Why Should We Still Purchase Nonfiction?

In an era where every library dollar needs to be justified, should teen services departments continue purchasing nonfiction?

YA librarians are in the perfect matrix to consider this question: patrons aren’t bringing their reference questions to library staff, teachers aren’t asking students to cite print sources, information discovery on the web is incredibly easy, and personal web access is growing ubiquitous.

Of course, these assertions do not apply to every library—of the thousands of YA library departments, surely some library has increased reference questions, teachers consistently requiring citations, or teens who struggle to use the web.’  However, these are recognized trends affecting libraries as a whole, and together they add up to my decision to drastically reduce nonfiction purchasing at my library.

Reference questions have been in sharp decline as patrons become familiar with, and personally own the hardware necessary to access, internet search engines.’  While having a librarian answer your reference question takes time, gumption (as we all know, some questions are hard to ask), a conversation, and perhaps even a library card, using a search engine is anonymous, fast, and easy.’  The only barriers to use a search engine are internet access and spelling ability (and Google will help you with that, too).’  Given the rising ubiquity of free WiFi and declining price of phones, tablets, and other hardware, and given that most questions are satisfied with a good-enough answer, rather than a perfect, nuanced, or thorough answer, less nonfiction is needed to answer reference questions.

My assertion that teachers aren’t asking students to cite print resources is anecdotal.’  Though my department helps teenagers with dozens of assignments during the school year, only one research project is known to require citation of print resources.’  Talking with the teen interns and youth volunteers at my library reinforces this assessment: at least in the school district my library serves (and I doubt we are an outlier), teachers are not requiring citation of print resources.’  Therefore, digital natives are doing what is natural to them: skipping the books and finding the information they want online.

With no requirement to use print resources for research purposes, and with the web making information discovery incredibly easy, teens are not using the library’s nonfiction resources. ‘ The proof is in the numbers, as less than 10% of my current nonfiction holdings were used more than once a year in the past 3 years.’  That percentage barely blips upward when adjusting for age of the collection (i.e. considering only books published since 2007).

Ultimately, libraries cannot responsibly serve their patrons without nonfiction materials, because we all want to support life-long learning, and because teens should enjoy free discovery of leisure reading in nonfiction.’  Additionally, some nonfiction holdings must be in print, because disruptions in internet service happen, not every book is available as an e-material, and not every library administration is willing to provide internet access to teens without barriers of parental permission, proof of address, and fine-free status.

With these caveats, yes, I am for a drastic reduction in the purchasing of nonfiction for teen services.’  Instead, I will purchase e-materials, push instructors to hold students accountable for the resources used, offer formal and informal web search skills instruction, and work with publishers and library administration to reduce barriers to access to the library’s e-materials.

About Jacqui Taylor

Jacqui Taylor is the head of Youth Services at a small Ohio library. She participated in the 2011 YALSA Mentoring Program, and served on YALSA's Baker and Taylor Award Jury and Indiana's Children and Youth Professional Development Division.
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7 Comments

  1. The students at my school are assigned a major research project for which they must use a minimum number of print resources (usually three) and a MAXIMUM of one web source. I am constantly referring them to the public library because we just don’t have enough books on all of the assigned topics. I hope that librarians in the public setting will do as you have and investigate the teachers’ requirements at local schools. Of course, I also wish we were able to purchase more books ourselves.

  2. I certainly buy fewer non-fiction books than I did a few years ago, but I wouldn’t say I’ve cut back that drastically. I’ve just shifted my focus to high interest, fun non-fiction rather than educational support.

    But there are certain topics that are core and I think there should be a book on them in the YA section. I just don’t necessarily buy six books on the topic because the demand has decreased.

  3. I agree with Keri completely. High-interest nonfiction is still some of the best out there in terms of booktalking success and teen appeal. I wouldn’t purchase super-expensive textbook-style “Country” books for a teen collection, but I still want to make sure that informational nonfiction on social movements, for example, is represented. And internet access in our low-income neighborhood remains low.

  4. WOW! This is very interesting to me as a high school librarian. The Common Core is fast approaching as a learning standard for all schools. The CC calls for much more nonfiction reading for students. Like, that’s really almost all they need, so says the CC. Are public libraries and librarians aware of the new standards?

  5. @Tori I should think that the Common Core is getting enough publicity that all but the least plugged-in are aware of them. As best I understand–and please correct me if I’m wrong–the Common Core standards do not demand physical materials over e-materials. So though nonfiction reading will be pushed, libraries can purchase the format that best suits their patrons’ and their libraries’ needs. Also, for my library at least, there is enough flexibility in the budget and in the calendar to allow for increased nonfiction purchases if (but only if) implementation of the Common Core State Standards results in increased demand for said materials.

  6. I have stopped buying most print reference materials and spend those dollars on electronic resources. However, I am still buying narrative nonfiction and titles — especially those written for young adults — with a curriculum connection or teen appeal (disasters, aliens, fads, entertainment, etc.). Those YA titles tend to be relatively brief (200 pages or less), making them less intimidating and more accessible to students.

    Although students and teachers rely heavily on electronic sources, I encourage students to consult books about their research topics because the structure of a book can be a helpful scaffold throughout the research process (e.g., index for generating search terms, TOC for creating an outline).

  7. Jacqui Milliern

    I think this post on ALA Tech Source reflects similar themes to what I wrote here.

    http://www.alatechsource.org/blog/2012/07/letting-go-of-boolean-operators-rethinking-how-research-is-taught-in-schools.html

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