This year, I had the privilege of being part of the Chinese American Librarians Association selection committee for the CALA Best Book Award. I’m aware that being part of book awards committees is not common for library science students, so here are three major things I learned from my experience.
1. You’re going to get a lot of books.
As part of the nomination process for this award, nominees were strongly encouraged to send the committee either e-book or physical copies of the work for review purposes. For several weeks after nominations opened, I would get single books in the mail, usually sent directly from the author. This made for a modest stack of books that I told myself that I’d have no trouble getting through, once I had a spare moment between work and school.
Then, one day I opened my door to see two huge boxes from Penguin Publishing sitting on my doorstep. At first I wondered whether I’d accidentally placed a giant order of books in some delirious fugue state, but it turned out that Penguin had pulled basically any book written by Chinese or Chinese American authors and/or about Chinese history or culture, and sent the entire lot to the committee for nomination.
Who doesn’t love free books? I remember thinking as I reorganized the books into a designated “To Be Read for CALA” box. Some of the books I had received had even been on my wishlist for a while! But, as time wore on and I became busier with school – not to mention hitting the dreaded quarantine wall – the books felt like a curse I couldn’t quite shake. Usually I am quite good at reading books quickly, but it usually requires having the time and energy to fully sink into stories without pressure to finish in a certain timeframe. That is a luxury that students and working folks just don’t have, and I found myself developing something of a mental block around that box of books as time wore on.
2. You should try and get used to reading a little bit each day. Also, research book reviews.
I had to be realistic. Maybe I could have finished reading every one of those books if I were on break with no other responsibilities, but that wasn’t going to happen. Not to mention that I had quarantine brain to contend with, which left me much less focused than I might normally. Going against my normal reading habits, which would usually compel me to finish a book within one or two days, I began trying to read a few pages at the end of each day. The slow reading pace was strange to me, but it helped alleviate my anxiety around the books that I wasn’t getting to.
I also got used to researching book reviews, both from formal news websites and from less formal review repositories like Goodreads. I’m usually not given to reading in-depth reviews for books I’ve never read, but when you are trying to evaluate a bunch of books on a busy schedule, being able to skim several reviews quickly can be really helpful.
Of course, it should be noted that these reviews usually only exist for books with high profiles, meaning that less well-known authors working with small, independent publishing houses may not be represented. I learned pretty early on that I should prioritize reading those books myself, since other information might not be readily available online.
3. There is no “one size fits all” model for how award committees work.
Other than basic structural requirements – such as communicating regularly with other committee members, and reading books and book reviews – a lot seems to be up to how the committee has been run in the past, as well as the availability and experience of the committee members. Being a library student and a novice to award committees, I have mostly taken a backseat to try and observe as much as possible, with the knowledge that the type of award will often also dictate how these committees conclude.
There is always room for interpretation in book award requirements, which is what makes them both fun and frustrating. Despite the anxiety that I’ve experienced this year as I’ve tried to balance committee responsibilities with school and work, I’ve found the experience to be really rewarding, as well as an opportunity to develop skills that I would not have been able to practically apply otherwise.