begin. We definitely have some Public Library Privilege, where a public librarian has mistakenly confused “public library staff and readers’ advisors” with the “profession of librarianship.” Let’s set the record straight.

Supposedly, “it is not our job to pass judgement on readers’ taste nor to diminish the work of authors because we don’t personally understand the appeal of a specific genre,” with “our” supposedly applying to “professional librarians.” Oh, public librarian, do you have no standards? Do you give up the ability to read critically when you become a “professional”?

Passing judgment on reading taste and diminishing the work of authors is definitely part of the job of thousands of librarians. They’re called information literacy librarians, or instruction librarians, or reference librarians, or collection development librarians and they work in academic libraries where librarians are supposed to have critical standards about what other people read.

They promote a whole series of questions and guidelines about books and reading rather than just passively leading people to whatever books they already feel comfortable with. That’s a good way to make sure people stay entertained, but not all librarianship is about entertaining the masses. Some libraries are educational institutions, not entertainment centers.

They make choices not to buy bad books to fill their always limited space, so they don’t waste a lot of space or money on romance novels, westerns, or fantasy novels, among others. They hope that for the people who like those sorts of things, the public library will fill the bill, and if not, they don’t really care.

And then the students come, complete with their own taste in reading, if they read at all. Do you know what those librarians think of students’ reading tastes? They don’t think anything at all, because they don’t care. It’s the librarian’s job to give students some tools to choose the wheat from among the chaff and to help.

Then they keep the chaff of the shelves so that unsuspecting students don’t think a Harlequin novel would be a good book to write about for their romanticism class.

Those libraries often support departments of literature as well, and while there are the occasional classes examining romance novels, it’s not a genre that literary academics usually consider literature. Oh, it could be all those people paid to study literature for a living are wrong, and the partisans for particular genres are right, but that’s just the way it is.

So I could be wrong about romance novels, and instead of being repetitive genre fiction aimed almost entirely at one gender, it’s really a goldmine of literary masterpieces.

But please don’t confuse professionalism in librarianship with having no standards about books and reading. That might be just the right thing for readers’ advisory, where the goal is to get the reader to the next book that’s more or less like the last book they liked, but in librarianship the sun doesn’t rise and set on readers’ advisory, and a lot of librarians are actually paid to have standards and develop tastes.

Thus, some librarians are there to help entertain the masses and keep them occupied with one diversion after another, but I don’t see anything particularly professional about this, unless you’re a professional entertainer.

Other librarians are in the education business, and they’re supposed to have standards and make judgments and stuff like that. They’re not professional entertainers, they’re professional librarians.

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Comments

  1. Alan Wylie says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more, our primary role/ethos is education and learning not leisure or as you say entertainment and yes we do, or should have, a social responsibilty otherwise what’s the point?
    I’m a Reference Librarian and wouldn’t just point my users towards Google when dealing with an enquiry but would guide them towards quality sources handpicked by a team of professional Librarians and library staff and would try to take the same approach if working a lending library.
    I’m personally very concerned about the rise of ‘quick reads’, ‘beach reads’ etc in libraries, i see this as dumbing down and diving to the bottom not reaching to the top! I want the best for everyone not the lowest common denominator for most!

  2. The Uneducated Librarian

    Deconstructing the issue. I think there is a difference between literature (fic. and nonfic.) that is quite simply badly written, and literature that is well written, some of which can be classed as high art. The mistake I think you are making is in considering the second of the latter groups (well writting but more a craft) as ‘mere’ entertainment, which brings me to my second point.

    I’d like to see librarians understanding more the qualities of the literature that people read than insultingly espousing standards and then pleading it is their job to do so (which it patently is not accept to the uneducated librarian; cf. The Storytelling Animal: The Science of How We Came to Live and Breathe Stories, Jonathan Gottschall, etc.).

    Seriously, I think if a librarian ventures into public librarianship (public libraries), then they will have to possess above average interpersonal skills, and perhaps have more of a leaning towards community library management and the role of a library within a community than other librarian skills (which are still necessary to provide a quality service, but which are perhaps not so salient to the librarian behind the community library counter itself).

    With regard to romance, I’m told no-one ever gets killed or maimed in a romance novel, that there is lots of love and joy, and that everyone lives happily ever after. Which seems good enough reason to spend your time reading a book as any ;)

    • Josh says:

      I agree. There is most certainly a difference between the quality of written works, but I’ve always found the practice of classifying some works as “literature” and others as “not literature” troublesome. Excluding a work from a category (like literature) is a lazy way for one to state their aesthetic opinion. To quote Northrop Frye:

      “It is still possible for a critic to define as authentic art whatever he happens to like, and to go on to assert that what he happens not to like is, in terms of that definition, not authentic art. The argument has the great advantage of being irrefutable, as all circular arguments are, but it is shadow and not substance.” (From the “Polemical Introduction” to his book “The Anatomy of Criticism”.)

