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Edify or Entice: The Question of What a Library Should Collect for Children Remains Melendra Sutliff Sanders LI855XA: Collection Development/Management Emporia State University



This paper explores the debate between children‘s librarians about what should be the primary driver of collection development of children‘s collections, quality or popularity. The paper focuses on the three main arguments related to popular materials and how they influence both children‘s collections and the image of children‘s librarians and libraries. Keywords: children‘s collection development, selection for children, popular materials



Edify or Entice: The Question of What a Library Should Collect for Children Remains Should libraries collect popular materials in addition to quality materials, or should libraries only collect quality and educational materials? Tied into the history and mission of libraries in the United States, this question about what libraries should purchase and circulate continues to perplex librarians, especially in regards to children‘s services and collections. Futas notes, ―There are always conflicts between the two main principles of selection—quality and demand. . . .Most collection builders try for a middle ground between these two concepts‖ (1993, p. 41). Still, there is tension between the ―popular‖ and ―quality‖ camps. This can be seen whenever a new ―popular‖ format is introduced to libraries, and the current question of whether video games are appropriate library materials has resurrected some of the same arguments. Perhaps the debate is so long lived because it stems from the initial growth of public libraries out of social libraries, with their mission of ―self-improvement and the search for truth‖ (Rubin, 2004, p. 275), and circulating libraries, with their mission to ―satisfy public demand and popular tastes‖ (Rubin, 2004, p. 276). Additionally, the idea of public libraries providing an ideal place to educate and socialize the masses gained significant support in America during the nineteenth century, when librarians envisioned ―themselves as agents of social improvement‖ (Rubin, 2004, p. 286). This attitude toward libraries both within and outside the field persists to varying degrees, depending on the library in question, today. Although this debate has been going on for a long time, it is still relevant today in regards to library funding and librarian professional status. As selectors of quality materials, librarians need special education and training, and in this time when librarians‘ professional status is once again being questioned, special education and training are highly prized by many librarians. However, as the progression of selection arguments demonstrates, including popular materials



within a collection is not an easy answer, nor does it diminish the professionalism of librarians. Instead, the knowledge librarians utilize when aiding patrons select the best items for their particular needs, from both popular and quality materials, demonstrates more knowledge and skill than limiting a collection to quality alone. Ultimately librarians gain respect when they create a balanced collection that appropriately represents both quality and popular materials and fulfills the needs of their individual communities. Three Sides to the Discussion There are three main arguments about what to purchase for a children‘s library collection: first, an exclusively quality collection based on reviews, best books lists, and award winners; second, a mixed collection with an emphasis on quality materials and enough popular materials to get patrons using library materials that will eventually lead the patrons to quality materials; third, a balanced collection that mixes quality materials with patron requests and views popular materials as equal in importance to quality materials. The first argument seems to be disappearing, for as Evans and Saponaro point out, ―there are very few, if any, purely quality children‘s collections any longer‖ (2012, p. 98). However, there remain librarians who strongly believe that the best way to collect for child patrons is to select only quality materials. Quinn points out that evaluative selection is intimately bound up in the very basis of collection development: ―The selector must be able to differentiate suitable sources from unsuitable ones, and evaluate the quality of the materials‖ (emphasis added, 2007, p. 5). The second argument seems to have more library support with many librarians still viewing popular mass marketed materials as a necessary affliction of a public library collection for children. From this perspective, popular materials are used as ―bait‖ that draws patrons into



the library, where librarians can lead the way to ―good‖ and educational materials. This strategy is seen most often in children‘s collections: Many children‘s librarians still believe that it is their responsibility to lead children to books of some literary quality. They will use the more popular books as ―bait‖ to get the kids into the library and then try to gently urge the award winners and other ―good‖ books on the children. (Evans & Saponaro, 2012, p. 98) Librarian Kristine Chen initially echoes this strategy in her 2010 article. Chen notes that when students were drawn to the library looking for popular books, she ―seized this opportunity to introduce titles like Robert Louis Stevenson's The Black Arrow and Jack London's White Fang‖ (p. 30). The third argument, which calls for a collection that balances quality and popular materials, has gained significant support with adult and teen collections and is slowly but surely changing the way children‘s librarians collect. This is demonstrated by the fact that even a medium-sized library like Manhattan Public Library, which is located within a relatively conservative area of the country, uses a little over one-third of its children‘s fiction and picture book budgets to purchase popular children‘s series on standing order plans (J. Adams, personal communication, September 4, 2012). Quality Materials Only The longest-standing argument is that found among the quality proponents, who argue that since libraries are educational institutions and because librarians have a special knowledge of both the materials available and the needs of patrons, including age appropriate and developmentally appropriate information, it is the library‘s duty to expose children to the best books while shielding them from the dross of mass culture. This argument is perfectly expressed

