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Library Philosophy and Practice 2008

ISSN 1522-0222

"Books of the Hour"and "Books of All Time": Booklists in the Evolving Library

Sarah Naper
Business Reference Librarian

Stephanie Wiegand
Health Sciences Reference Librarian

James A. Michener Library
University of Northern Colorado
Campus Box 48
Greeley, Colorado 80639


"For all books are divisible into two classes, the books of the hour, and the books of all time. Mark this distinction - it is not one of quality only. It is not merely the bad book that does not last, and the good one that does. It is a distinction of species. There are good books for the hour, and good ones for all time; bad books for the hour, and bad ones for all time."(Ruskin, 1891, p. 14-15)


Gathered by expert or novice, by individual or organization, a booklist brings together titles for either reader or librarian. Booklists may vary in intent, but all serve one ultimate purpose: to influence what is read. There are two main ideas behind encouraging an individual to read specific books: 1) to shape a better individual for society; and, 2) to encourage the individual to read for pleasure or to fulfill some immediate need. The second reason involves books that are of value at that moment, or what Ruskin refers to as "books of the hour." It is quite for one list to embody both intents; however, most lean noticeably one way or the other. This bifurcation of intent is reflected in Ruskin's description of "books of the hour" and "books of all time." The continued coexistence of both types of booklists may cause confusion among readers and librarians. Such confusion is not trivial, since both readers and librarians continue to rely on booklists to determine what should and will be read, but it is possible for all types of booklists - and the books they encompass - to coexist and help both librarian and reading populations to select the next book.

Books in a Booklist: The Controversy

The choice of what to read is more challenging than ever, with increasing literacy and the proliferation of the book. For more than a century, booklists have offered assistance in this decision-making process. Indeed, a century ago we embarked on a love affair with booklists, an affair that continues to flourish. Booklists are a part of American reading and learning culture, and the digital age offers an environment where book lovers, educators, students, and librarians can easily share and access reading recommendations. Librarians are perhaps the most prolific creators of booklists, and these lists are now often found on the Internet. Go to a library website, and one is likely to find examples of each type of list - "should reads" and reads that fill an immediate need. The two types of lists reflect two strongly-held values of American libraries: fulfillment of America's educational promise and the freedom for each person to choose what they wish to read in their individual pursuit of happiness. Though libraries present themselves as advocates of the freedom to read and the freedom of choice of reading material, our history is somewhat spotty.

Booklists reflect a conflict in collection-building, and it is not a new one. Scholars attest to more than one crisis of faith regarding what should be contained in library collections (Augst, 2001; Stewart, 2006; Wiegand, 1999). In the United States, the early vision for many libraries giving a moral foundation to citizens. Books were for betterment, not for simple pleasure. The library collection was morally uplifting, provided cultural identification, and afforded a form of social control. In their donations to libraries, John Jacob Aster and Andrew Carnegie were motivated by moral ideals of self-improvement, believing that libraries are instruments of civilization and that by reading good books, society is improved (Edwards, 1869; Radford, 1984). In the 20 th century, projects such as the Great Books seminars at Columbia, New York Public Library's Exploring the American Idea, and the American Library Association's American Heritage Program promoted education on the foundation of booklists of what responsible citizens should read.

Experts do not necessarily agree on what books belong in booklists. There are two main camps: lists of titles that are influential to people as a whole, and lists of titles that inspire the individual. In 2005, the editors ofBooklistpublished a list of the one hundred best books of the past century. Their list is an example of a list of books that are influential (Ott, 2005).The Cat in the Hatbeat out Jack Kerouac'sOn the Road, andUlyssestrumped Emily Post'sEtiquette. Yet not every compiler of best books has such broad goals in creating a list. John Powys wrote with disdain of booklists compiled with noble ideals in mind, instead favoring the needs and desires of the individual: "those [lists] apparently are designed to stuff the minds of young persons with an accumulation of 'standard learning,' calculated to alarm and discourage the boldest" (preface). Powys continues:

To the question 'What is one to read?' the best reply must always be the most personal: 'Whatever profoundly and permanently stimulates your imagination' (1922, p. 9).

