A Librarian's Lament: Books Are a Hard Sell

By Thomas Washington
Sunday, January 21, 2007

I'm a librarian in an independent Washington area school. We're doing all the right things. Our class sizes are small. Most graduating seniors gain admission to their college of choice. The facilities are first-rate.

Yet from my vantage point at the reference desk, something is amiss. The books in the library stacks are gathering dust.

When I started in this profession five years ago -- I used to teach English -- I presumed that librarians were mostly united in their attraction to books. But as I moved along in my library science program, I found that books weren't really our focus. Information management, database networking and research tools claimed the largest share of the curriculum. In other words, literacy today is defined less by how English departments or a librarian might teach Wordsworth or Faulkner than by how we find our way through the digital forest of information overload.

Typically, many people in my line of work no longer have the title of librarian. They are called media and information specialists, or sometimes librarian technologists. The buzzword in the trade is "information literacy," a misnomer, because what it is really about is mastering computer skills, not promoting a love of reading and books. These days, librarians measure the quality of returns in data-mining stints. We teach students how to maximize a database search, about successful retrieval rates. What usually gets lost in the scramble is a careful reading of the material.

Students are still checking out the standard research fare -- the Thomas Jefferson biography, the volume of literary criticism on Jane Austen -- but few read it. The library checks the books back in a day later, after the students have extracted the information vitals -- usually an excerpt or two to satisfy the requirement that a certain number of works be cited in their papers.

Conventional wisdom has it that teenagers don't read because they're too busy. Only after high school, sometime midway through college, do young adults reconnect with their childhood love of reading and make books their partners for life. I don't think so anymore. The 2004 Reading at Risk report by the National Endowment for the Arts concluded that literary reading was in serious decline on all fronts, especially among the youngest adults, ages 18 to 24, whose rate of decrease was 55 percent greater than that of the total adult population.

To counter this trend we set up a "new arrivals" display shelf this school year. It's stocked with best-sellers, young-adult fiction and DVDs. We also maintain a top-shelf lineup of books that we hope will entice young minds and bring them back to the reading table. We position the books on tiny stands and place notecard teasers underneath, much as Borders bookstores promote the managers' top choices.

No, I'm not foolish enough to think that the books are going to move off the shelves like jeans at Abercrombie, but any school librarian who hasn't figured out some way to market his goods probably needs to find another line of work. These days, librarianship is all about making the sale. Public libraries have caught on: In Fairfax County, The Washington Post recently reported, they're tossing out volumes that have gone unchecked for two years in favor of books that can "generate the biggest buzz."

Recent front-runners in my school library include "The Boy Who Fell out of the Sky," Ken Dornstein's memoir about his brother's death aboard Pan Am Flight 103; "The Overachievers," on how our culture of high-stakes education has spiraled out of control; and "Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews." While I wait for nibbles on these and other books, my colleague and I paste eye-catching posters on the walls. These aren't literary quotes, either. Today the American Library Association's posters have employed Denzel Washington to encourage kids to read. But how many of these students really buy the message?

I recently spoke with a junior who was stressed about her decreasing ability to focus on anything for longer than two minutes or so. I tried to inspire her by talking about the importance of reading as a way to train the brain. I told her that a good reader develops the same powers of concentration that an athlete or a Buddhist would employ in sport or meditation. "A lot out there is conspiring to distract you," I said.

She rolled her eyes. "That's your opinion about books. It doesn't make it true." To her, the idea that reading might benefit the mind was, well, lame.

A library's neglected shelves reveal the demise of something important, especially for young readers starved for meaning -- for anything profound. Still, I'm not ready to throw in the towel just yet. I'm turning the new-arrivals shelf into a main attraction in my school's library. Recently I stood Charles Dickens's "Bleak House" next to the DVD version produced by the BBC. Lady Dedlock (Gillian Anderson) graced both covers. A senior fingered the DVD for a minute, then turned it over to read the blurb. "The book is too long," she said. "Is the movie any better?"

"You're right. The book is long," I said. "But once you start this one, you won't be able to put it down, right from that first page about the London fog."

"I think I'll watch the DVD," the student said.

And in my library ledger, I'll register this as a sale.

Thomas Washington is a librarian in an independent Washington area school.

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