Where are the “fun” books?

Photo, Rainbow of Books, John Nakamura Remy, Sept. 26 2009, Flickr, Creative Commons
John Nakamura Remy, "Rainbow of Books," Flickr, 2009.

As an academic librarian, I’ve always been a little surprised when students would ask me “where are the fiction books?” or “where are the fun books?” It took me a while to realize these are the students who are readers; students who use books for relaxation, enjoyment, and yes, fun.

Many of these students probably expected the library to organize “the fun books” by genre or in a special section since that’s how many public libraries do it, but that’s actually not what we do in most academic libraries. Instead we organize books by subject, which for literature, often means time periods or countries of origin. Thus, “the fun books” might be sprinkled throughout a number of shelves, which sadly means that Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer are unlikely to be neighbors. This system can work well for academic research, but not so well for browsing.

Some academic libraries have always had small popular fiction aka “leisure reading” collections. While these small collections may be housed in an academic library, often they are rented and not indexed in the library catalog because they are not considered important enough to be added to the library’s permanent collection.

So I started thinking about genre fiction aka “the fun books” in my library’s collection, and while we definitely have strong collections in science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mysteries, we didn’t have many titles that could be categorized as popular romance novels. In many ways I was not surprised given that popular romance novels are the obvious red-headed step-child of almost all academic libraries, not just my own. We didn’t buy them because we had no reason to.

Now there are several reasons for this.Popular romance novels and romance authors have only recently been recognized as serious, scholarly research subjects. The academic library’s mission is to support the research and teaching needs of faculty, students, and the curriculum. If the popular romance genre was not studied, academic libraries had no requirements to collect it. Twenty-five years ago my undergraduate university had an English class on studying science fiction novels starting with Shelley’s Frankenstein through Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The academic library had to have resources to compare these works to other works written around the same time, to have criticism on the works, and to actually own the novels being studied, i.e. all the appropriate scholarly resources a researcher would need to successfully study the genre.

It is generally accepted that Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters wrote romance novels and are considered the “grandmothers” of the popular romance genre. Almost every academic library will have Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre as well as the scholarly resources needed for student and faculty research. Georgette Heyer’s novels, both romance and mystery, have recently been reissued and many academic libraries have started to collect her works. A quick look in the WorldCat catalog for Heyer’s romance novel Frederica, shows that a small number of academic libraries have purchased that title.

Until very recently, there were no classes on the study of the popular romance novel. Slowly researchers such as Pamela Regis, Eric Selinger, and Jessie Matthews, among others, are looking at the popular romance novels as serious scholarly subjects. Some well-established authors are helping support research and study. For instance, Nora Roberts recently donated funds that helped McDaniel College establish The Nora Roberts Center for American Romance which is creating a collection of popular romance novels in the College’s Hoover Library. As more faculty and students study the genre, more academic libraries will hopefully start acquiring popular romance novels to support that research.

While it’s unlikely that many academic libraries will have large collections of popular romance novels today, the time is coming when at least some academic libraries will have strong research collections supporting faculty and students studying the genre. Here at Mason we’ve started just such a collection and I’m excited to help promote and preserve some of the titles for future study.

Sarah Sheehan

Sarah Sheehan is the liaison librarian for the College of Health & Human Services at George Mason University. She has a Masters in Library Science from Catholic University of American and a Masters in Education in Instructional Technology from George Mason University, and is a senior member of the Academy of Health Information Professionals. In 2010, Sarah published Romance Authors: A Research Guide. In the future, she hopes to fulfill her secret plan to create romance novel collections in academic libraries across the United States.

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