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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

What Should a History Collection Be?

The other day I came across a blog devoted to Sugar Changed the World, which as you know, Marina and I wrote. The review was engaged and appreciative, but the librarian was considering the book as part of what seemed to be a longer thread in which she is deciding what her history collection ought to be. This is a question I have been seeing more and more often, and in similar (and similarly disturbing) ways. In this instance she decided that her nonfiction shelves should be filled with fun facts, natural history, quick hits — crowd pleasing fast circulating books, leaving a book like Sugar to school libraries. While I was of course personally disappointed, there was a large and serious matter at stake here that had nothing to do with our book: what should a history collection in a public library be — especially in times of terrible budgets? The larger trend I’ve often heard is that kids are less interested in history than in the past — so not only is there less money available, there is less interest among readers.

Now to avoid being alarmist, some version of this same issue (popularity v. reviews as a collection development guideline) comes up every few years about the Newbery — most recently in an article by Anita Silvey ( which soon sparked a reaction ( But I think there is a different flavor to the nonfiction/history discussion. Anita and those who made similar arguments in the past are talking about one book (or at most 4-5 if you include honors) a year. Yes that is a book many libraries buy, but it is one book. The blog I read was about how to define an entire section of the library. Somehow it has become permissable — even in a sense “realistic” — to consider cutting back on history entirely, or limiting it to those Fun Fact books that move on their own. That is a matter of real concern.

First off, there are students who like history — and like real history, not just popcorn bites (fun as those really are to scan and share). Surely there are fewer of those readers than there are of people who like quick facts — but in fiction, does that same library only include series books or the latest fad? Does that library include a smattering of more serious novels for readers who want the challenge? Why wouldn’t more challenging literary nonfiction be in exactly the same category as more challenging literary fiction? You don’t buy a lot of it, but it is there for your best readers. The question then is not popularity versus “value” or “reviews” but rather the mix — how much of a collection is devoted to each kind of reader. That, while not easy to answer, is a standard question that applies as much to wordless picture books as YA nonfiction.

But then it seems to me nonfiction serves a function beyond waiting there on the shelf for its dear reader. Nonfiction is the baseline of knowledge that forms us as a society. A library needs to have that information, those ideas, there, at the ready — to form a foundation of knowledge for the child, the parent, the teacher — for us as a people. The more libraries pare back history the less it seems to matter to kids, the less the shelves have to offer, the less chance we have of engaging young people in the real question of who we are and where we should go. There is a value, I claim, in knowledge, in making knowledge available, in displaying knowledge, featuring it, celebrating it, converting kids to it — and that can only happen when a collection is defined not just by what kids already know they like, but what we can show them books that holds wonders, if we as adults believe in them. (fyi, and to, unfairly, again return this to the personal, we gave a talk on Sugar the other day at our public library to a room full of mainly two to four year olds — that is age, not grade — as well as some 9-11 year olds. We all had a blast, several parents were from the Islands and loved having their story told, the kids were hlively and engaged — we had a great time. The library gave us and the book a chance, and everyone went home happy.)


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    The library collection is reflecting the larger trend of schools and public to avoid history. The sad state of events is that my students who are student teaching in the public schools frequently tell me that their social studies lessons are the only social studies the children are getting. So if there is not much social studies going on, there is not much demand for library books to support a program. What I would love to see is library programs that highlight thought-provoking nonfiction. Chidren and young adults need models of people who are enthusiastically reading and responding to nonfiction–not because they are doing a school report, but because they are intrigued by learning about the past.