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Inspirational

October 24, 2005

We’ve offended someone else. Thus, I have to conclude we’re still doing our job of providing library service to a diverse population.

Someone found our “over-representation of Inspirational tapes” to be “offensive.” There’s a bit of irony in that. The tapes in question are audiobooks from Recorded Books that carry a somewhat euphemistic label of “Inspirational.” They are basically fiction from Christian publishers.

The apparent over-representation begs for analysis. But first, to put the complainant and potential sympathizers at ease, the Inspirational books are sometimes over-represented on our “shelves” but not in our “collection.”

They get used less and so more of them remain on the shelves at any time. It’s a kind of reverse natural selection. If I may wax tautological: The most popular audiobooks are usually checked out.

By far, most of what we buy in print or audio does not fall in that category. However, enough library users read this genre to warrant buying it.

In audiobook form, the Inspirational label serves those who want Christian fiction as well as those who simply want inoffensive fiction. It’s one thing to read a string of expletives; it’s another to hear it. Same for depictions of graphic sex or violence.

The Inspirational label applied by Recorded Books offers one kind of filter for readers who want that guidance.

The label is no guarantee of quality. One complaint I’ve heard from readers of Christian fiction is that the writing is often mediocre at best. This genre has been a burgeoning market, and many people are trying their hand at it.

But, people read them, and so we provide them. I’ve also been told that we should put them in their own section … not to protect others from them but as a service to readers of Christian fiction.

I really don’t want to start down that path, because inevitably there are gray areas, and soon the fiction section is a mess. The genre labels we do use are challenging enough. For a given author, some books might warrant a “Mystery” sticker while others won’t.

If we were to shelve genres separately, would it work to spread an author’s novels across different sections? We do it in non-fiction, certainly. I suppose we could get used to it in fiction.

Defining the Christian fiction genre becomes the challenge. Would we include any fiction that deals with Christianity? Putting Mark Salzman’s “Lying awake” in Christian fiction doesn’t seem right, but taking the term “Christian fiction” at face value, it should go there. The same for “A prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving. What about Tolstoy?

The conclusion of over-representation was interesting, too, because I can’t tell whether the person had concluded (i) that no library should have much of this stuff regardless of demand or (ii) that our particular library did not have this demand.

In any case, I don’t believe we have such an over-representation. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of personal sensibility. When we added books on creation science some years ago, there was simply no way for me to judge which ones were the “good” ones.

I’d read the “best” one at the time, Michael Behe’s “Darwin’s black box,” but found it to be standard fundamentalist apologetics layered on a bookful of, ironically, science.

So, I asked those who were interested in this topic to suggest what was useful to them, and we added those titles. It’s just one way we build this library to fit its users.

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