What Happens in the Library…

Scenes From The MOMA: sometaithurts © LarimdaME / CC-BY-NC

“Scenes From The MOMA: sometaithurts” photo by Flickr user LarimdaME (CC BY-NC 2.0)


In 1968, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, a couple of newlywed architects, had the humility to laugh with Las Vegas rather than at it. A few years earlier, Tom Wolfe had written,

Las Vegas has become, just as Bugsy Siegel dreamed, the American Monte Carlo-without any of the inevitable upper-class baggage of the casinos… At Monte Carlo there are still Wrong Forks, Deficient Accents, Poor Tailoring, Gauche Displays, Nouveau Richeness, Cultural Aridity-concepts unknown in Las Vegas. For the grand debut of Monte Carlo as a resort in 1879 the architect Charles Garnier designed an opera house for the Place du Casino; and Sarah Bernhardt read a symbolic poem. For the debut of Las Vegas as a resort in 1946 Bugsy Siegel hired Abbot and Costello, and there, in a way, you have it all.

For Wolfe, this was neither a good nor a bad thing, but many architects found Las Vegas and what it represented (such as Route 66’s commercial strips and the emergence of suburban Levittowns) less than inspiring. Venturi and Scott Brown thought architects should “suspend judgment on it in order to learn and, by learning, to make subsequent judgment more sensitive.”

Though relatively young—Venturi was 43, Scott Brown, 37—they were established and confident. Influenced as much by Pop artists as by Rome’s piazzas, they believed Las Vegas could help their peers “learn a new receptivity to the tastes and values of other people and a new modesty.” For them, the charm of Las Vegas was inextricable from its neon-steepled wedding chapels (“credit cards accepted”) and reproductions of Venus and David with “slight anatomical exaggerations;” they described the exaggeratedly phallic sign at the Dunes as “an erection 22 stories high that pulsates at night,” yet still declared it “more chaste” than the sign for the Aladdin. They saw in Las Vegas an architecture that acknowledged Americans’ desire for pleasure and catered to their taste.

Venturi and Scott Brown first published their thoughts on Las Vegas in the March 1968 issue of Architectural Forum. A few months later they turned their article into a graduate studio course at Yale: for the fall semester, thirteen students and three instructors—Venturi, Scott Brown, and their partner, Steven Izenour—“spent three weeks in the library, four days in Los Angeles, and ten days in Las Vegas,” followed by ten weeks back in New Haven. In 1972, Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour documented their article and course, and detailed their philosophy of Pop-influenced architecture, in Learning from Las Vegas, “a collage of passages, short essays, maps and diagrams… meant to evoke the lived experience of the Strip (and) challenge traditional two-dimensional modes of representation.” The book included frames from a movie, tourist brochures, and their students’ studio notes.

Like Learning from Las Vegas, Sophie Brookover and Elizabeth Burns’s Pop Goes the Library is part textbook and part manifesto. Instead of growing out of an article and a studio, it grew out of a blog, also called Pop Goes the Library, that Brookover founded in 2004 and has since expanded to include eight regular contributors, including her co-author, Burns. In place of studio notes, Pop Goes the Library has survey responses from librarians—they call these “Voices from the Field”—that read very much like comments on a blog post. And, as Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour did in Learning from Las Vegas, Brookover and Burns in Pop Goes the Library argue that understanding, anticipating, and accommodating popular taste is a professional responsibility:

You don’t have to like pop culture to embrace its importance in your library. You read that right: You can be uninterested in pop culture, or even harbor a bit of antipathy toward at least some aspects of it, and still put it to use in your library’s collections, services, and programming. So take a deep breath—if you don’t watch American Idol, have no interest in anime, or think most Top 40 music is unlistenable—it’s okay. Obviously, we encourage you to enjoy a varied media diet and to experiment with your listening, viewing, and reading habits—after all, having access to your library’s holdings is one of the small luxuries of working there, right? But we recognize that not every pop culture trend is going to float everyone’s boat. That’s reality, and it’s perfectly fine. What’s not fine is dismissing pop culture as something that’s of interest only to teens (or any other demographic group) to rationalize its perceived unimportance.

Brookover, the Library Media Specialist at Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees, New Jersey, and Burns, the Head of Youth Services for the New Jersey State Library for the Blind and Handicapped, have written a book “about identifying and harvesting the power of your community’s pop culture… about your library, your community, and how to build better and stronger relationships between the two using pop culture,” which they define as “whatever people in your community are talking, thinking, and reading about”—an intentionally broad definition. Anything and everything can be pop; readers are taught how to identify what pops in their community, as well as how to make it as accessible as possible for their neighbors.