By taking this stance, Powys aligns himself firmly with the goal of creating lists to help readers find their next best book, not humankind's next best book. One truth is found in all booklists: they proffer the opinion, sometimes expert and sometimes not, and inevitably the personal biases, prejudices, partialities, and eccentricities of their compilers. Today booklists abound in our culture. However, there are specific traditional types of booklists that librarians and readers depend on, including bestseller lists, lists of award-winning books, and reader advisory lists.

Traditional Booklist Types

Bestseller Lists

Bestsellers may or may not become "books of all time," but as titles that are enjoyed by millions, they offer a snapshot of literature in the United States for a specific time period. A. P. Hackett (1977) suggests that no critical sales figure must be reached for a book to be a "bestseller" (p. 3). Rather, bestseller is a comparative term: a book may be a bestseller in a city, a single store, or nationwide for a day, month, year, or century.Library Journaleditors compile a weekly list of bestsellers based not on sales but on circulations at public libraries in the United States. In addition to tracking its popularity, an appearance on a bestseller list may boost a book's readership. Thus, a bestseller list not only measures popularity, but also becomes a tool for book promotion.The Bookmanis credited with the first bestseller list, initially publishing a list of monthly regional sales in 1895 (Hackett, 1977).Publisher's Weeklyentered the booklist arena in 1900 with annual lists of bestsellers (Korda, 2001), and the ever-popularNew York Timesbestseller list emerged in 1942 (Bear, 1992).

Few bestsellers stand the test of time. While Betty Smith'sA Tree Grows in Brooklynand Norman Mailer'sThe Naked and the Deadare still recognized by readers,Drivin' Womanby Elizabeth Chevalier andThe Huckstersby Frederic Wakeman are far less familiar. All of these titles, however, were bestsellers in the 1940s. While bestseller lists fall into the category of reads that satisfy an immediate want or need, they are of great value to librarians and readers alike.

Lists of Award-Winning Books

Award winners, such as Caldecott, Edgar awards (from the Mystery Writers of America), or Booker Prizes (awarded to the best novel of the year by an Irish citizen), are another type of recommended reading. The division between "books of all time" and "book of the hour" is more readily apparent in lists of award-winning books. A RITA award-winning romance title will likely join the ranks of books that fulfill a momentary need or want, whereas a Pulitzer Prize title is more likely to be included in lists of "books of all time." Like bestsellers, award-winners are of value to both librarians and readers in search of what next to read, whether it is a title that helps an individual become a better citizen or just fulfills a need to read something entertaining.

Reader's Advisory Booklists

Flexner and Edge (1934) describe the use and creation of lists for early reader's advisory services at the New York Public Library. Today's reader's advisory lists include books such as Nancy Pearl'sBook Lust, theWebrary's booklists, andEbscoHost's NoveList database. This type of recommended reading list often includes the books that one should read, either to be considered more literate and knowledgeable, or to uncover more material of a particular genre or category.

Booklists to Serve Librarians

In our constantly changing and increasingly online library environment, how do librarians use booklists, and what booklists do they use? OCLC's WorldCat has 4,978 items with the descriptorbest books:

Examples include Boxall's1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Dickinson'sThe World's Best Books, Homer to Hemingway, and the Young Adult Library Services Association's (YALSA)Outstanding Books for the College Bound. Clearly, materials that are classified asbest books may be much larger than a traditional one-page list. While Dickinson's and Boxall's works lean far into the category of books of all time, both also include books that do not necessarily better prepare an individual to serve society. For example, both lists include one of Ann Radcliffe's gothic romances. Most titles listed in the 2004Outstanding Books for the College Boundare nonfiction, and while one might assume that this source strives to create a better citizenry, it includes no books published before 1990. Thus, it is fair to conclude that the Library of Congress subject headingbest booksincludes both lists meant to educate citizens and books that fulfill an immediate need. This indicates that libraries authentically support the freedom to read.

