Frederick Andrew Lerner, D.L.S.
Library and Information Science

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Libraries and Their Impact on Fantasy

by Fred Lerner

More than other kinds of fiction, fantasy depends upon a continuity with earlier literature. So many of the fantasies that we remember most vividly depend upon their readers possessing some familiarity with literary tradition. Perhaps the naive reader can derive great pleasure from The Lord of the Rings without knowing anything about the Anglo-Saxon and Norse and Celtic texts from which Professor Tolkien drew his inspiration. But would we have that book at all had not this body of literature existed? The Biography of the Life of Manuel would be much shorter were it not for James Branch Cabell’s extensive acquaintence with Arthurian romance and Provençal verse.  Puck of Pook’s Hill, Caleb Catlum’s America, A Midsummer Tempest—these all have their roots deep in the Commonwealth of Letters. And of course in Silverlock John Myers Myers has given us a gazetteer to the Commonwealth.

It is not only the heritage of fiction that informs the fantasy writer. The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy owe much to Avram Davidson’s knowledge of the political economy of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The intellectual history of the Renaissance was mined by John Crowley in Ægypt and Mary Gentle in Rats and Gargoyles. (A short bibliography at the end of Rats and Gargoyles enumerates twenty-three books that Gentle used for reference.) And the topographical and architectural details of old New York that Viido Polikarpus and Tappan King used in Down Town were found in the New York Public Library and the New-York Historical Society.
It is of course to libraries that we owe the preservation of the texts upon which John Crowley and Mary Gentle drew for inspiration. Manuscripts in the British Museum and the Bodleian Library tell the stories that Tolkien knew, and the Royal Library in Copenhagen held the sagas that inspired William Morris and Eric Rücker Eddison. And it is to libraries that writers turn to find the histories and costume manuals and treatises on ancient warfare that they need to get the details right in their stories.

But fantasy writers get more than literary sustenance from libraries. The viability of writing fantasy professionally depends upon them.


When Gutenberg invented the printing press, there were very few people in Europe who were able to read, and most of them did their reading in Latin. After the Reformation, literacy spread across northern Europe, where Protestant laymen needed to read the Bible in their own language. By the beginning of the nineteenth century more than half of the adult population in Protestant countries could read.

As the number of literate people with free time increased, reading became popular as a leisure activity. The prose novel displaced epic poetry and drama as the chief vehicle for the literary imagination. And in an age of exploration and discovery, travelers’ tales and historical narratives attracted the same readers who flocked to the novel. For many readers there was little difference between fact and fiction. Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe did nothing to help them make that distinction.

When subscription reading rooms and “social” libraries came into existence to serve this increasingly literate, increasingly leisured population, their book collections emphasized serious reading: history, biography, travel, belles-lettres. “History, biography, and travel were prevailing interests,” historian Jesse Shera tells us. “The classics of English literature were a library staple, concern with scientific enquiry was on the march, and theology was more revered on the library shelf than in the reader’s hand.”

But fiction was the form of literature most in demand by readers. The booksellers and dry-goods merchants who opened the first circulating libraries soon learned that there was more money in novels than in sermons. (Women were especially voracious novel readers. The popularity of light fiction among women led some killjoy clergymen to express doubts about the propriety of teaching women to read.)

When Charles Edward Mudie opened his Select Library in 1842, he offered his British subscribers a wide range of books, but it was the demand for novels that ensured the success of his business. For one guinea—two-thirds the price of a single three-decker novel—a Mudie’s subscriber could read all the novels he wanted for an entire year, one volume at a time. Mudie became so important a customer that publishers took into account “the length he preferred, the plots he enjoyed, the subjects he approved, the attitudes he endorsed”  in deciding what novels to publish. So when writers today worry about the influence of bookstore chains on publishers’ editorial decisions, their concern is not without precedent.

In the 1850s, free public libraries began to spread across England and America. At first they were intended as agencies of adult education, in an era when formal schooling often ended at the age of twelve. Until the 1890s, few of them admitted children under fourteen.

Despite the pious hopes of their founders, library users preferred fiction. In Britain, they liked Edward Bulwer Lytton, Alexandre Dumas, and Walter Scott; James Fenimore Cooper and Captain Marryat were the favorites of American readers. While many librarians deplored the popularity of fiction, they harbored the hope that its provision would attract readers whose taste could be improved. “The attention of the readers is being gradually and progressively drawn from light literature to historical and biographical works, general literature, and books of a more practical tendency,” a British librarian boasted in 1856.  Librarians aimed to “win [readers] to a higher level of reading,” proclaimed a leading American librarian twenty years later.

