"Books of the hour" and "books of all time": booklists in the evolving library.

Author:Naper, Sarah

"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 20th 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 of Booklist published 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 Hat beat out Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and Ulysses trumped Emily Post's Etiquette. 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 Journal editors 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 Bookman is credited with...

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