      I also take issue with the AL’s assertion that “If there is a ‘basic plot’ that gets repeated from book to book over thousands of books, it’s escapism, not literature[...]”

      One has to be either disingenuous or honestly ignorant of the whole of literature to think that a piece of literature needs a unique plot. Similarity in plot, not to mention symbolism, etc., is what allows for literature to be parceled out into genres, types, categories, call it what you will. Along similar lines, Borges went so far as to suggest that there is a small and finite number of metaphors at the root of all poetry.

      One might also point out that one can (and this one often does) read “great” or “high” literature for the purpose of escapism, and conversely that one can read works of supposedly low aesthetic quality for a critical purpose.

  3. Dusty Gres says:

    Wow! As a Southern public librarian who likes reading romance novels, I think I’ve been dissed…but, in a professional academic sort of way.

  4. Katherine says:

    This post makes no sense. If you’re saying that public librarians aren’t professionals because they do reader’s advisory, then you’re delusional. Just because their work is not equivalent to yours doesn’t mean it’s unprofessional. It’s completely bizarre to me that you’re comparing public and academic libraries here as if they serve the same purpose and the same user population, and really makes me question whether you yourself are the professional you claim to be.

    If you’re saying that public librarians can only be professionals if they have “standards” (which I guess according to you means that they don’t purchase romance novels or westerns for their libraries) then you negated your point entirely with this paragraph:

    “They make choices not to buy bad books to fill their always limited space, so they don’t waste a lot of space or money on romance novels, westerns, or fantasy novels, among others. They hope that for the people who like those sorts of things, the public library will fill the bill, and if not, they don’t really care.”

    So academic librarians don’t buy romance/western/fantasy novels because they assume the public library will have those “bad books” there, but if the public library DOES purchase materials in these genres for their collections then they aren’t professionals and have no standards? Oh, right.

  5. Melissa says:

    Thank you for this! I hate getting confused for a public librarian when I tell people what I do for a living. It’s a different animal.

  6. Library Spinster says:

    As a public librarian I’m not a professional librarian? Nice.

    The task of the public library is to serve the public. Which means buying genre fiction. And great literature. And helping the public find books they’d like but wouldn’t necessary think of on their own.

    I am occasionally dismayed by what is bought for us, but I don’t include genre fiction in that category. I’d like to see less of books that are tie ins with commercial products, spinoffs of tv shows, true crime books about cases that haven’t yet gone to trial.

    Public librarianship isn’t all Fifty Shades of Grey or gaming or DVDs. But all these things are part of the mission.

  7. Bobbi P says:

    I am happy I am not that librarian’s patron. As a public librarian it is very much my job to decide what books are good or bad. I read book reviews, look for bibligraphic references, etc. to decide what to buy for my patrons. If a fiction has terrible reviews or a non-fiction does not have cited sources, I won’t buy it.
    Having said that, as a public librarian, I must remember whose money I’m spending. If enough of my taxpayers want a book I would normally not buy, I am still obligated to buy it.

    • Library Spinster says:

      I posted “bought for us”. As in chosen by selectors downtown, not me.

      With what I can order, yes, I go for quality.

  8. Argle-Bargle says:

    Frankly, ever since I read this post – http://otherlibrarian.wordpress.com/2010/04/30/ten-reasons-why-professional-librarian-is-an-oxymoron/ – I’ve had trouble even defining the job as a profession if I’m honest with myself. And I am an employed MLS who works at a public library.

  9. Amanda W says:

    Certainly, librarianship encompasses a wide variety of libraries, missions, visions, purposes, and tasks. Librarian professionalism certainly entails being careful, discerning, and critical when it comes to collection development and selection, within the bounds each particular type of library. I agree that librarians are educators and gatekeepers. Librarians and readers alike are entitled to their tastes and opinions. However, I guess at some point I missed that course in library school that taught us how to be arrogant and pompous. Forgive me for believing there’s a difference between having standards and being elitist and full of myself.

    Maybe it’s because I was homeschooled.

  10. Katherine says:

    But it’s not that you shouldn’t purchase quality books – it’s that the poster seems to be equating all romance/westerns/etc to “bad books.” Which reads as, a public librarian has no standards if she purchases romance novels for her collection. If that’s not what the poster is saying, then I’m wrong, but it sure sounds like that.

