Leisure reading collections in the academic library

A treasure map showing someone how to find a book of fiction

Here’s my honest opinion: I wasn’t a big fan of collection development during graduate school. When I was supervising the residence halls libraries at Illinois, putting new books in my virtual cart was always at the bottom of my to-do list. I didn’t have a good system of finding new books and once I found something cool, usually one of my colleagues had it in their cart. For me, I was always more interested in using my time to support the student employees or plan programming with residence life than I was in spending my time building a collection. The work of collection development felt like a chore.

Needless to say I was jazzed when I started at Penn State and had zero collection development responsibilities. I could go back to just me requesting the books for myself I heard about on podcasts or read in the many email newsletters I subscribed to. I “escaped” collection development for two years and this fall, the Leisure Reading  collection in the Pattee & Paterno Libraries fell on to my plate of responsibilities.

Leisure reading collections (also known as recreational reading, browsing collection, or popular reading collections) were first started in academic libraries in the 1920s and 30s, when a core value of academic librarians was to promote reading. These collections became less prevalent in the 1940s and 50s, when war impacted library budgets and people found it less important to have these collections (Dewan, 2010). It wasn’t until the 1990s that academic libraries started to create leisure reading collections again and publish on the importance of these collections. These collections continue to get pushback from the academic library world; some consider the collection not within the mission of an academic library; others talk of tight budgets and space limitations (Alsop, 2007); there is even an assumption that faculty, staff, and students do not have or any interest in reading for leisure (Van Fleet, 2003). However, more recent studies have shown the benefits of reading for leisure, including a correlation with higher academic achievement (National Endowment for the Arts, 2004), promotion of critical thinking, and improvement of reading comprehension and developing one’s own writing voice (Rathe & Blankenship, 2006; Trott & Elliott, 2007). But just like anything done well, building this sort of collection takes time, energy, and resources.

The decision to put the Leisure Reading collection on my work plate was strategic — pivot the collection to take a student engagement approach, leverage the talents and energy of our student engagement intern and part time student employee to help with the vision and maintenance of the collection, and tie the collection more closely with our outreach work in order think about how we highlight and promote this collection. During the first few weeks where the collection was now “mine,” I drew inspiration from UCLA’s Powell Library, who worked with students and student clubs in a variety of ways to help build a student-driven collection (Glassman, Lee, Salomon, & Worsham, 2017). I felt like I was sort of stumbling through the dark those first few weeks, just trying to understand what the collection was, and where we could take it. Luckily, I wasn’t tackling this project alone — the Leisure Reading team is up to five: 3 full-time library employees, and two student employees.

I definitely took for granted the system that the residence halls libraries had set up for collection development. As a small system, we didn’t have too many other people to work with in order to keep the collection up and running. Here at Penn State, there’s 10+ people or groups interacting and supporting the Leisure Reading collection in some way. This meant that any changes we decided to make, had to be communicate clearly and often to all those involved. These folks also gave us some of the best feedback on the collection; their sometimes daily interaction really helped the new team wrap our heads around the current situation and see potential ways forward that would make the collection easier to find and use for both staff and patrons.

Our collection is mostly leased; something I hadn’t really considered before. In doing some research about recreational reading collections in academic libraries, I learned that academic libraries have been talking about leased collections since at least 1976 (Cushman) and people are interested in the pros and cons of having this type of collection, especially when considering if these popular books are “worthy” to keep for a long time (Odess-Harnish, 2002). Part of our lease agreement is that we get to keep a percentage of the books we lease, giving a new option to the research already out there about leased collections. Our monthly weeding gives us the chance to think about what we should keep and starts to give us a better sense of how our patrons are using this collection.

A big challenge that the Leisure Reading team tackled in the first few months was wayfinding and discoverability. Our collection is shelved in the Library of Congress classification, which can make it confusing to figure out where the new book by Phoebe Robinson or Tana French is going to be. As Pauline Dewan says so succinctly, “The Library of Congress classification is not an effective scheme for browsing fiction” (2010, p. 44). Our two student employees helping with the collection learned first hand how difficult the classification system can be when creating new signage to help people discover new items in this collection. But, we are working on it — trying things knowing they might fail and also trying to get as much feedback as we can from the people actively using the collection. The collection is constantly a work in progress.

As we look towards 2019, there are big plans on the horizon for this collection. Our spring will be devoted to tying the collection more closely to programming, making a stronger connection between our leisure reading and viewing (DVD) collection, and assessing if the things we are doing are actually impacting circulation and patrons who use the collection. The past several months, I’ve come to love this collection; it’s tough and challenging but it’s fun to collaborate with others and try to build a dynamic, usable, interesting collection.

Do you have a leisure reading collection in your library? Do you help maintain the collection? If you are in charge of this collection, what are some challenges you face and what are exciting elements of this sort of collection in an academic library?

References:

Alsop, J. (2007). Bridget Jones Meets Mr. Darcy: Challenges of Contemporary Fiction. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 33(5), 581–585. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2007.05.004

Cushman, R. C. (1976). Lease Plans– A New Lease On Life For Libraries? Journal of Academic Librarianship, 2(1), 15–19.

Dewan, P. (2010). Why Your Academic Library Needs a Popular Reading Collection Now More Than Ever. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17(1), 44–64. https://doi.org/10.1080/10691310903584775

Van Fleet, C. (2003). Popular Fiction Collections in Academic and Public Libraries. The Acquisitions Librarian, 15(29), 63–85. https://doi.org/10.1300/J101v15n29_07

Glassman, J., Lee, S., Salomon, D., & Worsham, D. (2017). Community Collections: Nurturing Student Curators. In S. Arnold-Garza & C. Tomlinson (Eds.), Students Lead the Library: The Importance of Student Contributions to the Academic Library (pp. 77–92). Chicago, IL: ACRL.

National Endowment for the Arts. (2004). Reading at risk: A survey of literacy reading in America. Retrieved from https://www.arts.gov/publications/reading-risk-survey-literary-reading-america-0

Odess-Harnish, K. (2002). Making Sense of Leased Popular Literature Collections. Collection Management, 27(2), 55–74. https://doi.org/10.1300/J105v27n02_06

Rathe, B., & Blankenship, L. (2006). Recreational Reading Collections in Academic Libraries. Collection Management, 30(2), 73–85. https://doi.org/10.1300/J105v30n02_06

Trott, B., & Elliott, J. (2007). Academic Libraries and Extracurricular Reading Promotion. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 46(3), 34–43. https://doi.org/10.5860/rusq.46n3.34

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