“It is all very well to speak of educating the people, but if they refuse to be educated, what is to be done about it?” asked the author of an essay on “Fiction in Libraries” in an 1890 issue of Library Journal.  It took librarians a while to get over the idea that it was their responsibility to shape the literary tastes of their customers. As the problems of urban life convinced social reformers that working people needed wholesome alternatives to the street-corner and the saloon, the virtues of recreational reading became more apparent. Educators became convinced of the importance of instilling in children a lifelong taste for reading. Selfimproving clerks and self-righteous matrons were no longer the librarians’ prime constituency. To bring the masses into the library, the library must have something to offer the masses.

And what the masses have always wanted was fiction. In 1932, this demand supported 35,000 commercial rental libraries. In 1980, William Katz of the SUNY Albany library school reported that “novels account for from 50 to 60 or even 70 percent or more of the books circulated in the average public, school, and even smaller college library.” I know of no reason to think that things have changed much in the last twenty years.


Even when the novel had been welcomed into the library, this acceptance did not extend to all fiction. There was still a feeling on the part of many librarians that some classes of novels were better than others. At library conventions and in the pages of library journals, eminent librarians argued that the proper role of the public library was to provide “that literature whose service is to sharpen the perceptions, stir the imagination, refine the taste, mend the manners, tone the conscience, gladden the heart, or comfort the soul.” As one librarian bluntly put it, “If the reading of good books is recreation for you, then welcome. If the reading of mediocre books is recreation for you, it is not the function of the public library to provide it.”

In this climate of opinion, it is not surprising that there were many who felt that what we now call genre fiction did not belong in the public library. Moviegoers did not expect the taxpayer to subsdise their enjoyment of westerns, mysteries, or love stories on the screen. Why should the public library spend its scarce funds to satisfy their taste for such matter in printed form? Let them get their recreational reading from the drugstore rental library, these librarians suggested, and let the public library spend its money on serious literature.

But there were important voices raised in support of genre fiction in the library. Helen Haines’s Living with Books: The Art of Book Selection became the universal textbook on the subject in American library schools. Haines reminded librarians that “It must always be remembered that primarily fiction is read for pleasure; it is recreation, solace, entertainment, free and accessible to all; and in the service the public library renders to its community, recreation is an indispensable component.”

One way that librarians reconciled themselves to the inclusion of genre fiction in their collections was through the realisation that it was possible to distinguish better from worse examples. The more that the western partook of the approach of the historical novel, the more the mystery story emphasised deduction over brutality, the easier it was to give it shelf space. The uncritical reader, they believed, would be as happy to read a good book as a bad one. Thus “an intelligent effort to replace inferior fiction by more excellent work of the same general type” would lead to the satisfaction both of the readers’ wants and the librarian’s sense of duty.

Of course, some users’ wants were more worthy of satisfaction than others. College graduates were among the heaviest users of public libraries. They were also the library users with whose educational attainments and reading tastes librarians could most easily identify. And, in many cases—over half the time, according to some polls—these well-educated readers were avid mystery fans. They provided a market large enough to support the publishing of mystery fiction in hardcover form. So it did not take too long before the mystery section was a common feature in public libraries.

Science fiction had a harder time getting into libraries. Until trade publishers began issuing SF books in hard covers, science fiction was a creature of the pulp magazines. And “wood-pulp” magazines, the American Library Association declared in 1932, were merely “perverted” reflections of better magazines. Even leaving out their problematic content, there was nothing about their format to endear them to librarians. (For that matter, the readers of science fiction were perhaps not as presentable as the mystery fans—at least not to librarians!)

Even novels by Verne, Wells, and Stapledon were treated with disdain. Bruce Franklin has shown us in Future Perfect that Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain in the United States, and Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in England, published science fiction stories. But their reputations did not impress the professors. “Good writers of fiction soon abandon science as the main theme of their romancing,” librarians were told in 1939.  Standard manuals of book selection did not even mention science fiction.

In the years after the atomic bomb, Americans realized that they were living in a world that SF writers understood better than most. Science fiction achieved, and then surpassed, the respectability that mystery stories had attained. Today a Neuromancer or Cryptonomicon can become a cultural icon, and the vocabulary of science fiction has entered the everyday speech of the American people. And the literature of science fiction has won a firm foothold on library shelves.


But perhaps we are haring off on the wrong trail. We can’t properly speak of fantasy as just another form of genre fiction, at least not as we use the term today. We must recognise that there are two streams of fantasy fiction, one with its roots in the English literary tradition, the other derived from the pulp magazines.

Although its origins have been traced to William Morris, the sword and sorcery branch of fantasy fiction is essentially a creature of Weird Tales. No doubt there were some librarians among its eclectic readership, but I suspect that very few of these would have considered placing the magazine on their libraries’ shelves. The same reluctance applied to Amazing StoriesUnknown, and the other pulps that published fantasy stories. When Arkham House began collecting the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith between hard covers, librarians had an opportunity to bring pulp fantasy into their collections. But few of them did so, largely because the book reviewing sources upon which they depended paid little attention to this literature.

