Rave Reviews for Popular American Fiction. (Readers' Advisory)

Article excerpt

Readers' advisory services are usually considered the exclusive province of public and school libraries, but academic libraries and librarians have a role to play in collecting and documenting popular books, their publishing history, and their audience reception, not only for their own teaching and research faculty, but also for the public at large. The Center for Print Culture at the University of Wisconsin has been publicized widely by the university's library and information science faculty, most notably by Wayne Wiegand.

The Popular Culture collection at Bowling Green University, which includes among other items the archives of the Romance Writers of America, is known because of the university's curriculum and the Journal of Popular Culture. The University of Virginia's special collection of popular American fiction, however, is possibly less well known. At least, it was to me until a chance Internet search turned it up. I was so impressed by this use of technology to share an exhibit that I asked the librarians involved to tell all of us about it, not only as a reminder of academic interest in the books we suggest to the public, but also to demonstrate that academic libraries have a role to play in providing intellectual support for informed readers' advisors in other types of libraries.--Editor

   In this exhibition, "Rave Reviews:
   Bestselling Fiction in America,"
   we celebrate the fiction Americans
   actually read--fiction we
   admire, fiction we love, fiction we
   pretend to ignore. The books on
   display are significant both as
   physical objects and as reminders
   of great stories. Taken as a whole,
   they provide an index of American
   interests and reading tastes
   over the last two-and-a-half centuries. (1)

Bestselling fiction captures the public interest and imagination in ways that no other kinds of print publications do. University of Virginia English professor John Unsworth and Special Collections librarian Lynda Fuller Clendenning developed a library exhibit tided "Rave Reviews: Bestselling Fiction in America" to demonstrate this thesis in a most public way. Conceptually based on Unsworth's undergraduate class, "(Bestselling) 20th-Century American Literature," the exhibit drew its content primarily from the University of Virginia, Alderman Library's Taylor Collection of Popular American Literature. (2) In addition to the Taylor collection, the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, provided numerous items. Though on display in the special collections Exhibition Hall only from February to June 2002, the exhibit lives on in digital form at www.lib.virginia.edu/speccol/ exhibits/rave_reviews.

The contents of the exhibit were reproduced in digital format by Special Collections staff to create a parallel exhibit online available to anyone connected to the Internet. This experiment in creating a virtual exhibit promises exciting possibilities and rewards for other libraries and exhibitors of book and literary topics.

Background

The Class and the Collection

In his class "(Bestselling) 20th-Century American Literature" Unsworth leads students to an understanding of twentieth-century America through an analysis of the popularity of specific novels. The class often focuses on themes such as "evolution of childhood in the twentieth century," "work in America," "media culture, nostalgia, and consumerism," or "bestsellers and the movies." Students are asked to write a research paper based on a bestselling work such as Love Story by Erich Segal or For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. Starting with the bestseller in its first-edition hardbound form, students study the physical book for its bibliographical features (edition, specific printing, example of trade-book binding). Through book reviews, students investigate the contemporary reception of their bestseller and track its subsequent printings and impact on American culture. …