The book is itself as accessible as possible. Where Learning from Las Vegas is occasionally tongue—in-cheek-like Warhol’s soup cans it is a high art appreciation of low art—Pop Goes the Library is written like the well crafted blog entries that Brookover and Burns and their blogging collaborators produce, in general, a few times each week. Imagine an articulate, pragmatic how to article in a glossy magazine or a great email from a friend, useful yet chatty, full of rhetorical questions and exclamation points. For instance, here’s a typical passage, taken from its chapter on advocacy, marketing, public relations, and outreach: “Since outreach is about going where you patrons are, don’t forget the patron at home. We don’t mean instituting door-to-door outreach projects! Just don’t forget the person sitting in front of his or her computer. Knowing that your website reaches a sizeable portion of your audience, why not view it as an outreach opportunity?”

There is a message, and that message is important, but Brookover and Burns have decided not to dress that message up in theory or historical context. Instead, they focus on combining practical advice with serious fun: Melanie Griffith’s character in Working Girl provides an example of applied research; Angelina Jolie’s transformation from wild child into latter day Mia Farrow illustrates good public relations; and Johnny Cash, David Bowie, martinis, and iPods are listed as celebrities and trends that are Cool (Kenny Chesney, KC & the Sunshine Band, cosmopolitans, and Zunes are Not Cool).

If you’re not interested in pop culture, it may be tempting to dismiss the importance of this book’s message or to overlook its ambitiousness. That would be a mistake: Brookover and Burns cover most of the important lessons on librarianship that can be taught in a book: creating a niche; building a collection; using technology; and developing crowd-pleasing programming, among others. As an added bonus, their writing style is as much fun to read as Michael Buckland, S.R. Ranganathan, Jesse Shera, or Elaine Svenonius. (Speaking of pop culture: does anyone know if Elaine is related to Ian?)

Like Learning from Las Vegas, Pop Goes the Library is meant as an example of the ideas it is promoting. In addition to its pop-inflected, chatty tone and “Voices from the Field,” it includes interviews and guest essays as sidebars, an extensive list of links and other resources, a calendar of events for pop-related programming, and it features a companion wiki. Some of this works marvelously—think Martha Stewart meets Jesse Shera—and some of it seems less effective. As with Learning from Las Vegas, there may be a need to publish a revised edition before this book reaches its full potential. The first edition of Learning from Las Vegas was expensive, included pieces that were not central to its thesis, and suffered from some design flaws. It still deserved the attention it got, and would likely have remained influential had its authors not released a smaller, more tightly edited, and less expensive revised edition, but it’s likely the work they put into their revisions helped their book remain a generalist classic.

If Brookover and Burns decide to produce a revised edition, they might consider:

  • Making the sidebars into traditional sidebars, with text adjacent to the narrative. Right now, the text is periodically interrupted, a guest writer takes over for a couple of pages, and then the narrative resumes. Because adjacent sidebars are tough to include in a small paperback, it may have made more sense to include these pieces at the end of chapters or in the appendix. Another option: go larger. Edward Tufte’s beautifully designed and manufactured, full color, hard back books on information design have about the same retail price as Pop Goes the Library. It would be fun to see what Brookover and Burns would do with added space and color, and with better print quality;
  • Deleting anonymous responses from “Voices from the Field.” It didn’t seem like the anonymous responses were needed, since none of the responses seemed to require anonymity, and dozens of respondents to this survey identified themselves and were comfortable with attribution. It is also useful to know what type of library the respondent is referring to, as well as its location;
  • Making “Voices from the Field” easier to read. The responses are presented in a tiny typeface against a grey background, which is not a reader-friendly combination;
  • Focusing as much attention on recipes as ingredients: that is, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of exceptionally good ideas, but little explanation of how to assign those ideas a priority or sequence;
  • Providing a conclusion. The book just sort of ends after the chapter on pop programming year-round.

It’s worth mentioning that Sophie Brookover lives in a neighboring town and she gave me my copy of Pop Goes the Library. However, we’ve only met once and I’ve enjoyed her writing for a number of years. Her generosity was certainly welcome and appreciated, but not enough to compromise my objectivity. The fact is, I very much like this book’s execution and I strongly agree with its message: we’re going to remain relevant by acquiring and marketing materials, and by providing programs, that appeal to the people whose libraries we steward. You don’t have to like every popular item in the collection, you just have to make sure it’s available.