EDIFY OR ENTICE by MacDonald (1991), who states, ―many quality books are only available to children in


libraries. And patrons expect them to be there, it‘s part of our public image. . . .Parents trust us; they see us as a source of excellence for their children‖ (Genco, MacDonald, and Hearne, 1991, p. 119). While this article is fairly dated, the sentiment it contains has not disappeared. More recently, Kyle argues against ―popular‖ materials, pointing to them as ―the blandest of the bland‖ (2008, p. 258) and citing them as the definition of ―bad‖ books: What constitutes a ―bad‖ book? A book that does not satisfy and delight, no matter what it promises. For these, we often need look no further than Dora and her ilk—books connected to insidious media products, from TV to toys. (Kyle, 2008, p. 258) However, Kyle attempts to sidestep the question of quality versus popularity by claiming that the books children will naturally gravitate toward are those that are quality: ―The definition of quality and the definition of true appeal are pretty much one and the same. In other words, good books are simply books kids like‖ (2008, p. 258). The idea that children embrace quality materials if only they are exposed to them has also been expressed by Warren-Gross: ―I continue to believe that the road to literacy is paved with high-quality materials that pique student interest‖ (2009, p. 43). Integral to the argument that quality materials will be as alluring as popular materials to child readers, if only those readers are exposed to the quality materials, is the idea of librarian authority. Essentially, this idea comes down to the belief that librarians have the training and knowledge to select the books that children not only should be reading but also will enjoy reading, that librarians have a special knowledge of both the books and the developmental stages of the child reader and are therefore in the best position to recommend books that are both enjoyable and educational. Rovenger expresses this sentiment clearly: ―Librarians must



continuously hone their expertise in literature, their knowledge of books, and their ability to select books—not as elitist gatekeepers—but as enthusiasts who need to actively offer access to wonderful books‖ (2003, p. 43). MacDonald, too, praises the high standards that librarians set, calling the standards ―a tradition of selectivity which is a hundred years old‖ (Genco, MacDonald, and Hearne, 1991, p. 117). In part this authority is bestowed on librarians by the sources they use to select the quality materials in the collection. Walter explains that ―Most [librarians], however, rely on reviews in sources such as School Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, and The Horn Book‖ (2009, p. 968). Similarly, Imrich points to the selection policy as a source of authority, stating that she is ―able to defend those books as highly recommended titles that are educationally sound, bias-fee, authoritative, and related to the curriculum‖ (2007, p. 23) if the books are ever challenged. Peck also highlights the importance of using reviews as a defense against challenges, stating, ―You can use the reviews to show that the book was highly recommended and for what age group, and that the reviews were written for school and public children‘s librarians to use as a tool to purchase appropriate materials‖ (2006, p. 51). Popular Materials as Enticement Only The proponents of including popular materials as ―bait‖ argue that popular materials do have a place in children‘s collections: their place is as enticement. By providing popular books, librarians are drawing in nonreaders who can eventually be exposed to the wonders of ―good‖ books. In her response to MacDonald‘s arguments in their joint article, Genco clearly sets out the parameters of this argument: If we are ever to begin to address the growing literacy crisis, we need to provide opportunities for kids to become ―self-identified‖ readers. If we want to support kids in



