things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #26

In library school, you learn that the most important part of the reference transaction, or reference interview, is asking questions. Customers, it seems, rarely know how to describe what they are actually looking for. Most people ask for something entirely different than what they want. Tonight was a classic example.

Woman: Where would I find paperback nonfiction?

This is a bit of a strange question, because normally people don't specify hardcover or paperback when it comes to nonfiction.

Me: Nonfiction is in a few different places, depending on the subject. Do you have a title, or a call number? Or the topics you're looking for?

Woman: I want to read about kings and queens from a certain time period. You know, how they lived, what they did.

Me: That would be on the third floor--

Woman: But the stories aren't necessarily what really happened. It's real kings and queens but in made up stories.

Me: Ah, so you're looking for historical fiction.

Woman: Oh is that it?

Me: What have you read that you like? An author you like?

Woman: I can never remember...

Me: No problem. Give me a few seconds...

Usually in this genre, people read by author. I gathered the top names, and we went to the shelves.

Working backwards in alphabetical order, we stopped first at Alison Weir. We pulled a few books and looked them over, but she seemed hesitant.

Me: If this doesn't work for you, it's not a problem. Have you read much Philipa Gregory?

Woman: Who?

Now this is a clue. Philipa Gregory is the top name in historical fiction featuring royalty. If the customer doesn't know her, something is off.

We walk over to dear Philipa, but I'm losing the customer. She's starting to mutter to herself. Never a good sign!

Me: Here's a paperback of a popular Philipa Gregory book.

Woman: The books are usually much smaller than this. And in the title there's, you know, duke or rogue, or maybe a rake... (A bell goes off in my head.) ...and there'll be a man on the cover, you know... (She gestures as if she's ripping a shirt open.)

Me: I know exactly what you're looking for.

We laugh and easily find some books. She walks out with any of the gazillion titles of historical romance novels, covers graced with dukes, rogues, rakes, scoundrels, pirates, and "highlanders," their bare chests gleaming, their lusty conquests dressed in long gowns, off the shoulder, with plenty of cleavage.

To think I almost sent her to the third floor for history!

All the men are barechested, all the
women in gowns.

Sometimes the encounter has advanced
a bit further.

These books come in many flavours,
but the readership is almost entirely female.


M@ said...

First, let me say that I have absolutely nothing to say in the negative about romance or erotica readers, authors, or cover designers. It's absolutely a valid (and quite profitable) sector of the publishing industry, and is very friendly to independent authors.

But your little sampling of romance covers reminded me of something from years and years ago. They really are a little weird, out of context, and a guy took some standard romance covers and added some more appropriate, or maybe just more apt, or maybe just hilarious titles:


If you scroll down the page, too, you'll see some that a certain mutual friend of ours did - about halfway down, credited to "Monkey Chop".

131220 said...

You may have stumbled upon one of society's greatest difficulties in this era - not knowing the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Curiously, the things in the news this week would make one believe that surely they must be fiction, (assume bare-chested 30-year old DA and gowned 14 year old on the cover), but sadly, that is non-fiction of historic proportions.

Amy said...

Too funny. Do you think she was embarrassed to ask for what she really wanted or honestly didn't know how to describe it?

John F said...

Your story reminds me of all the really good librarians who helped me as I was growing up. They were found in the schools I attended as well as in the city libraries. None of them ever judged me for my interests (whatever they happened to be that week). They all just seemed pleased to be able to assist a young reader.

I think I've only encountered one bad librarian in my life. While he never spoke openly of his opinions, he made sure to stock the periodical shelves with plenty of of anti-choice pamphlets. I may have mentioned him in another comment thread a few years back.

laura k said...

After posting this, I had a lovely and rare computer-free day. Forgot to put comments through!

M@, I can't wait to see. There are some great romance cover spoofs out there.

I too never have a negative word about these books. They are the most popular sellers, by far. It's been shown that women (almost exclusively women) of all ages and walks of life read them. In a wonderful book about reading that I blogged about, I saw evidence that many women who can and do read very challenging fiction and nonfiction still have a place in their life for these potboilers. And, if it's the only thing that some women read, good on them for finding enjoying and escape in books.

laura k said...

Amy, I don't think she was embarrassed. I think she didn't know how to describe what she wanted. She said we weren't her "home" location. At that neighbourhood branch she would know how to find what she wanted, but our library is 5 times as large and she felt overwhelmed.

Afterwards when I told my co-worker at the desk about this, we had a good laugh riffing on how we could look this up -- keyword barechested?

laura k said...

You may have stumbled upon one of society's greatest difficulties in this era - not knowing the difference between fiction and non-fiction.

I was wondering about that. She did say, the stories aren't real, they are made up. I think she was just flustered and didn't know how to describe it.

These romance novels are more likely to flip that age difference. Although 14 is too young for a rake, a duke, or a pirate. (What's up with the dukes?)

laura k said...

John F, yay for those librarians who helped you! Finding young readers good stuff to read is such a joy. As for the other one... there are a lot of stealth propaganda campaigns out there, but if you don't show more than one point of view, you are violating all kinds of professional ethics. Grrr.

johngoldfine said...

You are funny today, Laura!

John F said...

Laura - As I've recounted before, that was the librarian at my high school. I read his little pamphlets and newsletters because I read almost every periodical available. That's how I learned that some people think "abortuary" is a word.

Oh well. I also spent many happy hours reading in that library reading C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels.