Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Article Note: On Collection Promotion and RA in Academic Libraries

Citation for the article:

Smith, Rochelle and Nancy J. Young, "Giving Pleasure Its Due: Collection Promotion and Readers' Advisory in Academic Libraries." The Journal of Academic Librarianship 34.6 (November 2008): 520-526.

Read via ScienceDirect.

When I went to library school a bit over five years ago, I made it a point to take courses in readers' advisory (RA). In part, I wanted to be prepared in case I went to work in a public library. In addition, as an English major and avid reader, such classes held appeal to me. I have written a thought here and there on doing readers' advisory and promoting reading in an academic library, including this response to another article that Smith and Young cite in the article I just read. Going back to look at the older article made me look back at what I was doing back in 2007 as well as made me look a bit at how things have changed for me in two years. I am in a setting that is very different from the one I was working at two years ago. And yet, I have found that a few things remain the same.

As I wrote back then, I still believe that we should be promoting recreational reading as well as the academic fare. Things have changed for me since I wrote that. I don't have a formal book budget for one, though I do have to say we did get a very small monograph allowance to purchase a few things. I guess something is better than nothing, and I will leave it there since the story is complicated and not really something I want to go into. I will note that I do miss doing subject selection for Spanish as I used to. I thought about this a bit with the news today that Mario Benedetti just passed away. I bought a lot of his works at my former MPOW, even read some of his poetry myself. It was good stuff, and back then I had the opportunity to get that kind of book. That is no longer the case; if I want to read that sort of thing, I have to borrow it from someplace else (or simply buy it myself). But again, I am digressing, so please allow me to get back on track. Overall, I still do my part to promote reading as much as possible.

Looking back at the Smith and Young article, their goal is to give advice for academic librarians to promote and encourage the habit of reading for their campus population. The article opens with a brief look at the NEA's 2007 report "To Read or Not to Read" and its predictions. Walt Crawford discusses the report in the December 2008 issue of Cites and Insights (link to the specific article here), which can help provide some perspective on the report. A quick blog search online revealed to me that a few other librarian bloggers posted about the report as well. I remember at the time making a note to myself to look over it, but not much more. Anyways, that is the context for this article.

As usual, I am just going to make my notes of points I want to remember and then add any thoughts I may have:

