In defense of reading

One of the long-standing jokes of librarianship is that we all got into the profession because “we love to read”, the punchline of course being that we’re all too overworked to read for fun.  While I don’t think anyone should enter professional librarianship with the expectation that reading is a requirement of the job (note: it isn’t), I do wish information professionals had more incentive to incorporate a love for recreational reading into our everyday practice.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: I’m very lucky to have two internships in two different library settings doing very different jobs. In my youth services position at a large public library, we are expected and encouraged to read fiction and be aware of young adult writing trends. Half of the questions I get on the youth reference desk are readers’ advisory and I regularly host book clubs, create book displays, and plan programs that promote reading.

As a reference and instruction intern and my university library, though, I hardly ever talk about books professionally. To some extent, this makes sense as our job is primarily to facilitate information literacy and more often than not, we aren’t providing readers’ advisory services (though it does happen from time to time, especially when our two copies of the Hunger Games each have 50+ holds).

I (and others, see references below) contend that readers’ advisory and leisure reading does have a place in academic settings.  The concept of a “whole collection” readers’ advisory interview isn’t particularly new.  The idea is that we can serve our patrons better if we consider the entire library collection, and not just fiction or books when we have a conversation about reading interests.  In a readers’ advisory course I took last semester, I explored how the concept of the “whole collection” could be applied in an information literacy or academic library setting and found that promoting leisure reading supports several competencies of information literacy.

Looking for leisure reading is a type of information-seeking which requires skills librarians develop. Deciding what you’d like to read, evaluating books you’ve read in the past and what’s available to you, and synthesizing and processing what you’ve read is, essentially, the research process in a nutshell. Encouraging students at the reference desk to explore fiction or popular non-fiction related to their research topic can help students make connections between what they learn in lecture and what they experience outside of class. A subject specialist could create an annotated book list or book display to encourage students to further explore a research or course topic. Indeed, a librarian could collaborate with faculty to develop an assignment where the students choose and read a fiction or non-fiction book on the course topic and present it to the class.

During my readers’ advisory course, my classmates and I created a readers’ advisory event for the school. The purpose of the event was to encourage our cohort to read for pleasure and we selected our book (Atwood’s Oryx and Crake) with the hopes of making connections to information science work.  The event was well-attended and everyone seemed to enjoy the “excuse” for reading for pleasure. Do you think there’s a place for leisure reading in academic settings? How can you incorporate the idea of a “whole collection” into your own work?

For scholarly resources about the intersection of leisure reading and academic libraries, please check out:

Dewan, Pauline. 2010. “Why Your Academic Library Needs a Popular Reading Collection Now More Than Ever.” College & Undergraduate Libraries 17 (March 3): 44-64. doi:10.1080/10691310903584775.

Hallyburton, Ann W., Heidi E. Buchanan, and Timothy V. Carstens. 2011. “Serving the whole person: popular materials in academic libraries.” Collection Building 30 (2) (April 19): 109-112. doi:10.1108/01604951111127498.

Smith, R, and N. Young. 2008. “Giving Pleasure Its Due: Collection Promotion and Readers’ Advisory in Academic Libraries.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 34 (November): 520-526. doi:10.1016/j.acalib.2008.09.003.

Categories: Reading

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14 replies

  1. At Simmons, we have a book group to encourage precisely this type of “leisure” reading. The group was started by a professor in February 2011 and is now run through our ALA Student Chapter. The purpose of the group is to bring LIS students together once a month for something the vast majority of us enjoy – reading and talking about books – while also giving us a chance to practice readers advisory and other skills that librarians can use. We select books based on the Dewey Decimal System, so each month represents a different Dewey century. Selections are made via online poll. Although in-person meetings, there are close to 200 people are on the e-mail list for the group. Find us on Goodreads, if you’re interested in knowing what we’ve read:


    • That sounds so fun and exactly what I think more schools should do! I really do think readers’ advisory is a useful skill for a lot of types of librarians and I’m glad you have some structured outlet to practice it. Do you also discuss how you might bring the joy of reading to your professional practice?


      • Well, we eat cookies, and that brings us joy! We’ve also been lucky enough to have two authors attend meetings – one Simmons staff member and one Simmons alum – and we have a third coming to our meeting tomorrow.