Collection Development

Booklists can help librarians collect, weed, and suggest books to patrons. In 2004, American book publishers increased output more than ten percent from the previous year - publishing 970,078 new titles and editions (Grabois, 2006). With this influx into the market every year just from American publishers, librarians must rely on a number of collection tools, including booklists, to identify titles that might otherwise be overlooked or missed (Eldredge, 1997). Librarians' use of booklists as a collection development tool includes: perusal of author and publisher lists; review of award winners to ensure that they are included in the collection; regular receipt of bestsellers through the McNaughton plan; analysis of titles recently added to the collection of a library well-known in a particular discipline (example: Harvard's Baker Library for business books); receipt of approval plan books that match established criteria; and many other strategies.

Award winners and bestsellers are obvious lists. Others may be less apparent; for example, approval plans are a type of list. Vendors that provide approval plan services select publishers to include in their plans. As books are published, descriptors are assigned. Perhaps not the same as the creation of a tangible list of the best mysteries set in the Rocky Mountains, this process generates a finite group of materials that meet specific criteria. For example, audience: "lower-division undergraduates," and subject: "computer software industry;" constructs a de facto list of the books about the computer software industry for lower-division undergraduates, as identified by Vendor X.

The venerable book review system similarly produces a book list; a list emerges of highly-recommended materials for a particular audience, in a particular subject. By adding books to a collection, librarians create a list of books chosen specifically for their patrons. As a case in point, from 1965-2003, Alfred Brandon - later joined by Dorothy Hill - compiled an annual list to guide health science librarians in the selection of books (Hill & Stickell, 2006). This list became known as the Brandon/Hill List, and the lists were significantly influential in book selection by health science librarians (Eldredge, 1997). The authors did not intend this list to be an authoritative source for collection building, but offered it as a suggestion for others in the same field. Over the years, health science librarians came to depend upon the Brandon/Hill list for collection development. When Hill decided to stop compiling the list, health science librarians felt a certain panic (Shedlock & Walton, 2006).


How can booklists help with this challenge? Booklists do not solve the problems of weeding, but they do provide assistance. The notion that outdated, antiquated, or disused material should be discarded has a long been regarded as being of equal importance with collection new books. In 1911, Wynkoop encouraged librarians to weed collections, noting that books receive much more use when not surrounded by inconsequential and inferior materials. Trueswell, a pioneer in quantitative analysis of library collections, provided numbers to support this notion, finding that books checked out within the past 12 months satisfied 90% of current circulation at Northwestern University (1966, p. 50). Other studies reinforced these findings (including Fussler & Simon, 1969 and Kent, Cohen, Montgomery, Williams, Bulick, Flynn, et al., 1979). Despite the benefits, many librarians give weeding low priority, perhaps in part because of insecurity about their ability to do this task well or because of the time taken away from other tasks. Slote (1997) suggests that one difficulty in weeding is the large mass of material; with an estimated 55 to 60 million titles in the world, how can a single librarian know the content of all available books? A list of frequently-circulated books may help librarians who are overwhelmed by the difficult task of knowing the contents of the collection. As books age, the likelihood of a book circulating for the first time decreases, so a list of non-circulating books may also influence weeding (Kent et al., 1979). Guides such as Books for College Libraries or specific subject bibliographies also help librarians identify titles that should not be weeded; however, the extent to which both of these types of booklists (subject bibliographies and circulation lists) inform weeding decisions will vary according to discipline and institution. As Hodowanec (1983) recommends, weeding decisions must be accompanied by a librarian's knowledge of the parameters of the collection, including size, depth and scope of instructional programs, and overall institutional goals.

