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.