  • "If the NEA report 'calls for a national debate on the crisis but does not offer strategies or solutions,' this article hopes to address that void by providing some reflections and modest proposals on how academic librarians can use both our collections and our strengths as information experts to encourage the habit of reading among our users" (520). I like that because we are in a position as academic librarians to promote reading among our students and academic community. In fact, we as a collective, in my very humble opinion, do not do enough to that end. It is one of the things I like about my current job in outreach. It allows me to do things--displays, events, book lists, so on-- that can promote reading in the community. However, the authors do put a little footnote to this quote where they state an assumption they make. The assumption is "that librarians consider reading (by which we mean books) a good thing" (525). This is problematic, not for the authors or for me, but for the profession given the state of said profession. From the consistent 2.0 obsession to the gutting of collections in order to build more hip spaces, it may seem at times that a good number of librarians are embarrassed to even be associated with books. I actually wrote a statement to that effect back in 2007 (see my link above), and I have not seen much change since then. We can't promote reading if we do not have the materials to do the task. And before anyone out there gripes at me some line about how people just moved their reading habits online or they read off a screen, I suggest you go read the article, which does address that issue.
  • The authors do acknowledge that the nature of reading has changed over time in favor of short bites, and this can be problematic as well (521). Why is this significant? Here is why: "It is difficult to do sustained, focused reading online, yet arguably this type of reading is the most crucial kind for the tasks a student needs to perform, in school and in life. Following an idea through to its conclusion(s) rather than continually darting off on tangents (represented, for example, by ubiquitous highlighted and linked words and images on websites), whether the idea is a love story in a romance novel or the unspooling of one of Einstein's thought experiments, is key to participating in conversations and critical thinking that underlie democratic participation" (521). From experience, a good example is simply to listen to people when they get to arguing politics or current events. You can tell right away who is the person who actually reads in depth (as in books as well as the basic news) and who is the one who simply reads or scans the clipped headlines off CNN or Fox News. You can see ability to do critical thinking in one and despair in the other when they get their lunch handed to them by someone who can read better and think better. Reading takes work. It takes a degree of discipline in order to think and reflect that the fragmented nature of a lot of modern reading simply does not have. And I am going to venture and say that much of this goes along with our mission of teaching and promoting information literacy as well. I think it may be something worth exploring.
  • To go along with the above about being well-read: "The concept of being 'well-read' may sound to some like a chestnut left over from a time when the printed word faced little media competition, but it still has practical relevance both for individuals and for society as a whole" (521). There is nothing wrong with reading blogs and other shorter things. I scan and read stuff on two feed readers as well as major news sources. But I also read a good amount of books (for a sampling, here is my reading list from last year). I read books because I happen to enjoy it. I also read books because I feel a need to read something substantial once in a while, kind of like exercising your brain. The article authors go on to add that "in a complex world, the ability to participate fully in societal decisions on global warming, genetic engineering, foreign policy, and other issues may be contingent on being able to stay with and focus on ideas in ways fostered by reading, and more specifically by avid reading, reading for pleasure" (521; emphasis in the original). You have to be able to read through an idea or argument, reflect on it, and then make meaning of it in order to come up with an informed conclusion. That takes work, and it is work that simply surfing the web or reading snippets here and there is not going to accomplish. This is why we as librarians, as well as other educators, need to be promoting reading. Sure, this sounds very noble, but it is important. But if that does not do it for you, maybe think of promoting reading because it is fun.
  • But don't take my word for it. The authors also say that "this is not to downplay the value of an experience like perusing a blog by a soldier stationed in Iraq or using Wikipedia; rather it is to say that the reading of books imparts skills that are important for full understanding of and participation in our culture, skills that other media may not be able to grant" (521). I would personally add that book reading does include things like reading on the Kindle (if you actually read books on it, as opposed to using it to read blogs for instance) and audiobooks.

In the literature review, the Smith and Young look at Julie Elliot's article (the one I link above) as well as review a history of RA in academic libraries. Some points I wanted to jot down from that part:

  • "Ironically, libraries often find themselves attempting to approximate the atmosphere of a bookstore/cafe even as they downplay their physical collections as old-fashioned and out of step with an appearance of promoting cutting-edge research" (521). All I have to say is that the bookstores may have cafes and nice spaces to sit down, but guess what, they still have books (and books people want). Unfortunately, this ironic pattern seems to be a common trend in academic libraries that, instead of aiming for a balance, simply go gung ho on building commons and similar spaces while getting rid of books. I even know of high level administrators who openly question the need for an academic library to have a lot of books.
  • "Students still ask for fun books and current novels: they value this service, and in fact, new students may expect it based on their prior experiences in public and school libraries. Academic libraries should be fulfilling and building upon those expectations rather than letting them languish and losing a crucial opportunity for engagement with the larger community in the process" (521-522). We have addressed this at MPOW with our bestseller collection, a rotating McNaughton collection of popular titles. While, in my personal and expert view, that collection is a little skewed in favor of a couple of very particular genres, it does get used, and we do have some positive circulation numbers. I have a side theory on that, but I will not digress.
  • "Collection promotion involves highlighting materials a library owns" (522). This means you do have to have materials that you can promote. You can't promote what you do not have. And before anyone out there says ILL, I will reply by saying that ILL will only get you so far.
The article goes on to give suggestions on specific activities for promoting collections and reading. There are some very good ideas here, some of which I do already, such as displays (here is one example) and highlighting national events. The authors also give advice for academic librarians so they can keep up with their RA skills. As a group, according to Smith and Young, academic librarians have been out of practice when it comes to RA (524). Those may be other librarians because personally I read avidly, and I strive to keep up with RA sources and the literature precisely so I don't end up like those other librarians who freeze up when some student comes asking "do you know of a good book?" I can proudly say, "yes I do. What are you in the mood for?"

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