The other stream of fantasy fiction enjoyed a better reception from librarians. Its exemplars appeared from mainstream book publishers, and were issued, received, and reviewed as mainstream novels—quirky novels, perhaps, bizarre, exotic novels, perhaps, but novels all the same, to be dealt with just as other novels were. Sometimes reviewers and critics didn’t know what to make of them, but at least these books were deemed worthy of their attention, and that of the literate reader—the one, beloved of librarians, for whom “the reading of good books is recreation.”

Many librarians had a soft spot for fantasy. In the first edition of Living with Books (1935), Helen Haines noted that “novels of fantasy and symbolism, poetic or satiric, are a salient type in modern fiction,” and mentioned James Branch Cabell, Christopher Morley, David Garnett, and Sylvia Warner as examples. She particularly liked Cabell, and invited her readers to “compare the smooth artificial elaboration, the ironic sophisticated filigree, of James Branch Cabell with the slow, confused verbosity of Theodore Dreiser…” Fifteen years later, in the second edition of her book, she added The Screwtape Letters of C.S. Lewis and “the bizarre, symbolic fantasies of Charles Williams” to her recommended titles. (She also praised “the skillful and arresting work” of the better science fiction writers.) Because of her immense influence as a writer and a teacher, Helen Haines convinced many American librarians that fantasy novels had a place in their collections.

But not all. In 1963, Ursula Le Guin reported that a friend went into the children’s room of an urban public library and asked for The Hobbit. The librarian said, “Oh, we keep that only in the adult collection; we don’t feel that escapism is good for children.” Perhaps she was one of many librarians in the 1960s and ’70s who favored gritty novels of urban realism; stories about racism and sexism; and other books for young people that explored subjects of great interest—at least to librarians sympathetic toward social change. For a time it almost seemed that fantasy might become politically incorrect. But it turned out that inner-city children knew all too well the day-to-day realities among which they lived, and were just as eager to read about beautiful things, beautifully told, as any coddled suburbanite.


“Librarians can make you or break you,” Robert Heinlein once said.  Certainly they have had a major impact on the careers of genre writers. It is the library market that makes the publishing of genre fiction in hardcover a paying proposition. It is the attention earned by hardcover editions that sells mass-market paperbacks. And it is the awards given by librarians that have helped to make many fantasy classics, such as Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, classics of children’s literature, selling to generation after generation of parents and grandparents and doting aunts and uncles—and to generation after generation of librarians.

The goal of the children’s library, as one distinguished librarian explained in 1929, was “to provide children with good books supplemented by an inviting library environment and intelligent and sympathetic service and by these means to inspire and cultivate in children a love of reading, discriminating taste in literature, and judgment and skill in the use of books as tools.”  Librarians were concerned with the packaging as well as the content of children’s books. They encouraged inviting covers and attractive illustrations. Because they represented a substantial portion of the market for children’s literature—seventy to ninety percent, according to industry insiders—publishers were eager to oblige.

But libraries have an even greater long-run impact on genre publishing. For it is in libraries that new generations of readers arise, and it is in libraries that young readers encounter the genres, and the writers, on whose books they will spend their time and pocket-money in years to come. Look around you at this convention, and you will see many people whose devotion to fantasy fiction began in a school or public library.

If the first public librarians, one hundred fifty years ago, preferred practical reading to the fantastic, their descendants in our century have become enthusiastic advocates for fantasy. Dorothy Broderick, the eminent specialist in children’s literature, recalls that when she began her library career there were many library systems in which “one did not buy Stuart Little, The Wizard of Oz, or Pippi Longstocking.”  But as experts on children’s literature came to understand that “the development of the imagination is one of the most profound of all activities and should be a major goal of education,”  teachers and librarians brought fantasy into the classroom and onto the shelves of school and public libraries. And any librarian nowadays will tell you that fantasy is one of the most popular categories among readers of all ages.


Perhaps the most important impact of libraries on fantasy is this. Many librarians chose librarianship as a career precisely because they loved books. They acquired this love for books in childhood, and fantasy novels were strongly represented among the books they loved as children. This has left many librarians—and by no means only those of us working with children—with a strong predisposition to buy fantasy novels for their collections, and to urge them upon library patrons.

Of all the literary genres, fantasy is the most removed from the details of everyday life, the most intimately tied to the Commonwealth of Letters. It is hardly surprising that the library, which gives to that metaphorical commonwealth a physical home, is both an economic and a cultural bulwark to the fantasy field. Long may it continue to be so!


(This talk was given at the World Fantasy Convention, Providence, November 1999.)