One of the things I enjoy about cataloging is the opportunity to get my hands on all the new releases before they go out to the shelves.Â I get to spend a few minutes with each book, reading the dust-jacket, figuring out what it’s about, assigning a call number and subject headings, and so on, before sending it on to circulate.Â I try not to let this raw power get to my head.
Actually, I liken this aspect of my job to browsing in the stacks or a bookstore,Â not just because I actually get to peruse a variety of books I otherwise wouldn’t have encountered, but also because I have to make judgments about the books and determine their key aspects without actually reading them. I’d like to think that the work I do as a cataloger will help users discover and evaluate books in a similar fashion.Â As with bookstore browsing, I usually find a book or two to read, as well as a handful of others I add to my mental checklist of books I would like to read or feel like I ought to read, just as soon as I find the time, money, or self-discipline. But along side those books are thousands more that I have no interest in reading, and whole sections of the store I ignore outright.
For all the careful work librarians do to methodically select and catalog new books, many readers (myself included) make seemingly impulsive book selectionsÂ under the influence of a combination of superficial, subconscious, and social factors. Bookstores and publishers know this, and that’s why the books you see right when you walk in to a bookstore are likely to be the new releases and best-sellers with glitzy covers and A-list authors. Libraries, on the other hand, aren’t in the business of marketing books or profiting off of them in this fashion, but must consider demand and popularity alongside a range of other factors, such as budget, reviews, the strengths and weaknesses of the existing collection, likelihood that demand will last long after the initial release, institutional mission, and so on. With all these other pragmatic and idealistic concerns, it’s easy to think of “popular” as a dirty word: vulgar, commercialized, faddish, lowbrow, predictable–schlock that appeals to short attention spans and lowest common denominators, and smothers the time-tested classics and the under-appreciated works of international authors and independent presses which rarely make the best-seller lists. The opposite of “popular” is harder to define in this context, but can also be treated as a dirty word: highbrow, elitist, obsolete, inconsequential, or overwrought–works whose “special” status is less an indicator of quality than a marker of the educational and social privileging of a certain class of cultural producers and consumers that fails to represent the full spectrum of gender, race, sexuality, class, religion, ethnicity, and taste that makes our society what it is.
In any case, it is not the job of librarians to impose their tastes (whatever they are) on everyone else, but toÂ represent a range of tastes and ideas in serving a diverse public and preserving a diverse cultural record.Â If you come in searching for a book by Tom Clancy or Jackie Collins, you won’t just find it in a big display next to the entrance, but on the shelves alongside Joseph Conrad and Mary Higgins Clark and Willa Cather and Truman Capote and Albert Camus–and hundreds of other authors you have never even heard of but whose last names happen to begin with C. If you search in the catalog for “Man-woman relationships–New York (State)–New York–Fiction” you’ll get bothÂ The Age of Innocence andÂ The Boyfriend From Hell, without anyone deciding on your behalf which is the better book.
These approaches encourage browsing and serendipity, without making particular books impossible to find, and it leaves less room for librarians to impose their own tastes or implied cultural hierarchies.Â Ultimately, these are just a few examples of why I feel that libraries can represent what “popular” means in a more positive sense: books that are accessible and available to everyone, that juxtapose a range of tastes and experiences and communities, and that empower readers to engage in the dialogue and discovery that leads to still more and better books.