Here’s an opportunity. Let’s not screw it up.

I’m a staunch advocate of guys reading. Early in my career as a librarian, I had the extraordinary opportunity to hear Michael Sullivan speak about boys and reading, and it really changed a lot of my views about how to reach male readers (you can read those posts about seeing him here, here, and here). The biggest take away from hearing him and my guiding principle when it comes to collection development, reader’s advisory, book lists and displays, and other general book/reading promotion is to avoid letting these things be tampered by my own biases. I like certain books and genres, and there are certain books and genres I don’t care for. But seeing the library and the reading world is not all about me and my beliefs, I know I have to remove my own lenses. I have to look out for the kinds of books that don’t interest me at all because to be effective and to reach readers, I have to remember it’s not about me. This sometimes means that I am going to read and advocate for books that have a certain male appeal to them. And I’m okay with it — I embrace it actually, since it helps me gain perspective into other people and how to reach new people. 

This week, School Library Journal posted a piece about a school that addressed this very problem of guy reading. The solution this para/librarian duo took was to develop a boys’ reading cave, a space where guys could feel comfortable in the library (with additional links from Liz Burns worth reading here). It’s stocked with books that have a particular boy appeal aspect to them.

From the outside, this looks like a great idea. For boys, especially those who are at the tender grade levels these kids are at, reading IS a problem. By third grade, boys tend to be behind their female counterparts in reading, so by developing a space in the library that has a collection of books with great boy appeal and that feels safe to them because it is their “own” space, the library appears to have solved a problem. And I do applaud them for taking the effort in addressing their boys, especially because they had boy input on the project from the start.

This project is troubling to me, though. But before I delve into why, let me start with a couple other things.

If you’re going to be a reading advocate, whether as a librarian or as a teacher or just because you love books period, you have a huge sense of responsibility. You need to understand that readers have different needs and you need to understand you have readers and you have “non readers.” You need to understand that not every book is going to reach everyone.

I’m always particularly troubled when I see librarians talk about moving away from books and reading because that’s not what their teens want. It bothers me when librarians — especially those in public and school libraries — talk about how their teens don’t want books. That they want programs and space to do things, not read things. While it’s entirely valid that teens want a space and NEED that kind of space in their communities, this attitude is belittling to those teens who are readers. Teens who are readers aren’t always the loudest ones who come in the library. They’re not always the ones who come and visit their librarian. But it doesn’t mean their needs aren’t as valid or as worthy. It just means they approach their library in a different way.

It means you have to reach out to them differently. It means you have to continue keeping your knowledge of what’s out there up-to-date, and it means you need to keep your collection fresh. It means you do a lot more “passive” marketing — you make book displays to promote different books, you write shelf talkers (where you write book recommendations on cards and stick them on book shelves), you make book lists and have them available in your teen area, and you make the effort to reach those teens in ways that are going to be different than the way you reach teens who use their libraries for a creating space, for programs, and so forth. It is a lot of work, and it never gets easier!

Cutting your readers out entirely from your library plan? You’re letting your own beliefs overtake your job. You’re creating a biased and unwelcoming space for an entire segment of your community, whether or not it’s your intention.

In creating a “boys cave” at the school library, this duo has done precisely that. I do not in any way believe this was intentional, but it happened, and it’s getting the sort of push back from the community it deserves. Read the last statement in the story. Lynne Hanes, when asked about whether the library would offer up a special space for girls states “[P]art of my concern is that girls will check out books from a boys’ area, but I’m not sure how many boys will check out books from a girls’ area. We don’t want to restrict books.” Even though there have been “boy” books pulled into this section, girls aren’t restricted from checking them out. But the belief is that by creating a “girl” books section, no boys would be welcome. In other words, girls will be interested in “boy” books but boys won’t be interested in “girl” books.

There are two issues going on here: first, the gendering of books and second, the gendering of space.

Books do not have genders. Yes, there are books with particular boy appeal and particular girl appeal but I don’t believe anyone sets out to write a book with the intention of making it one thing or another. And as I talked about in previous posts about guys reading, boys do tend to like different kinds of books than girls. It’s not hard and fast, and there are no rules, but they have some different tastes and preferences. When you’re building a library or you’re advocating for books, being aware of those things (which are based primarily in psychology, in behavior, and maybe most importantly, in the way we socialize boys in our culture) helps you make sure you’re meeting some of those interests. It should be a way to guide you away from your personal biases and a way for you to see how diverse people’s interests and passions are. But it’s not a set of rules or a blueprint.

