Street Lit: More Questions than Answers

For years, my library’s relationship with street lit has been tentative. Supporting & providing street lit isn’t necessarily the issue: the issue is, does it belong in the teen or adult section? Or both? Along with this question comes a slew of potential implications.

My personal take on it is that in an ideal world, street lit would be available in both collections. But we all know that, especially with so many budgets being slashed, this is not an ideal world. When I proposed to my library’s Teen Selection Committee that we purchase street lit for the teen section (currently being housed in adult), the consensus from the teen librarians was that if it’s in adult, they’ll still be able to find it, and plenty of adults ask for those titles too. I got the sense from most of them that while they fully supported the books in the library, they felt uncomfortable with the idea that they’d be the ones left to justify their existence in their teen sections to unhappy patrons. What we decided from there was to continue to supplement the street lit collection with our funds but assign them to the adult collection, along with creating a booklist to lead teens there.

This compromise was working out ok until the Adult Services Manager stepped in. She had several valid points. The most striking was this: if she wanted to purchase items because they seemed better in the teen collection, she would automatically hand the matter over to me and my team of selectors. Hmmm, she’s got me there.

Back to the drawing board. Adult Services still buys street lit, but how do we serve our teens who want this genre? It’s easy to fall back on the many books that are being published for teens that feature African Americans in urban settings. But, that’s not street lit, and in some cases can even be a form of racism. In the recent School Library Journal article A Dirty Little Secret: Self-Censorship (Debra Lau Whelan, 2/1/2009), author Coe Booth speaks to the danger of incorrectly defining a book street lit:

“‘It seems that any book with an African-American character on the cover is quickly being labeled street lit, regardless of the subject matter or the setting of the book.’ Meanwhile, books about Caucasian characters in urban settings don’t get lumped into that genre. ‘It’s a form of racism,’ she says, because the street-lit category is an ‘easy way for some librarians to label a book that they can quickly dismiss as being inferior’—and for that reason, choose not to buy.”

Two things about this statement: 1)We aren’t filling a need by simply offering titles that appear to be “street-lit light” and 2)We cannot dismiss books on account of perceived inferiority, because we have an obligation to meet that need. If you have a moment, I urge you to read that article.

But still…more questions, like how do we take the theoretical and put it into practice in our libraries? I’m willing to take a risk and stand behind having real, gritty street-lit in our teen collections. If it backfires, I’ll take the heat. If it doesn’t, we’ll have provided something relevant in our teen areas for fans of the genre.

A colleague said to me on this issue, “It’s easy to forget that ‘community standards’ are a label we’ve made up on our own.” We may still have lots of questions, but I think that’s one answer right there.

Now, I’d love to hear your take on it. How many libraries are shelving street lit in their teen collections? What has been the fallout from that decision? How about those of you who don’t shelve it in teen? What led to your decision process? Thanks.

About Connie Urquhart

I'm the Teen Services Coordinator at Fresno County Public Library in Fresno, California. With YALSA, I've worked on the Web Advisory Committee and am current chair of the TV Task Force. I <3 Twitter.
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3 Comments

  1. We have street lit in our high school library collection! The only fallout? Disappointed readers who don’t make the five minute window when these books are actually available. Seriously, I have girls who come in pairs the minute we unpack a box.

    We had a really tiny street lit collection before I arrived–I think one or two Tracy Brown titles, a copy of The Coldest Winter Ever that’s been checked out since 2007, and maybe True to the Game. As soon as I showed up, I found students were asking for more titles like these. I was lucky, in that my boss gave me pretty free reign over book ordering, and actually handed me a list of Triple Crown titles that a student had requested.

    I know mine might be a unique situation, but I cannot stress how important it is that we have these books. We have voracious readers who are only open to other suggestions once I make it clear that I know what they like and I’m not trying to give them watered-down substitutes.

  2. MK–wow, that’s so cool! I’ve always thought that putting street lit on the shelves of school libraries was taboo. But, you don’t have an adult section to send it to, so in order to provide access to it you put it in with all the other teen books. That’s so cool!

    I wonder if your school is unique or the norm. I’d love to hear from other school librarians.

  3. We’re probably unique–we serve a performing arts school as well as a charter school. So we’re technically within the big public school district, but miles away from the typical public school experience. At the high school where I did my practicum, by contrast, street lit is Way taboo–I think they might have Push, but that’s pretty much it.

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