As Denise Scott Brown wrote a year before the publication of Learning from Las Vegas,  “…liking the whole of pop culture is as irrational as hating the whole of it, and it calls forth the vision of a general and indiscriminate hopping on the pop bandwagon, where everything is good and judgment is abandoned rather than deferred. Yet artists, architects, actors, must judge, albeit, one hopes, with a sigh. After a decent interval, suitable criteria must grow out of the new source. Judgment is merely deferred to make subsequent judgments more sensitive.” Scott Brown and her co-authors succeeded, not just in deferring judgment about architecture, but in making sensitive subsequent judgments about their own work. Brookover and Burns excel at figuring out what people want and delivering it to them, so they’re certainly capable of doing the same. They’ve already done a wonderful job of creating a book that everyone who cares about libraries should read. And they may well have a book, in this version or a revision, that attracts a far greater audience to the sort of questions we ask ourselves on a regular basis.

Reaching a general audience is a tall order. Few fields have a Stephen Jay Gould, Paul Krugman, or Atul Gawande, serious practitioners who document the major issues of their field in popular essays that are collected in bestselling books. In Pop Goes the Library, we have an encouraging sign that librarianship might someday produce its own bestselling scholar.

Thanks to Meredith Farkas, Ellie Collier, Beth Filla, and Sophie Brookover for reading drafts of this article. I was told that asking Sophie to read it was weird, but it felt like the right thing to do, and I’m glad she agreed to it, because her comments made this article better.

4 Responses

  1. Emily Ford

    Thanks for a great review, Brett. I’m adding this book to my library hold list.

    Pop culture is an excellent lens for us to view our patrons and our communities. Has there been any backlash that you have followed to this kind of scholarship? What are the arguments against using pop culture to examine library services?

  2. It all depends on how you define backlash, not to mention what you mean by “this kind of scholarship.” It’s tempting to offer a very librarian answer, so that’s where I’ll start.

    Using only freely available resources, WorldCat has two Related Subjects for Pop Goes the Library (the book), Libraries — Special collections — Popular culture (20 hits) and Libraries and community (1,988 hits, though you should further refine these results based on your definition of backlash and scholarship).

    Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts (LISTA) is available for free through EBSCO. The descriptor “POPULAR culture” returns 120 results.

    As far as an argument against, as with most things it seems to come down to a question of time and money. For most of us, using one method or collecting one type of material necessarily means not using some other method or collecting some other type of resource. Of course, most libraries have and will continue to have varied collections, and most of us will continue to use multiple methods for assessing those collections. But someone who would like for us to use their method of collection development, or who would like us to have something in our collection that we don’t have, will argue that using and collecting popular culture and materials is a bad decision.

  3. Brett, thank you so much for this wonderful review. I am *still* bowled over by the comparison to Scott Brown & Venturi, and if a 2nd edition is in our future, we’ll take your suggested improvements to heart!

    To what you say here, I say yes and no:

    But someone who would like for us to use their method of collection development, or who would like us to have something in our collection that we don’t have, will argue that using and collecting popular culture and materials is a bad decision.

    I hope we made it clear in the book that we don’t view collecting & promoting pop cultural materials as all or nothing, or as a black & white proposition in any way. We’re not advocating getting rid of the classics, or proposing zero wiggle room in a materials budget for something new & interesting (or old & interesting) that might have cult, but not mass, appeal. While we recognize that we sometimes have to make tough choices with regard to getting the materials our patrons want, we don’t believe in framing these questions as dichotomies.

  4. I’m glad Sophie chimed in on this discussion. Pop Goes the Library is really good about… well, about making the point that Sophie makes above.

    I was trying to address Emily’s question about arguments against using pop culture. Maybe it’s all the political advertisements I’ve been seeing, but I seem to have internalized the idea that people making arguments against something rarely address the arguments people are making for it.

    I don’t see a rational argument against what Pop Goes the Library proposes. But I can imagine an irrational argument, which is what I was referring to above: “You don’t have this thing I want you to have, and you do have this thing I don’t want you to have, therefore the method you’re using in developing your collection is wrong, wrong, wrong.”

    Does anyone have a better answer for Emily? What’s the best case you’ve seen someone make against using pop culture to examine library services?