While I applaud the idea of having books pulled that have appeal to boys, it needs to be approached in a way that is not exclusionary. The way it’s being done here is exclusionary, even if girls are allowed into the boys space to borrow them. These books are being labeled as boy books, rather than what they really are. They’re books with certain appeal factors, and these appeal factors don’t stop at gender lines. Books on boogers and the gross aspects of the human body have mega appeal to boy readers. But they also appeal to girl readers. Instead of pulling them out of the general collection and tossing them in a boys section, why couldn’t they be pulled out into a display or into a special area and be called a “gross books” area? Besides being more accurate as to what the books are and being much more appealing to readers, here’s an opportunity for boys AND girls to bond over their interest in something in a shared space in the library. Books that have strong, fast-paced plot lines with male main characters that are certainly going to appeal to boy readers can be pulled together and labeled as “action adventure!” Not only is is accurate but it appeals to both boys and girls in the same space. I bet if you clicked on my book lists linked above, you’ll notice I DO have a book list geared toward boys. But I also have a book list for girls, too. If you’re going to offer one, you absolutely must offer the other.

Gendering books makes books safe or unsafe spaces, and it only goes further when the library itself is divided into gendered areas. Going back to the comment from one of the boys wishing for a “no girls” sign in the “boys cave” is hugely problematic and gets to the root of why developing this space is troubling. This library is furthering the belief that there are places that should be for boys only or for girls only. But worse, because this library only has a male space, it’s sending a statement to girls that they don’t matter. That their needs aren’t as valid or important. Because girls have always had the library as a space for them, and they’ve always had books that meet their needs. Because girls are always readers and will continue being readers, whether or not you do anything to help them find books or feel safe.

What a load of shit. 

Even if the intention was to build a space that feels safe to boys, those good intentions turned the tables in making a certain area unsafe for girls.

I’m not going to blame this particular staff for what they’ve done because I do believe they think they’ve done something great here in addressing a problem. Rather, I’m going to put it out there that the bulk of problems we see (or don’t see) in advocating for reading is the result of our own shortcomings. It’s the result of us not taking off our own biases and thinking about how to approach things on a grander level. It’s the result of forgetting that the library, the classroom, the act of reading does not belong to us alone. It belongs to a far greater community, one made up of boys and girls and those kids who don’t associate themselves with one gender or the other. If we segment off books and if we segment off spaces and declare that reading belongs to one group or the other, we’re participating in a dangerous game. We’re gendering everything in a world where gender is nothing but a construct we’ve created.

Isn’t the reading world about breaking apart constructs? Isn’t the reading world about letting people find what they need, no matter who or what they are?

Shouldn’t the library allow this to happen by being a safe and inviting space for everyone and not just one gender or the other?


More than that, though, shouldn’t we, as advocates of reading and of reaching those who are or aren’t “readers” be more open minded? Shouldn’t we be the founts of knowledge? Shouldn’t we be the ones seeing the need before it arises and meeting it in a non-biased manner?

I’ve always seen the library (and the classroom and the reading world more wholly) as belonging to everyone. Part of what makes these places safe is that they ARE where anyone can find their niche. It is absolutely our responsibility as advocates to not perpetuate constructs. It’s our job to break them apart.

It’s not an issue of whether or not solving problems is hard. It’s an issue of whether or not we’re willing to put in the true effort to do it in a way that empowers everyone, rather than belittles them.

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    • says

      And I know you are on the same page with me (and others) who don't disagree boys need to be served in the library. It's just about HOW to do it without disenfranchising other people who use the same space.

