When getting my nose in a book
Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool.
Philip Larkin, “A Study of Reading Habits”
Perhaps the single most constant thread running through my life since I was a little boy is that I’ve always loved books and reading. When I was young, I was really into sports, and read sports biographies, mostly ghost written affairs about various New York Yankees and Buffalo Bills. I never liked school, and never did very well in it, either, but I still remember the books we read in class that I loved.
Later on, after essentially failing out of high school, I got fired from a series of high-fashion department stores, and spent my free time roaming the bookstores of Westheimer and reading fiction. I had absolutely no interest in school, but loved literature. Books were what mattered to me.
During this time it was my dream – like literally, all I wanted in this world – to get a job in a bookstore. That was my life’s ambition: to be around books at work. Alas, my suitability to work at Barnes & Noble or Borders was apparently in question, because none of these places would hire me. Which, looking back on it, seems like a good thing, because I doubt I’d be doing what I want the way I am now if I had, in fact, gotten what I wanted at 20. Nevertheless, it seems fitting, looking back on that 20 year old self, that I became a librarian. Books and reading are still pretty much right there at the top of the list of the few holy things there are to me in this world.
But here’s the strange thing: as anyone who’s ever applied to library school knows, just about the worst thing you can say in your statement of purpose is that you want to be a librarian because you love to read. Why? Because being a librarian, the story goes, has got very little to do with a love of books or reading at all. In fact, even saying that this is your reason indicates that you don’t understand the nature of the profession.
I want to tell you that I think this is very strange.
Perhaps all that’s meant by this claim is that you need to make it clear that you’re not trying to become a librarian because you want to read books all day. Fair enough. And, it’s certainly true, to be sure, that a love of reading has pretty much nothing to do with my job as an academic librarian: I teach students how to do research. Knowing some stuff about that, and maybe a little bit about education, is what got me a job. Liking books had very little directly to do with it.
But I can’t help but thinking … wait, doesn’t being a librarian, even of the academic variety, have something to do with loving books and reading? And … shouldn’t it, even?
There’s part of me – maybe it’s that 20 year old part of me that was literally saved by a love of reading – that has a strong feeling that facilitating a love of books and reading is a major part of being a librarian. I’ve even come to think that we’re maybe doing a disservice to our profession by universally dismissing as irrelevant the connection between librarianship and love of reading (I’m sure any public librarian can recognize the absurdity of this pretty quickly). Nevertheless, reader’s advisory – or the promotion of reading in general – is almost non-existent in academic libraries, and pretty much universally considered to be decidedly Not What We Do.
I was therefore delighted to come across this absolutely wonderful article by Pauline Dewan, challenging this orthodoxy. Her piece, published recently in Reference and User Services Quarterly, is called “Reading Matters in the Academic Library,” and it’s all about the importance of reading, and why we, as academic librarians, should learn from public librarians, and take it upon ourselves to do us some readers advisory. I very much admire Dewan’s article, both for her excellent research overview, and for her call for academic librarians to step up their game.
Dewan meticulously outlines the extensive psychological literature on the value of reading, from teaching empathy:
By imagining the hidden mental states of others and experiencing their emotions, we increase our understanding of the inner core and individuality of other people (312).
to providing a meaningful existential narrative to our lives:
Since stories order and unify, they provide prototypes of meaning for our lives. “We hunger for stories of all kinds … “because we are trying to figure out the plotand theme of our own story and are eager for hints.” Viewing our lives in terms of a narrative rather than as a series of random, unrelated events, gives us a sense of purpose and direction.We have the power to shape and alter our own narratives and create our own identities (312-313).
I’ve recently begun to delve a little bit into some of this literature, and it’s fascinating. And it’s certainly gotten me thinking:
Is reaching out to users to facilitate a love of reading something we ought to be doing? Should we actively be doing reader’s advisory?
Ms. Dani Brecher, in one of the most creative ideas I’ve come across in libraries, once had us, when we worked together at UNC, going out in the student union, Socratic style, with a NoveList app on our iPads, doing readers advisory by the seat of our pants. And it worked. I’m now thinking of initiating something like this more systematically at my university, and people seem to be on board.
But it seems to me, more generally, that a cultural shift toward the promotion of reading in academic libraries would be a good thing, and something we should be focused on. This might especially be the case for folks working in information literacy and undergraduate education, who, it seems to me, can make a strong case that doing so falls within the goals of their position.
What do people think?