Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"Fiction or nonfiction?" follow-up

A couple of weeks ago, I asked people which they would rather their public library give up if push came to shove: fiction or nonfiction. Five of the six commenters voted to preserve fiction. No one voted to preserve nonfiction. The sixth asked the reasonable question, "Why would a library ever do this? couldn't they give up half the non and half the fiction instead?"

In real life, of course Anonymous Poster 6 is right--if for some reason a library did have to toss half its materials, that's probably what the overwhelming majority of them would choose to do. In the U.S., we (meaning both librarians and the moderately-interested public in general) have come to regard both fiction and nonfiction as essential to a library's mission. The public library is supposed to both inform and entertain.*

The responses were interesting because early in public library in the U.S., nonfiction dominated. The little fiction available was works of literature, morality tales, and other 'improving' books. Let me give you a little two-minute history of public libraries in the U.S.:

Before taxpayer-funded libraries were prevalent, the collections of subscription libraries were the most commonly available books to the average person. For a fee, a person could become a member of the subscription library and make use of its collections. While subscription libraries started in the 18th century as the preserve of the elite, in the 19th century they became more common and prices came down. They were used most heavily by the upwardly mobile middle class, but in theory the fee was low enough that subscription libraries' collections were in reach for the working class as well.

In the late 1800s, philanthropists began funding libraries that were open for anyone to use (many modern public libraries are still housed in buildings built with Andrew Carnegie's money), and public libraries became much more common. However, they still tended to be focused on improvement rather than pleasure--people came to them to be educated rather than entertained, and one of the major hopes for public libraries was that they would essentially indoctrinate new immigrants into American culture (we could have a whole post on this, but there isn't space here).

During the 1900s, more and more popular fiction was added to library collections, and now entertainment rather than information does seem to be what most people think of when they think of the public library. At both public libraries I've worked in, fiction and DVDs (which are almost all fiction rather than documentaries) make up the majority of the collections by number of items and the majority of checkouts as well.

Considering that, I shouldn't have been surprised that most of my readers identified fiction as most essential to the public library. However, the interesting question is why. How exactly did this come about, given where public libraries started?

I'll do follow up on follow up later to post my own thoughts, but I don't want to overwhelm you with text. In the meantime, if you've got theories or comments on how fiction came to predominate in public libraries, or opinions on why it should (or shouldn't) stay that way, please let me know!

*Note: I'm using the word "entertain" here as a bit of shorthand. I'm aware that it's not quite adequate. Obviously, people gain a lot and learn a lot from reading and watching creative material. It expands their own creativity, helps them understand the world, comforts them in hard times, and helps them empathize with other people. Calling that "entertainment" isn't meant to trivialize that--it just means that stories are nearly always things people choose to read for their own sake, not something people are trying to simply extract information from.


  1. I think that a major force in the decline of non-fiction in public libraries is a result of the prevalence of the web. Most people see Google as the only reference source they need, and people who want other kinds of non-fiction information can easily find web sites on their topic. All of this information is free. Whether or not this is providing them with the best information, or even good information, is beside the point. It is quick, fast, easy, and appears to do the job. So why go to the library for it? It is highly likely that some of the people who use your library's computers are doing so looking for information that they could get in a better form and faster if they just stepped over to the reference desk. But they don't.

    Fiction (books, movies, etc), on the other hand, has not become ubiquitous on the web. Not the good stuff, and certainly not for free. So for that the library is still the place to go.

    In my opinion reference and non-fiction are contracting in libraries, but they are not dying. There will still be a need for good non-fiction resources, and professionals to help with them, just as we will continue to need public libraries for all the other essential services they provide

  2. Personally, my library borrowing is about 90% fiction and 10% non-fiction. Non-fiction can be more entertaining than fiction.
    There are also types of non-fiction that are a lot like fiction (to me, anyway). E.g., memoirs, biographies, true-crime stories.
    I wonder if children's non-fiction is dying out because the web presents similar information in a much more fun, attention-getting way.