A Year in Committee Life

As I mentioned a few times over the last year, in 2013, I served on YALSA’s Outstanding Books for the College Bound (OBCB) committee. It’s a committee that is put together every five years and it’s comprised of primarily YALSA members, but it includes a handful of academic librarians from the ACRL division, as well. Since my committee is an open committee and I don’t have to keep things secret to the grave (unlike many of the awards committees), I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about the highs and lows of the experience, as well as discuss some of the things I learned about what it means to serve on a book committee.

Our list is done and annotated, but as of this writing, it hasn’t yet been posted to the YALSA site. As soon as it is, I’ll come back and link up to it. Spoiler: you’ll learn maybe one title we picked in this post.

OBCB’s Structure

First, a little background into how OBCB works.

Unlike many of the other committees, which focus on the books published in the past year, OBCB’s only requirement is that a book be “widely available.” There are no publication date rages, no content requirements, and no set of standard rules by which we have to follow. This means that we can include fiction and non-fiction, adult and young adult, graphic and non-graphic titles, and they can be published within any time frame. In many ways, that wide a window is amazing and freeing: anything is eligible for the list. But at the same time, that wide a window is horrifying: anything is eligible for the list.

The very first thing we did in discussion back last winter was decide how we wanted to structure the list itself. We can have up to 125 titles, and they can be hashed out in a number of different manners. We chose to keep the structure as it had been in 2009, with five categories that mirrored the liberal arts. Each member of our committee then selected two of those categories to become a member of, which meant reading and discussing titles relevant to that category (though we were able to nominate for any category). I chose personally to be a member of arts and humanities, as well as social science. My background is in psychology and writing, so those both seemed like natural fits, and both are categories I was most interested in.

Unlike many other committees, OBCB does not receive books from the publishers. It’s our job to do the searching and hunting for titles and to nominate, read, and discuss them as we do. But the very first thing we had to do was read the titles from the prior list — we treated the 125 titles from 2009 as vetted nominations. Since we each had responsibility for two categories, that amounted to 50 titles we had to read right off the bat.

I should back up a second and explain that OBCB changed this year. What used to be a two-year committee shifted into a one-year committee, a decision that, though we were able to work with, I think was a poor decision to make. It created a huge time crunch and impacted the number of nominations we received and could discuss.

The end goal of OBCB is to develop a list that exposes college bound and life long learners to a wide range of titles, stories, worlds, and experiences to excite and ignite their interests and passions. It’s not meant to be a rehashing of the Canon. Those lists are everywhere. This is instead meant to broaden their minds and thinking.

A Year of Tireless Reading

One of the biggest things I rediscovered this year is how different reading adult non-fiction is from reading YA fiction. I’ve always enjoyed adult non-fiction, but it requires an entirely different reading mindset than YA fiction — or even adult fiction — does. It’s much more intense, and I learned that I really do require engagement within the first fifty pages of a non-fiction title. If I can’t get that, I’m going to check out and feel a bit resentful about the experience. And actually, really discovering this about myself this year was immensely helpful in working on the committee because it forced me to consider whether it was me or whether it was the book causing the issue. In a couple of cases, a book I
ended up giving up on early was still a book I voted for at our final meeting because I knew it was me who didn’t love the book, not that the book wasn’t a right fit for the list.

Beyond reading the 50 titles that were already on the list, this committee required nominating books that weren’t already being considered. That meant more reading beyond the list in a variety of categories. At the first meeting we had in the summer at ALA Annual, we talked about holes we saw within our various categories that perhaps we should be looking into, which helped guide a bit of the reading. We talked about updating certain titles with fresher takes on the topic or which might simply be better presentations of the topic at hand.

I made sure not only to be reading new stuff, but I also thought a lot about the things I had read in the past which might make interesting additions to the list; though, to be fair, much of my work in nominating was not only about books I thought would be good to have on the list, but also books I thought would be good to DISCUSS in regards to the list. In other words, not everything I nominated I knew would be a slam dunk. I wanted to have some discourse. That would help suss out topical issues, as well as issues relating to putting forward fiction over non-fiction titles and so forth. I suspect other people on the committee did a bit of this as well, particularly when we reached the end of our open nomination period.

Nominations were read as they came in. Any nomination from a member of the committee, regardless of whether they were working on a particular category, was considered a vetted nomination and required no second. Any titles suggested from people outside the committee required a second to be considered, and while we had some field suggestions, there weren’t a whole lot, and most of them were indeed seconded. Again, partially because they would be good fits without question and partially because they would be worth at least bringing to the table to talk.

