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.