this process, we must first respond to their reading choices and then help them expand and channel their interests. (Genco, MacDonald, and Hearne, 1991, p. 116) In an earlier article, Genco notes that at her library popular books are considered ephemeral, purchased in paperback bindings only, and rarely cataloged (1988, p. 41). This approach, while supplying the popular materials patrons desire, upholds the belief that ―quality‖ materials are of greater value than books patrons select on their own. It also supports the authority of the librarian as the expert on not just what patrons should be reading but also on how to get patrons to read those books. Doiron finds this problematic, noting that librarians often feel they are failing children when they do not ―redirect children to what [librarians] feel are the ‘best‗ books, when in fact, children are exercising their freedom of choice when they pick books and they are showing us what they are really interested in and what they like to read‖ (2003, p. 14). A Balance of Popular and Quality Materials As Orr describes it, the final argument is often referred to as ―give them what they want‖ or a ―client-centered approach. In other words, the public library collection should fit with the needs of its particular users‖ (2009, p. 1100). This argument takes the view that patrons are perfectly capable of selecting their own recreational reading, and it is the librarian‘s role to stay on top of what is popular and be sure that it is available in the library. In fact, Peck argues that not purchasing popular materials leads to ―the library being seen as an elitist institution with no relevance to customer needs‖ (2006, p. 43). The argument that popular materials have a rightful place within a balanced collection has gained significant acceptance within adult and even young adult collections, which can be seen in the Young Adult Library Association‘s Directions for Library Services to Young Adults statement that ―Collections for teenagers must appeal to their popular, current, and ephemeral interests‖ (1993, p. 13). It is also gaining headway in children‘s



collections. A key component of the argument is the idea that involving patrons in material selection not only increases the circulation, but also empowers them as readers. Chen highlights this empowerment in her discussion of appealing to students for aid in selection: ―Once they realized that their suggestions were taken seriously, the more they were willing to take the time to tell me about the great books they'd read‖ (2010, p. 32). In addition to discussing the books with Chen herself, the students began providing impromptu reviews for one another: ―Discussions about books also started to take place around the circ desk among students with similar tastes‖ (2010, p. 32). This sentiment is apparent in Sanacore‘s article, where he notes, ―Considering children's perspectives when building school libraries. . . .supports effective literacy learning‖ (2006, p. 27). Ballard also opines, ―Why comic books? Because the kids are reading them. Do we need any other justifications?‖ (cited in Dorrell, 1987, p. 30). This consideration of children‘s reading preferences does not call for an abandonment of quality materials within a collection. Peck, Genco, and many others agree with Van Orden when she states, ―Collections need a balance of both [popular and quality books]‖ (2000, p. 12). It is true that some proponents of popular materials argue that any reading is good reading, and providing popular materials is essential to getting children to read. Bromman clearly articulates this idea: ―Just remember, the old standards don‘t necessarily apply anymore: it‘s time to think about what kids want to read, rather than what we want them to read‖ (2002, p. 46). However, the majority of the proponents of including popular materials within a collection call for doing so in a balanced way. Genco, Peck, Van Orden, Colburn, and Chen all argue at one point or another for the necessity of creating a collection that contains both popular items and those that are of the highest quality. As Genco states,



If you are selecting mass media tie-ins with the ultimate goal of boosting circulation, going heavily into popular culture will meet the goal, but only in the short run. For in the long run your collection will be warped and off balance. (Genco, MacDonald, and Hearne, 1991, p. 117) Conclusion The argument that popular materials do not belong in children‘s collections seems to be waning, as more and more public libraries focus on circulation statistics and patron requests to drive collection development. Still, it is worth noting that children‘s librarians have embraced the ―educational‖ role of public libraries as a reason for community support and a source of possible future funding, with the American Library Association‘s ―Every Child Ready to Read‖ and other early literacy initiatives springing up in public libraries across the nation. Bailey‘s opinion is a prime example of this position: ―To fully support critical language and early reading skills, lifelong literacy, and early childhood education programs, librarians. . .must develop and sustain strong birth–kindergarten library collections‖ (2009, p. 17). It seems that the conflict between popular and quality materials is unlikely to disappear entirely when two of the main strategies libraries are currently employing to reinvigorate community support—that of providing popular, high-demand materials and that of positioning themselves as educational resources—draw upon opposite sides of the debate. Perhaps this debate continues after all this time because it speaks not only to the goals libraries have for their collections and collecting strategies, but to the very mission of libraries themselves. If the library‘s mission is to become a community hub where all information is available, then popular materials for children must also be available; however, if the library‘s mission is to be an educational and enlightening resource for the masses, then popular materials may indeed detract from the library‘s goals.



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