        Also, I meant to say in my first post that in-person meetings only draw 8 to 10 people, due to busy schedules. We’ve talked about trying to get more discussion happening online – through Goodreads, or LibraryThing, where we also have an account – but I think that removes the “joy” or “leisure” for a lot of our students. Suggestions welcome…


  2. I can also see leisure reading campaigns beneficial right before semester breaks. Why not encourage students (and professors) to take some ‘me’ time while they’re out of class and read a book/listen to an audiobook!


  3. My knowledge of current popular fiction has definitely come in handy when working in an academic library — students are always looking to read fiction that’s popular, and oftentimes they don’t remember the title, author, etc. I haven’t taken a readers’ advisory class, but it would definitely be useful for any librarians-in-training!


  4. Certainly in my university, the inclusion of popular fiction titles into our collection has been primarily driven by a shift in the curriculum. In recent years, freshmen regardless of their discipline are required to undertake ‘breadth studies’ before they can advance into areas which will eventually become the basis of their majors. Some examples that come to mind are Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ and Mark Haddon’s ‘The curious incident of the dog in the night-time’ for a Genetics, Health and Society course.

    The challenge, for both the course coordinators and the students, is how to fit it all in in the space of a semester. Given that first year students are already burdened by a great deal of material to digest, I’ve often heard students lament how hard it is for them to find time to read, let alone enjoy their reading.

    I’m sure there is a place for leisure reading in the context of academic libraries. In fact, I’m certain that some students, librarians and academics DO enjoy what they are reading. (Travis-Henikoff’s ‘Dinner with a cannibal’ and Paul Trout’s ‘Deadly Powers’ made for riveting reading for me, given my background in anthropology, for example) It’s just that what they are reading really isn’t all that ‘popular’.


  5. I love these ideas. I’m always daydreaming about being able to read for fun again so I thought the idea of a GLIS book club was so cool!. This was also a great reminder of how to integrate fiction reading into the role of librarians other than public librarians and school media specialists. I agree with the idea of bringing more fiction into academic libraries. I know my undergraduate school has a program where every freshman has to read certain fiction books as a starting point for discussion, to create class unity and as a way to support a liberal arts education.


  6. Thank you for this post and the great resources herein Rebecca! Going into the bookstore is always a dangerous proposition for my student budget and my bedside table still groans under the weight of all the “to read”s left uncracked. I love the idea of a reader’s advisory class, I don’t think we have anything exactly similar but am pleased to see some more non-fiction genera classes being offered, including a new Graphic Novels class. It is always good (for us and our patrons) to be reminded to both open our scope of “academia” and find the time to all-out pleasure read.


  7. Well said! I’m doing my MLIS plus another Master’s, and while I admit that I have the freedom of only working about 6 hours a week and I have no children to take care of, I find tons of time to read (and listen to podcasts and watch television shows) for pleasure, and I don’t really understand why others in my situation claim not to. Even if occasionally I have been slightly behind on my schoolwork because I was caught up in a really good pleasure book, for the most part I’ve found that even things I didn’t pick up for their relevance to library science can be extremely relevant or thought provoking when I consider them in the context of a class theme or discussion. You make really good points about how you can’t do good reader’s advisory if you don’t know what resources are in the library (and if you’re not very accustomed to trying to find new readings, movies, whatever in your own fields of interest), and I also agree that having popular magazines, fiction, and non-fiction can bring in really good perspective to student research of any kind.

    I think this is going to increase in importance the more the world and academia become interdisciplinary, global, and multicultural, because it’s going to be more necessary to know about ideas that don’t have entire books or LC sections dedicated to them or new angles at which to approach old ideas. All I can say is I’m glad there are some of us who are going to push this when we get into the workplace! I’m focusing on youth services, but one of the ideas I throw around a lot that I’d like to implement when I have a job is a bunch of “treasure maps” with themes and lists of multimedia resources that encourage patrons to try materials they wouldn’t have thought of, use library technology and cataloging techniques, etc. Might have to shove it down their throats a bit before people realize that this is a good way to learn and have fun.


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