Venn Librarian

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Snob Appeal

Posted by lpearle on 9 May 2013

Many years ago, I worked at Theatre Communications Group.  For those that have never heard of it, TCG is a clearing house for the Off-Broadway theatre community (and by “Off-Broadway”, I mean St. Louis, LA, Seattle, etc.).  They also publish American Theatre magazine and ARTsearch, a job posting bulletin that led me to my first post-college job.

When I was there, the younger staff would often eat lunch together and look over the various flyers and information from member theatres – what was going on in Louisville?  would Arena Stage’s season be successful?  etc..   I enjoy theatre and have been very fortunate to see some wonderful productions over the years.  What separated me from the others was that I wasn’t a theatre snob.  What do I mean?  Back then, the sense around the lunch table was that if you didn’t think that Mabou Mines, Wooster Group, PS 122 and La Mama were the pinnacle of theatre and enjoyed seeing more commercial works, there was something wrong with you.  A few years earlier, I’d seen CATS in London (pre-Broadway opening) and, well, it was a great spectacle.  Not great theatre, mind you, but a great spectacle.  If I had children, that is exactly what I would take them to as a way to get them interested in going to theatre (today it’d probably be The Lion King).  But to my erstwhile colleagues, enjoying shows like this was somehow wrong.  If it wasn’t challenging or experimental, it wasn’t worth seeing (didn’t stop them from grabbing free tickets to previews, but that was work, not enjoyment).

Sometimes I meet people who work in libraries that are literary snobs.  I worked with one librarian who insisted that I didn’t really read because I wasn’t reading Great Works, important tomes lauded in places like the New York Times Book Review.  Reading Middle Grade or Young Adult books?  Why would I ever do that? (let’s forget that I was working in a K-12 school!)  In two schools, the fiction collection was in need of updating because the librarians didn’t read those types of books (or, I guess, look at SLJ or Booklist reviews) – so when the administration claimed “students don’t read” they were reporting truth.  Students will read books that are interesting, but they have to be on the shelves, right?

The same holds true in public libraries.  My local public library has a very – extremely – limited collection, and much of what I get is via ILL from other libraries in the system.  But what’s on the shelves there reflects the tastes of the community, and that’s what’s important.  Even better, when I pick up or drop off my books, the librarians are either aware of the books I’m reading or ask about them.

That’s what I’ve always done when I’m “on desk”: interact with the readers.  Ask about their books, if I don’t know them (one of my favorite tricks with kids who ask me if I’ve read a book I haven’t?  I’ll say “not yet – why don’t you tell me all about it when you’re done?”), or comment on it if I have already read it (“oooh – I loved [character/scene/setting] – let me know what you think!”).  My goal is to never let the reader think that what they like isn’t somehow worthy or cool.

Sadly, I see far too many who don’t do that.  They only read “important” books, books with snob appeal.  If it’s an obscure author, a work in translation, something that you would only hear about via NYBR or another like-publication, they’re all for it.  Meeting a mass-market author, reading a bestseller?  Not for them, unless they absolutely must.  I’ll admit that I take a certain amount of pride when I read a book (and even review it) before it gets an award or is chosen as an Oprah book, but that doesn’t mean I won’t read them after.  For some, that’s too popular.

Unless you’re working in a library filled with literary snobs, shouldn’t it be a job requirement that you read what your patrons read?  Perhaps not every book (who has the time?!), but enough to be able to appreciate what they’re enjoying and looking for?   Or am I somehow missing the point of being a librarian working with readers?

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