Five to six people sat on each of the category lists, and when a book received a fair number of “no” marks on our spreadsheet, others were free to ignore it. Titles which received “maybe” and “yes” marks were made into priorities on the sheet. This helped in whittling down reading work and helping toward seeing what was and wasn’t working so far.

In terms of take aways from the reading portion of the committee experience, the biggest was learning how to schedule reading time into my daily life. It meant skipping out on fun reading at times for a committee read and it meant becoming very judicious in my use of the 50-page rule. Sometimes I knew a book wouldn’t be a go and other times, I knew at 50 pages it was a strong contender so I could make the choice in either case to stop or keep pushing forward.

Committee Discussion

One thing that was kind of a surprise for me was how little we discussed titles throughout the year. Most people were so focused on reading that discussion fell to the wayside. And while that was understandable in some cases, at other times I had a really hard time putting an idea or discussion point out and hearing silence. More than anything, it made me worry what meetings at Midwinter would look like, when we were scheduled for hours and hours of time in the same room to hash out what our lists would look like.

With so little discussion, it was difficult to talk about how we wanted our lists to ultimately look. Did we want a lot of fiction or non-fiction? Did we need balance? What were we missing and what did we have too much of?

Fortunately, those things worked themselves out at the meetings. And even when books were hard to acquire, there were reasons for it, and members of the committee did a great job talking about why a book that might not be in 500 libraries still needs to be considered (while “widely available” is our only criteria for this committee, some formats, like graphic novels, are by their nature LESS widely available than novels are).

Midwinter Decision Making

What you really probably want to know are the dirty details of how these meetings go down, and I’m happy to provide a glimpse into some stuff because if I learned anything about this experience, it’s that committee work is committee work and follows its own set of rules and standards which are not rules nor standards. Instead, it’s about the discussion at the table, about impassioned case making, and at times, it IS about bargain making. No, money is never exchanged and favors aren’t granted, but sometimes, you have to give up something in order to get something else, and whatever energy you put into something is what you walk away from it with. In other words, just because a book is not on a list doesn’t mean it wasn’t passionately discussed, debated, and considered.

It doesn’t necessarily mean the books on the list are of a better quality or standard than others. It means a few things: it filled a nice hole in the list, it added to the diversity of the list, or it had a passionate champion or two who fought to get that book on the list. Sometimes, we had multiple books that explored a certain topic, and for the sake of having a list that was expansive, we decided to pick only one book of the many on that topic to be on the final list.

In my committee, not everyone was able to read all of the books (much of this has to do with the cutting of a year off our charge, I think), but that didn’t mean people who didn’t read the book didn’t have a chance to vote for or against the book. That came down to how a discussion emerged and played out. There was at least one book I was never able to get — a graphic novel — that a fellow member of my committee made an excellent case for and thus convinced me to give it a yes.

There is a drawback, though, to people not all having read the books: when two people on a committee of six have read a title and four have not, and your loyalties are divided, it’s tough to champion it or argue against it. One book, which I’d nominated for literature and languages (a category I was not on), had two readers on it. One loved the book and one did not. The book ultimately didn’t end up on their list. But since it was a book I felt passionately about, as did another member of the committee, when the entirety of our group met later in the week, I brought it up for discussion again, and between the two of us, we rallied enough support to get it placed on the arts and humanities list. Conversely, a title nominated for social science that had two supporters, one person who didn’t support it, and three people who hadn’t read it ended up having the most heated discussion — and ultimately did not end up on any list.

Which is to reiterate that a book not on the list isn’t a book overlooked. It may have been discussed quite passionately but because of simply how the committee process works, it may not have had a home on the list.

And frankly at times, you simply have to give up on a title because it wasn’t read by enough members of the committee and you aren’t passionate enough to go the extra mile for it. Fortunately, many of the books that that happened to are already on other book lists and earned honors. We were able to talk about this in many situations, particularly on titles which appeared on previous iterations of the OBCB list, during our discussions.

What We Talked About

Unlike a committee like the Printz, Morris, or Non-fiction Award, the bulk of our discussion revolved around how a story or information was presented. It was far less about the technical aspects of the book and more about what the book itself could add to the list and what a reader would pull from it. Writing quality did matter, but it was less of a considering factor than other aspects. For arts and humanities especially, we wanted a nice array of topics that could engage and excite teen readers, and we had many discussions about relevancy and interest. Would a teen be more likely to pick up Tina Fey’s memoir or Steve Martin’s? Choosing Fey’s over Martin’s didn’t mean Martin’s was less good; it meant that it had more appeal and timeliness to it. Likewise, we knew that the Martin memoir was on the prior iteration of the list, meaning that it wasn’t going to disappear into oblivion.