Promotion of Library Materials

Librarians have two purposes when constructing booklists: first, to offer comprehensive knowledge on a particular topic or author; and second, to furnish a list that allows patrons to find the best books quickly and efficiently. What are the best popular books on psychology? Check Charles G. Morris'slist hosted on the University of Michigan's website. Need to quickly identify the best books to learn more about Harper Lee'sTo Kill a Mockingbird? Chicago Public Library hosts such a list. David Wilson Taylor createdThe Booklist Center online, bringing together many booklists including subject-specific recommendations:Weatherford's Great and Significant Books in Anthropology, Pearlman's Booklist of Native American Ideas, Giles Lyon's Top 10 Cricket Books, and many more. Some libraries are also using booklists to promote materials through various reader's advisory services.

Booklists Go Online and Go 2.0

Booklists abound online. The online world is a treasure-trove for readers in search of their next book or book recommendation. From bestsellers, to recommended reads, to books to avoid - numerous booklists thrive in the virtual world where access for passionate readers is easy and always available. With 70 million Americans on the Internet each day (Rainie & Horrigan, 2005), and 78% of Internet looking for information about a hobby online (Horrigan & Rainie, 2003), the Internet helps join booklists with book readers.

One could say thatAmazon.com brought booklists online. Today consumers can purchase almost anything from Amazon, but in 1995 founder Jeff Bezos sold only books, recognizing the possibility of financial success in e-commerce (Gardiner, 2002). Many other booksellers quickly followed online. Lists of award-winning books, bestsellers, and notable books also appeared quickly as online bookstores changed the way Americans searched for information and ideas about the next book to read. Later, Amazon.com added a feature that allowed customers to recommend books - not just to review them, but to list books they found most notable using Listmania. Listmania became an integrated part of the Amazon.com search engine: recommended reading lists from customers appear in search results along with books that match a query.

Listmania is an indication of Web 2.0 possibilities for the reading community. Web 2.0 is the social aspect of the Internet. It is collaborative, participatory, and collective. In this new version of the Web, knowledge and communication flow in multiple directions. For those who read books, those who recommend books, and those who use the Internet as an information tool, Web 2.0 changes the methodology for uniting readers with booklists. Booklist use, like library use, is much more interactive, with the librarian assuming the role of partner than an authority figure.


As our love affair with them thrives, booklists increase at almost excessively. No longer are librarians, academics, or book scholars the only booklist authorities. Lists created by the aforementioned experts may be considered more enduring, but booklists created in blogs, wikis, online shopping communities, and other Web 2.0 arenas see use that is counted by the minute or hour instead of the day or month. The traditional booklist still finds a place alongside reader-created booklists on the interactive Web; however, the greatest concern with any Web-based booklist is that while it is here today, it may disappear tomorrow.

No library should completely rely on any list for collection development, weeding, or promotion of reading, because patrons who use different collections may need and want very different selections (Eldredge, 1997). By relying solely on a list - be it a bestseller list, an approval plan, a list that offers the literary canon, or a subject bibliography - a collection is created that is merely identical to some other collection. There are certainly titles that should be found in many libraries; however, it is easy for librarians to habitually collect the same materials as a neighboring library, creating universal collections of homogenous materials, or what Milton Wolf described as "vanilla collections" (Cline, 1999, p. 115). Overreliance on lists endangers small press publications and marginalized viewpoints. In order to provide multiple perspectives for certain topics, libraries must consider less traditional publishers, although this effort can conflict with a library's goal of providing information that is "'truth' or 'just'" (Graham 2003, p. 9). Ironically, many academic libraries have traditionally avoided materials on one specific type of list: bestseller lists. Bestsellers may later be primary sources for popular culture research, but if libraries choose not to collect them, future researchers may not have easy access to such material (Crawford & Harris, 2001).

While booklists present librarians with useful, we cannot ignore the power of serendipity. Fortuitous discoveries made by accident are one of the great pleasures in visiting a library. Neither librarians nor readers should forsake their own judgment in choosing what is best, and must use their own discretion with booklists. Booklists should never be the only factor governing what libraries collect or individuals read.


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