Non-fiction: the elephant in the library

Rebecca Tobler writes about the need to rethink non-fiction collections, and consider providing engaging resources that spark students’ imaginations.

Having recently completed my retraining as a teacher librarian, I have spent a great deal of time contemplating what to do with the non-fiction section. During my extensive research, I became increasingly frustrated that, as I’d initially discovered during the retraining, the only guidance was that the teacher librarian resources the curriculum and that the non-fiction section should be reflective of the community (ACT Education 2016; Beilharz 2007).

Unfortunately, if we were to actually do this, there would likely be either a tiny non-fiction section, or none at all. Today’s youth are more interested in finding and reading information online. Their first instinct is to search Google, and the first website they look at will likely be Wikipedia. This is not a ridiculous oversimplification, but what generally does happen (Kennedy 2013; ALIA 2017).

In this environment, I had to ask myself, ‘Where does non-fiction fit?’ The case for keeping a good fiction section is easily made. We want to promote reading for pleasure and, for many of us, nothing beats sitting back with a good read. Add to this that research has shown that reading online texts stresses the brain more and may actually require more literacy skills (Liu 2005; Fabr 2013), and the case for a physical fiction section is clear. This can of course, and is in most cases, supplemented by an ebook collection.

So what about non-fiction? This collection is easily the most expensive, and the one that has to be updated more often. When I attempted to research this conundrum, I found very little information. As has been argued many times, the library seems to be simply ‘fighting against the tide’ when it comes to student research habits and, quite frankly, it is losing (Oddone 2016).

I ultimately decided that I was looking at the problem all wrong. As school library professionals we consistently try to find out what will draw students to books, what they will be interested in, what they will need — only for them to insist on researching it on the internet. Indeed, the role of the school library professional itself has changed so that a large portion of it is to guide and instruct on the use of technology, online research strategies, and study techniques. This, of course, varies from school to school, but the role itself is no longer focused on books.

Here, I suspect, is the beginning of the solution. If the role of the school library professional has changed, the role of the library resources must also change. Instead of fighting against the internet, we need to re-establish the position of books within the information process. In discussions with my principal, it was decided to focus non-fiction purchases on books that would inspire. We foresaw non-fiction filling the void when students have been given an assessment, but do not know what to focus on. The library could provide books with small pieces of information on many topics that would provide a launching pad for student research. These non-fiction books, such as Books that Changed History, and Randall Monroe's What If? and Thing Explainer, would become the first stop before students researched the topic further online. Thus, a niche role would be created for them. This, then, seemed like the perfect solution. The physical non-fiction collection could be decreased, as could the cost of maintaining it. However, unfortunately, I had one more surprise in store for me. Discussions with colleagues from various schools and fields illuminated a growing sentiment — that we didn’t need non-fiction at all!

I was understandably floored by this turn of events. Most school library staff will not disagree with the notion that we are ‘fighting a losing battle’, but have we already lost, and simply not noticed yet?

Instead of admitting defeat, I decided simply to change the rules of engagement. How do we fight to keep a collection that students and teachers, generally, do not see the value in — especially when the information contained in books is often a number of years old and students can access up-to-date information in seconds? Schools will not pay to maintain a collection that is not valued, and school library staff cannot spend vast amounts of time trying to convince teachers and students of that value when teaching them how to find the same information digitally is much more useful (Combes 2009).

Where does this leave non-fiction, and how do we change the rules? We look to the fiction section. It is generally believed that when it comes to fiction, digital books will not be replacing physical ones (Jabr 2013). There will always be people who prefer to read a physical fiction book. It is also more beneficial when teaching literacy.

Why not apply this same argument to the non-fiction section? We are in the education profession and the school library professional’s role is to promote reading and reading for pleasure. Not everyone enjoys reading and not everyone enjoys reading stories. There are those students who would prefer to pick up a non-fiction book and learn about a new or interesting topic. Just as the role of the teacher librarian has shifted from simply curating a physical collection and teaching students how to access it (Hutchinson 2017), our collection should reflect this new focus. We no longer need to resource the entire curriculum — that’s what subscription services and other online repositories can be for. However, we can and should resource our libraries with fiction and non-fiction books that spark the imagination and create interest in reading.

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Image credit

Photo supplied by Rebecca Tobler

Rebecca Tobler

Teacher librarian