  11. This seems like selective myopia to me. When the subject is banned books, the AL doesn’t hesitate to mention that a book not in a library’s collection is still widely available. When it comes to matters of selection, it appears the local collection is conveniently the be-all-end-all.

    If an academic patron wants a book that’s not in the collection for their research, does the academic librarian say “oh, you don’t want that” or simply hand them an ILL form? If half the faculty were to put in requests for a cheesy romance novel, would the selector still not consider that title for the collection, purely out of their own taste?

    Collection development and reference are related, but not the same thing. In a reference transaction, across most types of librarianship, the goal is to help the patron fulfill their information need, not to influence the patron with our own personal opinions (often even when those opinions happen to be facts). I consider that a standard of our profession.

  12. Public Librarian says:

    The research library where I got my first graduate degree had a wonderful collection of children’s fnatasy novels, and great adult fantasy. I really appreciated the buying skills of the librarians as I read these books in attempt to alleviate my insomnia.

    When I was in the position to buy books for the public, I bought books that I knew filled a demand and were well-written; I saw no reason to waste money on badly-written non-fiction that would not be used. I bought fiction that I knew would circulate because to me the point of a collection is that it should be used by the public, not rot untouched on a shelf.

    Much of my time as a public librarian has been spent encouraging college and university students to take advantage of their college/university librarian collections and electronic databases. I’ve slso had to teach these students how to research, cite sources, and put together annotated bibliographies.

    Perhaps librarians should stop arguing about who is more professional and start doing their job, which should include outreach to the students whose tuition pays their salary.

    AL, there are many interesting topics in librarianship that can be discussed. Constantly harping on the unprofessionalism of public librarians is like beating a dead horse. My suggestion of a New Year’s resolution for you – come up with some fresh posts that will generate some discussion.

  13. The poster that AL is writing in response to deserves to be asked whether s/he has any standards. To say AL is “ill-informed and misrepresent(s) our profession” is clearly defensive and near-sighted, since, as AL points out, some types of librarians fortunately aren’t tied to the masses’ entertainment choices.

    As a librarian currently working at a public library, I understand the emphasis on popular materials: You have to give the taxpayers what you think they want. We belong to them essentially. But, we also have to ask what they really want and if they even know what that is, the old “people don’t know what they don’t know” problem. Why should taxpayers be subsidizing people’s entertainment choices if they have no particular educational, community and/or self-improvement value? Aren’t we in an economic crisis currently? Many Americans live in poverty, don’t have health insurance, don’t have jobs and we are worried about folks’ romance novel and DVD selections? Really?

    Hopefully we in the public are functioning as more than selectors of popular materials but as educators, where judgment and standards ARE key. I think the idea of the public library as an upholder of democracy (for whatever that idea is worth at this point), as the people’s university (NOT the people’s Blockbuster or Barnes & Noble) is still paramount to most taxpayers and should be to the librarians serving them.

    I do, however, take issue with AL when she says that some librarians “don’t think anything at all, because they don’t care.” This may or may not be professional for some but it’s not an acceptable attitude for a public librarian who’s worth anything. The new breed of public librarians must care about education, facilitating knowledge, change and creativity, as well as helping to improve communities. I feel bad for the communities that have libraries and librarians that think their main job is to buy popular materials, instead of educating, improving, and yes, having standards.

    • PW says:

      And every reluctant reader of a Shakespeare comedy will be relieved to know that all of his comedies must be removed from English class lists as they use that standard romance plot and hence are “bad literature.”

  14. Bookworm says:

    Oh, my heart! As a Jane Austen devotee I fell faint at the libelous suggestion that ALL romances are bad! And poor maligned Charlotte Bronte — will stoic Jane Eyre ever recover from the blasphemy? Needless too say, my dear Rebecca is now too shamed to ever return to Manderlay again. Surely you painted with too broad a brush in condemning all romances. Perhaps a list of the 100 best romances of all time would be a proper atonement?

  15. Thousands of library staff in the UK, Ireland and Australia have found a way through this which is much fresher than old-fashioned elitism.

    We talk of the quality of the reading experience rather than the book – it is quite possible to have a poor reading experience with a great book, all of us have experienced that at one time or another. This doesn’t mean that generations of readers have been wrong about the book and you’re the first person to see through it. Nor does it mean that there is something wrong with you or that you are simply not up to it. All it means is that you and the book weren’t right for each other at that time, something prevented the book from speaking to you.

    Conversely a book which is quite ephemeral and won’t be a book of all time can give a very satisfying reading experience if it just happens to meet your specific needs right now.

