Daily Archives: May 19, 2007

Reading in the Vulgate

Julie Elliott has an interesting article in the most recent issue of RUSQ on academic libraries and reading promotion. (Yes, I’m quoted in it, but don’t let that put you off.)

Indulging in a fondness for books has become a contested territory. People think of books as our “brand” even though libraries offer much more. If we reinforce that outdated view of libraries by celebrating books, are we selling our libraries short – or are we honoring something people actually love about libraries? The Librarian in Black is irritated that public libraries have summer reading clubs; it suggests that reading is better than other activities and that people who don’t read aren’t welcome at the library. But is being irritated by popular forms of reading another kind of elitism?

Beyond the “we’re more than just books” argument is the fact that academic forms of reading differ from popular literacy practices. Oprah’s endorsement of reading as something that will expand your horizons draws on personal identification with characters and situations rather than the analytical, critical approach taught in college. Public libraries have long honored diverse reading tastes, but academic libraries are likely to be accused of wasting money if they purchase genre fiction or popular history (even if it’s of high quality). Academic libraries that try to satisfy students’ interest in reading outside the syllabus risk being tarred with the scarlet letter “O,” encouraging reading for pleasure at the expense of reading seriously.

Common reading programs
on college campuses are growing in popularity. They give first year students an opportunity to to talk about something they have in common that has academic credentials. But they are modeled on community reading programs (started with Seattle Reads) and so are smack dab in the middle of that contest over how we should read.

Academic libraries may be the perfect place to explore those contested notions of reading. Maybe we can help our students take pleasure in the reading they do for courses – and take their pleasure reading seriously.