There were a number of titles I read this year that I found problematic or didn’t like. Other people had similar reactions to titles, too, and we brought those biases to the table. What was nice was being able to acknowledge them and yet, look into what the book itself may bring to the list and to other readers. A number of well-written social science books were ones that we as committee members — and adults who have been through college, as well as graduate school — enjoyed but when we thought about how today’s 15 or 17 year old may read the book, we realized it wouldn’t be as worthwhile to them as it would be to us. And the same thing in reverse: something we found juvenile may have been discussed through the lens of how it would be perfect for those younger readers.

What I loved most, I think, was listening to what other people had to say about books I’d nominated and had feelings about. Some of those feelings were strong, but not all of them were. In one case, I’d nominated two books that traversed similar territory and said in discussion we needed ONE on the list and my feelings were not strong on which one. Other people, though, had VERY strong feelings on one over the other, and I loved hearing the what and why of those thoughts.

In many ways, what I love about our list is that it highlights a lot of titles not found in other places. I love that we literally have something for every kind of reader. There’s something for more reluctant readers who want to be inspired and those who are very high-achieving students looking to satisfy and round out their reading a bit more. There are graphic novels, YA novels, adult novels, and non-fiction that spans all of those categories.

So You Want To Be On A Committee?

Before rounding out the post on my experience on the committee, I thought it’d be worthwhile to talk about a few things that anyone who wants to be on a selection committee should know. I found myself frustrated many times this year, for many different reasons, but in the end, it ended up being a worthwhile and fulfilling experience that makes me really hungry for the chance to serve on the Printz in 2016 (was that a nice way to remind you to vote when the elections open next month if you’re a YALSA member?).

  • Be prepared to read. You will reads HUNDREDS of books. That is not exaggerating. One of the comments many committee members made was they didn’t realize how much reading it was. It is a LOT of reading. You will essentially read a book a day during the week. If you don’t read during the week, prepare to read a few books over a weekend. When you’re in the holiday season when everything is stressful in general, know you’ll have massive piles of books to read still. There aren’t really “breaks.”
  • Be prepared to talk. I’ll say one of the disappointments I had this year was how little we talked during the year. I wanted more conversation. I craved more discussion. But it didn’t work that way. It ended up being a lot of discussion AT ALA, which for the purposes of the committee, was perfectly fine. My point is, though, you need to be prepared to talk. Have notes, have thoughts, be passionate about what you love and strong about what you don’t love in equal measure. Be able to articulate that. 
  • Know you’ll win some good wins and lose some hard losses. There is one victory on committee I am going to feel good about forever. There are plenty of losses I’ll be sad about not winning. But that’s the way it goes. When you work on a committee with people who have opinions and different experience and varied backgrounds, that’s how it goes. But man that one great victory felt great. 
  • Be willing to take chances. I nominated a few books this year that I thought didn’t stand a chance. Or there were some I nominated not having read them and having no idea how or where they’d fit. Guess what? Some of those chances ended up being excellent fits. It takes speaking up and following a professional hunch to put something to the table, and the chance can pay off well. 
  • Get excited about it. Because if you can’t be excited about what you’re going to produce, why bother? And when your product is out there, do you know how nice it is to talk about it? Because I know I plan on talking about this list for a while. I’ve already made purchases for my own collection of things I didn’t have, and I’m eager to promote these titles with my teens, as well as with adult readers looking for “something good” to read. 

What’s To Come 

Over the next few weeks, I plan on blogging more about the list. Since I couldn’t talk about the books we were considering or why we were considering them throughout the year (though obviously, I reviewed some), I think I’d like to talk about some of the titles that deserve some further recognition. I loved the non-fiction we pulled together on our lists, and while I generally love non-fiction, it’s rare I talk about it here.

Likewise, I plan on talking about how to use this list a little more. I hope that by talking about it, it’ll inspire other readers to check it out and promote it further. There’s so much here, and it’s perfect for dipping and out of when looking for something to read.

I’d love, too, to hear from those who use OBCB or who plan on using the list about why and how they do. I’m exceptionally proud of this product and it’ll hold a life not just for the five years between now and when it’s updated again, but it’ll hold a life long after. While some topics may fade out of the spotlight in areas like social science or science especially, they aren’t dead by any means. These are still great books with great appeal and use for readers seeking to be engaged, inspired, and excited by reading.

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  1. says

    Thank you for this informative recap of your experience as a committee member. I'd always wondered what that experience would be like, and I enjoyed reading your post, and look forward to reading the final list when it's released. Thanks!

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