    We see the library’s role as opening up reading choices, encouraging people to take risks with their reading and tempting them with as wide a range as possible. It’s not our job to uphold the canon of great writing – and that is mutable anyway, Hardy, Joyce and Lawrence are now stalwarts of the exam syllabus but were considered immoral or incomprehensible or both when first published. By all means be a literary critic if you wish, or a teacher, and engage in debates about literary quality but the role of the library is to spread the feast in front of us and make sure we can see the strange-flavoured dishes as well as the staples.Whether you like the taste or not, whether you like it now or later, is up to the individual reader – it’s not our job to tell them what to feel and think.

  16. “If there is a ‘basic plot’ that gets repeated from book to book over thousands of books, it’s escapism, not literature”

    A tragedy can be described as “a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that elicits pity or terror” (Merriam-Webster).

    A bildungsroman is “a novel dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education” (Oxford Dictionaries).

    So that makes at least two types of serious literature which have “basic plots.”

  17. me says:

    This might not be the best place to ask public librarians if they have any standards AL. They clearly don’t if they’re reading this blog.

  18. Public Librarian says:

    Yes AL we do. When you write posts like this, you become the annoying librarian. Write something interesting instead of this elitist dribble.

  19. common librarian says:

    unfortunately, it is the elitist attitude that keeps most uneducated people (those very same people we are supposed to be helping) away from the public library.
    the three things people come into our libraries for? computer access, dvds and street lit.
    do our librarians want to buy what we ‘think’ our patrons should be reading? of course.
    does any of that circulate? not on your life.

    yes, we spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on crappy literature purely for the entertainment value. but guess, what? we also have nearly the highest circulation levels in our state. and in the public library world, circulation is everything!

    • somewhatstressedoutlibrarianguy says:

      Amen to this. Street lit. walks off the shelves (literally). A little over a year ago I came to professional public library work from an academic milieu. It has been one hell of an adjustment to me. But I needed a job with more stability–and we give the people what they want.

      Add Playaways and CDs to that list . . .

      We are all about InfoTainment, but at least my job isn’t about to be cut every 4 months.

  20. somewhatstressedoutlibrarianguy says:

    Oh, and by the way, elitists like AL were one of the reasons I got out of academia. Beware, academic libraries need to stay vital, too! Some of the worst public service I’ve ever witnessed, I saw in my time in academia. This happens to be one of the reason my old institution is a sinking ship.

    I still like the elitist crap you post, though.

  21. cristysoh says:

    Perpetuating stereotypes of any kind is a sign of ignorance. Southerners, homeschoolers, romance novels, public librarians.

    Creating an argument for the sake of arguing. How about addressing some real library issues?

  22. Ben says:

    I gather from this article that it is the librarian’s professional duty to interpret what is literature and what is not.

    But it isn’t. There is and never has been an official literary canon, so what constitutes literature comes down to a matter of taste and whimsy. The study of literature is not concerned with the merit of a work, but what is being said, and how it is said.

    While Harlequin romance novels may be formulaic and considered trashy by many, so were Ann Radcliffe novels in their day. Yet posterity views Radcliffe with a somewhat kinder view than she may have been afforded in her time. It’s impossible to say that, 100 years from now, an author operating in the romance novel milieu will not garner fame for exceptional literary quality despite having spent most of his or her life peddling what is considered the dregs of fiction by today’s fashionable literati.

    • Librarian from England says:

      Just to add to this, it has always been the tradition at Cambridge University Library (a copyright library) that only academic works should be catalogued. Other works were just shelved according to date published. This includes all the works of Dickens, considered potboilers in the 19th century.

      People read different kinds of books for different times in their lives. Sometimes they need to be taken out of their world and themselves and just be immersed in the story: they need escapism! That is where romance novels score so highly. They have a feel good factor and a recent study showed that reading a romance novel actually reduced hormonal stress levels dramatically. A postcard I have on my wall shows a group of people crammed into the London tube (the underground)like sardines (a daily reality for commuters), with one woman saying to another “I cannot understand why you read romance novels”. The bubble over her companion’s head shows a tropical island, sunshine, gorgeous beaches and a hunky man kissing her hand. I rest my case!

      Add to this the RNA’s stats about the background of women who both read and write romance novels which is largely educated to university standard and beyond, the fact that Georgette Heyer’s novel, The Infamous Army is the only novel in the library at Sandhurst becuase of it’s excellent depiction of the battle of Waterloo and it becomes clear that the kind of sweeping arrogant generalisation in Angry Librarian’s post is at bets ill-informed at worst ignorant.