Isabelle FetherstonIn the 1890s, libraries were debating whether to provide fiction to their patrons.

William Stevenson, the head librarian for the Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny, Pennsylvania, went to great lengths to remove popular fiction titles from his library.

“It is certainly not the function of the public library to foster the mind-weakening habit of novel-reading among the very classes—the uneducated, busy or idle—whom it is the duty of the public library to lift to a higher plane of thinking,” he said.

Horatio Alger tales weren’t “high” enough for him.

Even classics controversial in the 1890s

During Stevenson’s time, it was controversial for libraries to provide even classic works of literature.

As libraries moved into the 20th century, libraries offered fiction books but considered genre fiction to be inferior. Librarians often tried to convince people to read books that the librarian believed were either “good books” (classic literature) or of an educational nature.

In the last 50 years, however, reader choice has gained more acceptance among librarians—as an important aspect of intellectual freedom. The American Library Association even promotes a “Freedom to Read” statement, which includes the following quotes: “The freedom to read is essential to our democracy” and “There is no place in our society for efforts to coerce the taste of others, to confine adults to the reading matter deemed suitable for adolescents, or to inhibit the efforts of writers to achieve artistic expression” (emphasis mine).

Fiction debate lingers on

I thought that society had accepted fiction and the importance of recreational reading. However, unfortunately this debate about libraries providing fiction, or at least the kinds of fiction, lingers on.

In an opinion piece in the December issue of American Libraries, David Isaacson does not object to all novels. But he does “question the argument that libraries should go out of their way to acquire romance novels, thrillers, and other kinds of literature whose primary purpose is escape and titillation.” I find this sentiment disturbing—the idea that librarians should decide what is worthwhile for others to read and should provide only those materials.

Youth services librarian on fiction as a literacy-builder

I have offered the intellectual freedom argument for why libraries should provide fiction for readers, including the popular variety of book, but there is also another important reason to promote fiction—the cause of literacy.

Leah Jackson, a youth services librarian in Florida, is a former second-grade teacher who has seen the positive effects of fiction reading on the reading ability of children. She told me that many students are stimulated to read because they enjoy fictional sports stories or mysteries in chapter books, such as the “Three Cousins Detective Club” series by Elspeth Campbell Murphy.

“When children are introduced to interesting fiction books that are at the appropriate reading level,” she said, “they enjoy reading and feel more confident as a reader. This encourages them to read more.”

Teenager’s starter books: Game-playing manuals and then fantasy

I have also seen this happen. I particularly remember a teenage boy who would never pick up a book—until he started reading role-playing game manuals. He eventually began to read fantasy books. As a result, his reading improved and he started to enjoy reading.

In Reading matters: What the research reveals about reading, libraries, and community, Ross, McKetchnie & Rothbauer present some key research findings about reading and about how people learn to read:

–Reading is not all or none, it is a “continuum of skills from very basic to proficient to the most advanced” (p. 3).

–To function in the world now, people need to be able to read very well—the reading experience should be effortless. (p. 3)

–In order to become proficient, people need to spend thousands of hours reading. “Readers who become proficient are those who enjoy reading and who do it by choice as a voluntary activity in their leisure time.” (p. 45).

–“The amount of reading done out of school is consistently related to gains in reading achievement” (Anderson et al 1985, as quoted by Ross et al., p. 46).

E-books represent a new way to provide access to fiction. In a recent post to the O’Reilly Radar blog, Peter Brantley of the Digital Library Federation talked about how e-books could be used to help poor people within our country and across the world to access a wider range of literature and science books. He recommended starting with orphan works, which are in the public domain. His reasoning is that providing this e-book access helps to educate people—which leads to economic growth—and that “… morally, it is the right thing to do.”

The keys to getting people to practice reading are to make books accessible and to provide books that the reader will enjoy. If libraries provide only nonfiction books, they will not be able to attract many children or adults to read. Finally, the patrons are the ones funding public library systems—so they should be able to obtain the fiction books that they request.


Stevenson, as quoted by Ross, C. S., McKetchnie, L. E. F., & Rothbauer, P.M. (2006). Reading matters: What the research reveals about reading, libraries, and community. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited. More information on Stevenson and his library, “the first public, tax-supported library” founded by Andrew Carnegie, is available through RootsWeb.

Isaacson, D. (2006). On my mind: Don’t just read—read good books. American Libraries, 17(11), 43.

Moderator’s note: See Isabelle’s bio. Looking forward to other essays from her!


  1. As a fan of classic detective fiction I occasionally come across this kind of snobbery. It usually takes the form of an appeal to ‘realism’ – novels in which detectives are violent thugs are somehow assumed to be more ‘realistic’ than those in which they are deductive geniuses. Then ‘realistic’ is taken to be equivalent to ‘good’. And we can see that attitude at work in Isaacson’s quote criticising books that provide ‘escape’.

    Of course, claiming a work is ‘realistic’ is just a snob’s way of saying ‘I like it’, and calling it ‘escapist’ is a snob’s way of saying ‘I didn’t like it’. Everything from Lord of the Rings to Brothers Karamazov has been described as both ‘realistic’ and ‘escapist’ by one snob or another. But since ‘realism’ is never given an objective meaning, the claim that ‘realistic’ books are better is never defended — merely assumed.

    Anyhow, as far as I can see, escapism is the whole point of reading novels. If I want cold hard facts then I’ll buy a textbook.

    The Grumpy Old Bookman occasionally takes a well-aimed swipe at pompous critics and reviewers like Isaacson.

  2. Jon J: I don’t mess with rating more than a few comments, but you can bet I clicked on “Yes” in reply to your just-given one! You made a great case, adding to Isabelle’s already-convincing arguments. Down with pomposity and up with escape! Sometimes kids learn to enjoy books in spite of certain teachers and librarians. Thanks. – David

  3. Unfortunately, most libraries have limited resources, and choices have to be made. Typically, librarians end up making those choices. If the choice is between, say, Dan Brown’s latest thriller or a copy of Lucene in Action, I’d rather my librarian avoid the excrutiating tripe that Brown churns out.

  4. Bill makes a good point about budgetary concerns and these types of purchases will always be guided by the core values of each particular library. A librarian’s job is not to dictate taste but to facilitate discriminating choices. There CAN be standards in “low brow” genres as well, and it would be well worth the time to pursue this type of guidance on a librarian’s behalf, than to ignore the genre altogether.

  5. Isabelle Fetherston’s comments here vanished during a database problem. I’m restoring them below. – DR

    Laura B: I agree that libraries will choose books according the core values of that library. Usually, libraries try to develop their collection to match the needs of their particular community. Many libraries will buy books suggested by a patron.

    You make a good point about how librarians can help readers to find good genre fiction, which matches the reader’s interests and preferences.

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