April 22, 2020

What Core Collections has taught me about Science Fiction

As savvy librarians know, Core Collections is a useful tool for both selection and weeding. As one of the intrepid genre specialists who works on Core Collections, I get to do both. And it’s surprisingly fun, considering how many Excel spreadsheets are involved. But the process of evaluating titles has also made me think a lot about how genre collections are built and maintained. Here are some things I’ve learned:

The word “classic” is overused.
Sure, a book may have transformed the genre back in the 1930s, but remember: your patrons are alive today. Many so-called Classics of Yesteryear simply may not resonate with contemporary audiences. Some common reasons? Feeling dated (oh hey, psionic powers) or being extremely problematic (eugenics, anyone?).

The prospect of (re)evaluating these books can be daunting, especially when they’re touchstones for entire generations of SF readers. What if you weed a book and outraged fans storm the library demanding that you restore Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker or Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity to its rightful place?

If you’re hesitant about tackling the classics, let me impart one very important lesson that Core Collections work has taught me: the cure for nostalgia is the actual book. Forget what you remember: the reverence you feel for a classic or the warm and fuzzy feelings you have about a childhood favorite may dissipate once you revisit the text.

You’re still going to have to ask the hard questions — for example, How much Dragonriders of Pern does your library need?* — but with Core Collections at the ready, you don’t have to make decisions in a vacuum.

*Maybe all of it! Maybe none! Most likely, the answer is somewhere in between those extremes, but it’s going to depend on YOUR situation. 

Collections are dynamic.
We all know that library collections aren’t — and shouldn’t be — static, although sometimes it’s hard to put this philosophy into practice. What if someone, someday wants that book that hasn’t been checked out in years! What if they want it five minutes after you weed it? There’s no such thing as time travel, so once you make that decision, it’s gone forever. Except…it’s not. Weeding doesn’t erase books from existence; it just makes more room on your shelves. And that’s a good thing. Be honest: How often does a reader come to you and ask, “Hey, what’s old and gathering dust?”

Core Collections is updated regularly with new titles, making it easier to keep your collection fresh and relevant. We also do updates as needed — let’s say a book wins a bunch of awards. That’s important information, and we want you to have it when you’re making decisions about your collection.

Hindsight is 20/20. 
If selection is a snapshot, weeding is more like curating an album. After all, you don’t want every single book (trust me, I look at ALL of them), you want the ones that enhance your collection and make it valuable to your community. 

Books are selected for Core Collections around the time they’re published and thus capture a moment in time. As we’ve already established, time travel does not exist, so no one knows which titles will prove to be evergreen and which will vanish into obscurity. No one’s judgment is infallible, and sometimes even librarians get it wrong.

As a result, “weeding” involves more than just culling titles; it can also mean adding ones that got overlooked (apologies to The Warrior’s Apprentice) or adjusting the recommendation levels (sorry not sorry, Helliconia Winter) to reflect how essential they are to library collections now. 

A diverse audience deserves a diverse collection.
Science fiction has something for everyone. It is a genre of infinite variety and boundless scope. And, despite its longstanding reputation as a white American male-dominated genre, science fiction has always included creators and fans of all identities (even if those voices have not always been heard or respected).

Whether your readers enjoy military SF or Afrofuturism, first contact or time travel, grim dystopias, or hopeful space operas, we work hard to ensure that Core Collections includes a wide variety of subgenres, themes, subjects, and appeals, as well as works from authors of different backgrounds. 

The importance of a well-balanced collection
While everyone’s job would be much easier if libraries could just have all the money they need and infinite shelving space, that is (alas) not the world we live in. Core Collections helps you prioritize and customize your collection by assigning levels to books: Most Highly Recommended, Core, and Supplementary. But what do these mean?

  • Most Highly Recommended titles are the ones your readers are going to ask about. They are the blockbuster books (often with media adaptations) such as The Martian, The Handmaid’s Tale, or Leviathan Wakes. They are the cross-generational classics such as Kindred, Neuromancer, or The Left Hand of Darkness. They are the multi-award-winners such as The Fifth Season, Ancillary Justice, or The Three-Body Problem.
  • Core titles are the “solid picks,” which may sound like faint praise until you realize that many of your favorite books receive this designation, especially if their authors are reliable and prolific. Recommended books are the foundation of a well-rounded SF collection that will satisfy most readers, which makes them the core of Core Collections.
  • Supplementary titles encompass anything from “the latest in a long-running and open-ended popular series” to “a short story collection by an author who’s beloved by hardcore fans (but possibly unknown to readers unfamiliar with the genre).” The criteria are intentionally broad.

In fact, supplementary might be my favorite category because it lets you fine-tune a collection that reflects your community and what they like to read. Maybe they love Chinese science fiction. Maybe they want to read the Dune series in its entirety (I personally do not recommend this). 

As we select and weed, we use our expertise to suggest…but ultimately, it’s up to you.


Gillian Speace is a Readers’ Advisory Librarian at NoveList who thinks a lot about science fiction.





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