Thursday, October 23, 2008

Street lit

I'm a bit late on this story by Anne Barnard in the NY Times today, as other bloggers and such (including Shelf Awareness - thanks!) have linked it. It's even one of the most emailed stories. But hey, I had other work to do.

The story is about literature "variously known as urban fiction, street lit or gangsta lit." Street lit is my favorite term, though I'd like to see it expanded to include different subjects. In this case, the article is focusing on mass market (mostly) novels, soap opera styled, written by and for folks in impoverished, urban black communities.

I've long been fascinating and appreciative of the economy around books for and by this demographic. African American literature, fiction and non-fiction, is often woefully underrepresented in big box bookstores, for many reasons. So you have this vibrant economy of self-published authors and street vendors getting books to readers, who often blow through them. In this article, reader Shonda Miller "devours a book a day, enforces a daily hour of reading time for her entire family and scours street stands and the Internet for new titles." Very nice. Barnard adds, "She also acts as an unofficial guide and field scout for the Queens Library as it builds its collection of a fast-growing genre, written mainly by black authors about black characters."

I'm also increasingly fascinated by the role of the library, which is clearly ever-changing. The debates come down to whom it is serving, and the awkward, unwieldy answer is the public. But there must be a healthy sense of the mission, to both serve the public and work toward enlightening the public. I think it's important for a library to have street lit but also have more difficult lit, so readers who want to go for something more challenging at some point can do so. The head librarian at Far Rockaway library in Queens is quoted in the article, responding to all the folks heading straight to the urban fiction section:
The head librarian, Sharon Anderson, who said she grew up on Donald Goines and was now obsessed with spy novels, says that sometimes she recommends something harder: “If you want sex, dirt and murder, read Shakespeare! We have the CliffsNotes!”
Makes sense to me. You got readers into the library, now let's see what they'll find. Maybe that's idealistic, and it's clearly subjective as I love exploring the library, just wandering around through sections and taking home books I never knew before walking in. And I may not so much as crack them before I return them, but who cares?

It's exciting to hear a librarian say that she will go out to a street vendor and buy copies of a book she hears is popular, a self-published title not available in her usual catalogs, to keep library users satisfied, even users who are not there to delve into deeply intellectual matters. Libraries need to know the public, to know how to keep them informed on everything from their history to their tax forms.

Now keeping the homeless warm at the BPL? That's a whole different post, I imagine... (but look at that hot new redesigned bpl website!)

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