This week, the library world will gather in Seattle for the American Library Association’s 2019 Midwinter Meeting, where a slate of great authors will take the main stage to give keynotes, and where publishers and other content-related service providers will make up the bulk of the booths on the exhibit floor. As always, the publisher booths will be the most prominent and widely visited booths at the show. Anyone who has ever been to an ALA conference knows well that librarians will happily wait in long lines (often with bookbags slung over both shoulders) for the chance to meet authors and get signed ARCs. That’s because America’s libraries are built on a foundation of books and literacy.
Even as the digital age has progressed, changing the way many people access information, surveys shows that books and literacy remain closely associated with the library brand, and that reading services remain a major source of support and advocacy for libraries, as well as for the ALA. But as libraries continue to expand and transform in response to evolving community needs, I sometimes question whether the ALA is losing sight of just how central books and reading are to the work of libraries.
As I glanced through the professional program for this week’s conference, it seems to me that the ALA and its divisions are offering less conference programming focused on books—particularly adult books. Aside from a handful of publisher-led Book Buzz sessions, what’s happened to the programs that provide practical advice to librarians who want to support adult readers? And what does this shift in programming say about the future of libraries?
If I could suggest one New Year’s resolution for the ALA, it would be to make 2019 the year of the book. And a good place to start that effort is with the ALA’s Notable Books Council.
Dating back to 1944, the ALA’s Notable Books lists have celebrated the best titles published each year. Administered by the ALA’s Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) division, the lists are selected by the Notable Books Council, in accordance with its stated mission to identify 25 “very important fiction, nonfiction, and poetry books for the adult reader” each year. This is a noble effort—and an effort that over the years helped to position the library community as an expert voice in the world of books.
However, in an age when best-of lists abound online and one’s reading list can be fed by friends’ Goodreads accounts, the widening signal-to-noise ratio is making it harder for ALA to have an impact. The Notable Books Council struggles to find 12 members who are willing to commit to rigorously reading some 200 books over the course of a year. Perhaps understandably so: readers on the council must be serious about the work and be deep readers. If Frederick Douglass by David W. Blight is under consideration, for example, we are talking about 912 pages of deep reading! For today’s web-focused, social media–savvy librarians, this kind of methodical analysis of literary fiction and nonfiction may not be so appealing.
Full disclosure: I have never been on the Notable Books Council—which is probably a good thing, because I can’t even belong to a book club. I start out intending to respect the reading choices of a club’s membership but soon recognize that I only want to read what I want to read. And when book groups don’t like my choices—as was the case when I chose A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines and Everything Conceivable: How the Science of Assisted Reproduction Is Changing Our World by Liza Mundy—well, I get pretty annoyed.
If I were on the Notable Books council, I know I would have been extremely frustrated when, among many other standout novels, The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott and Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan weren’t selected as fiction notables for their quality of writing and unique storytelling style—especially considering that Egan went on to win the ALA’s 2018 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.
Though I can’t really say for sure what goes on in the deliberations for Notable Books, descriptions of the process from past and current council members remind me of a book club selection process,where the loudest and most persuasive reader wins. After reading broadly, council members pitch their top books based on criteria such as “focusing on specialized knowledge,” the “quality of writing,” or “a new way of looking at an issue or idea.” There can be no skimming or Googling reviews as the council gets down to the business of selection.
But I have to wonder: can’t the lists from other reputable awards and publications, including the Carnegie Medals (which are published by the time the council is making its decisions), influence the council’s reading and deliberations at all? Must the council readers strictly follow their own leads? With so many great books now being shared and discussed on social media, is there a better, more inclusive way for the council to approach its work?
In recent years, the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction, the ALA’s adult book awards, have helped the library community raise its profile in literary circles. However, the awards have also had some unintended consequences.
Established in 2012, the Carnegie Medals initially brought cache to the Notable Books Council, using its long list to vet finalists. But after a few years of awarding the Carnegie Medals in the summer, months after the other major national awards were given, the Carnegie committee decided to align its cycle more closely with the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Awards, with the winners announced at the ALA Midwinter Meeting. As a juried prize, released in advance of the Pulitzers, the Carnegie Medals have succeeded in becoming an honor coveted by authors and publishers. But when the Carnegie Medals changed its schedule, the Carnegie committee appears to have left the Notable Books Council behind, somewhat diminishing RUSA’s role in the Carnegie selection process.
That’s unfortunate. Shouldn’t ALA find a way to better leverage the Carnegies, now an established, respected national literary award, to highlight the work of the Notable Books Council and expose the Notable Books lists to a wider audience?
The point is, ALA must envision a more wide-reaching, visible national platform for our members’ invaluable work promoting great books. The Notable Books lists have long been a resource for my own reading choices, and earlier in my career I relied on them for readers’ advisory. Today, it feels like public libraries are increasingly focused on current bestsellers. And, as I have frequently bemoaned, readers’ advisory is becoming a lost art.
Yes, there is still a RUSA CODES: Readers’ Advisory Research and Trends Committee. But when I visit ALA Connect, I can find no discussion posts or shared files among the members, nor even a scheduled meeting at the upcoming ALA Midwinter conference. It troubles me that the Notable Books lists and the work of the ALA’s readers’ advisory committee are buried in a section within an ALA division.
When I see recent trends indicating a national resurgence of independent bookstores, I am thrilled to think of new homes for readers. But I also fear that libraries will lose ground if we don’t compete better for readers’ attention. So I am calling on ALA to explore ways to better support our book-related services, and to ensure that the next generation of readers’ advisors will have a home in libraries.
When ALA introduced its successful Libraries Transform campaign in 2015, it was meant to build on our foundational principles. What’s more foundational to libraries than books? If we envision 2019 as the year of the book, imagine the transformation we might lead.
PW columnist Sari Feldman is executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio, and a former president of both the Public Library Association (2009–2010) and the American Library Association (2015–2016).