  1. says

    A couple of things:
    1) My last library director was an avid reader of romances, collected Harlequins and could tell you the title and author of a particular number. He was also a man. I have never read a romance that I liked. When I read sci fi and dystopians, my faves, I almost always never really notice the romance. People will talk about swooning and I'm just not that kind of girl. I like the survival, the probing questions, the science, the world building. People can not and should not be classified or put in boxes. The whole point of the library is to open minds and make people think bigger, live bigger, and be open to new worlds. When we put up barriers we fail at our mission.
    2) Speaking of mission, you mention taking the focus off of the reader and books. This is a bizarre concept because to me, this is THE primary mission of libraries. To get books (whether fiction or nonfiction) into reader's hands. This is the foundation of librarianship. The other stuff is necessary and important, but if we move away from readers then we are moving away from our core mission.
    3) No matter how much we try, there will always be nonreaders. No matter how much you try, I will always hate sports. It turns out, that is okay. What I care about is that people have the skills they need to be successful in life. They must know how to read to fill out applications, follow-up on information from their doctor, vote responsbily, and sign contracts. If they don't choose at the end of the day to curl up with a book in bed for their source of entertainment well, that is okay.
    4) Scientific research does seem to suggest that there are important difference between men and women. There is also evidence to suggest that boys do better in different school environments. I remember watching a PBS special about schools for boys in New York that had alternative teaching styles and how much better the boys were doing than in the tradition classroom. Evidence seems to suggest that the traditional classroom is designed more for girls than boys. I think we should design spaces for all types of people with various interests but not label them by gender. Focus on interests, not gender.
    5) Every time I close a lot of the dystopian books I am currently reading I can't help but think that boys would like them if they simply had a different cover on them. Most paranormals/dystopians/post apocalypse books today have enough action and adventure and intrigue in them to satisfy any reader if they simply didn't have the pretty girl with the flowing dress on the cover. Sure there is romance too, but not all boys have romance cooties as I have learned.

    • says

      1. Exactly.

      2. That's not what I'm saying should be done but rather what other libraries have done, and I find it problematic. Books are the bread and butter of librarianship (public, especially) and so moving from in favor of sexier things is problematic.

      3. There will always be non-readers, but the problem is when we believe everyone is a non-reader. Many times, you don't have any idea who the readers ARE, so suggesting no one reads is problematic. And there are people who make this suggestion and shift their priorities in the library accordingly. See #2.

      4. This is all the same stuff Michael Sullivan talks about (I didn't link but his website is I don't dismiss there are differences in learning styles and preferences, but I do think we diminish them a lot when we label them as strictly gender issues. More than that, we should be taking part of trying to break down the notion you're one gender or another. You're a person, no matter what your apparatus. Here's the thing in the library situation: the boys cave doesn't solve the reading issue. What happens when these boys go to middle or high school and there's not a boys cave for them? Do they stop reading? Do they demand their own space?

      5. Covers are a part of the problem, and I agree with the fact that should be addressed. But you know what one of the most loved books among my boys has been? "Paranormalcy."

  2. says

    First of all let me just say I applaud your courage to publicly address this issue so boldly. While we could all sit here and type out our feelings all day and search for the answers to why there are not more boy readers than there are in the United States we will most likely come no closer to the answer than the words on this page. The bottom line in all of this is there are people out there who obviously care about their teens enough to do things for them and reach out to readers! May they be boy, girl or any race you would care to mention or any sector of society. There are so many libraries out there where teens are totally ignored! Those are where our biggest problems lie!! I do not dismiss the issues at hand in any way because they are all valid points and as I applaud your for your boldness and courage I applaud the ones making and effort as well. Why you might ask? Because with even one gesture you prove to a teen especially that you care. We have no way of knowing what crazy things may be going on inside the mind of those young people unless they open up and tell us. That one small gesture by a librarian that seemed to care could literally mean the difference between life or death. Figuratively or literally, we all would hope and pray this were not true but the simple fact is that it is true. So in simple encouragement to anyone who might read this; think about every little thing you do in the presence of a teen as the most important thing you might do that day! True fact, you never know when it might be the last thing you ever do that made a difference to them and the one thing that could change their life whether they realize it or not! They are the future of our world, it is our job to show them how important they are!

  3. says

    "I'm always particularly troubled when I see librarians talk about moving away from books and reading because that's not what their teens want. It bothers me when librarians — especially those in public and school libraries — talk about how their teens don't want books. That they want programs and space to do things, not read things. While it's entirely valid that teens want a space and NEED that kind of space in their communities, this attitude is belittling to those teens who are readers. Teens who are readers aren't always the loudest ones who come in the library. They're not always the ones who come and visit their librarian. But it doesn't mean their needs aren't as valid or as worthy. It just means they approach their library in a different way."

    I'm obsessed with this paragraph. I think we could apply this to Adult Services as well. I love it.

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