Pop Goes the Library

Using Pop Culture to Make Libraries Better.

by Sophie Brookover, Liz Burns, Melissa Rabey, Susan Quinn, John Klima, Carlie Webber, Karen Corday, and Eli Neiburger. We're librarians. We're pop culture mavens. We're Pop Culture Librarians.


Pop Culture Boot Camp: Indie Media Edition

Because it’s not all Top 40 and The O.C. around here, people.

If you are relatively new to this whole navigation of pop culture thing, or if you’re diving back into it after an extended hiatus, one thing you may notice is the almost orgiastic proliferation of pop media outlets available. I vascillate between being thrilled at and paralyzed by all the possibilities, both online & in print, for getting my information.

All of which is just to say, these casual essays of mine are by no means comprehensive, and if you nice readers out there have suggestions you’d like me to include in second, third, or twelfth rounds of Pop Culture Boot Camp, by all means, let me know.

I always like to start with a generalist approach, so we begin today with the easiest, cheapest, most convenient place to beef up your alt-news & culture diet. Pick up a copy of your friendly local free alternative weekly newspaper. (This list includes only cities in the US and Canada, so if there are lists of similar publications in other countries, I’d love to see them.) Alt-weeklies are full of articles on quirky subjects, announcements & coverage of local events, and page after page of hilariously awful personal ads. If you are lucky enough to live in an area with more than one Alt-weekly, read them all for a while, and pick a favorite. I much prefer Philadelphia Weekly to City Paper (with the notable exception of Toby Zinman’s theater reviews – yay, Toby!), but I’ll read the latter when the former’s not available. If you don’t like getting your fingers all inky, you can read most Alt-weeklies online. In Alt-log, Gael Fashingbauer Cooper used compile a weekly roundup of the most interesting, bizarre, and eye-catching Alt-weekly stories she could find, but she seems to have retired that section of her blog (which is, of course, highly recommended, and which reminds me that I have yet to compile a nice little blogroll for you to enjoy. Let’s call that Summer Goal #12,864, shall we?)

Other very fine online omnibi of pop from off the beaten path (wild pop?) include:

    Flak Magazine, which bills itself as “a noncomprehensive guide to everything”, and from which you can order a two-CD set of smart and witty commentary on The Big Lebowski not available on the DVD release of that wonderful (and in my house, frequently quoted) film.

    Pop Matters, which is “an international magazine of cultural criticism. [Their] scope is broad and covers most cultural products, including music, television, films, books, video games, computer software, theatre, the visual arts, and the Internet.”

    Pop Cult Magazine, which its editor, Coury Turczyn, envisions as “a repository for really good, journalistic pop culture writing”, looks like it hasn’t been updated in a couple of years (I think – there aren’t any datelines, my apologies to Coury if I’m wrong). Even if it’s not current, this site is well worth sifting through.

Being in touch with non-mainstream/alternative/independent is important & useful for a variety of reasons:

    Nevermind the Mainstream: You’re always going to have a set of patrons who reject the mainstream, who think that anything that is popular in the mass culture is automatically bad, or at least highly suspect. So your collection is going to need to include media that speaks to and will appeal to that user group. Being well-versed in alternative media is crucial to learning how to evaluate the output of independent presses, record labels, and film studios for inclusion in your collections.

    Act Locally: Reading your regional alt-weekly will not only keep you up to date on local news, but will also attune you to local trends, which you can use to brainstorm program ideas.

    Get Cred: This is really a no-brainer, but it bears repeating. If you want your patrons to regard you as a reliable resource on topics of interest to them, you need to be knowledgeable about those topics. You don’t need to be an expert, but you do need to recognize the names of recording artists, local music venues, directors, authors, book & album titles, and so on.

If you want to focus your energies on mastering a particular area of pop culture, I’ll be writing about that in a few weeks’ time, covering music, movies, radio, TV, and so on. Stay tuned!


Programming Notes to Self -- Feel Free to Steal 'Em

Here's my crazy logic: If I post these ideas here, I'll be beholden to myself to follow through on them this summer & beyond. As an added bonus, I hope those of you who use these ideas will tell me all about how they worked out, offer refinements, how-to tips, and so on. I'll post your suggestions here for everyone to enjoy & use.

1) Pimp My Ride (On The Cheap). If you haven't taken the time to watch the alarmingly charming Xzibit oversee the transformation of a total junker being magically transformed into a by the creative geniuses at West Coast Customs, you really, really should. No, really. I'll wait. Seen an episode? Okay. Now, as you've seen, these little automotive makeovers involve pouring $35,000 into a car worth less than $1,000. That's not within reach of most teens. (I'm considering that sentence for entry in The Understatment of The Year 2004 contest.) But most car customizers, like all good decorators, know how to upgrade on the cheap. So here's my plan: invite local car customizer guys to come talk to teens about how to make their cars (or their parents' cars) look hot using some pocket money, not their college funds. I'd like to have a car show & tell show in the parking lot, plus a show & tell in the library, featuring items that will make a car pop for $50 and under.

2) Car Maintenance for Teens. I think this would make a great adult program, too, actually. How many of us know how to check our oil levels properly? Or our tire pressure? Or how to prevent battery connections from corroding? Invite local reputable mechanic to conduct a hands-on workshop. We could do this in the library parking lot.

3) Comic Book Stuff. I don't have a snappy title for this, but I do know of a really great local comic book shop whose staff might be willing to come help us celebrate Free Comic Book Day with some giveaways and a round-table discussion of trends in comics art, publishing, and related subjects with our many rabid teen comics fans.

That's all for now. More to be posted later. And I will get to posting about indie popculture resources, I swear. Just not this week.


Pop Culture Boot Camp: Mainstream Edition

So maybe you’re suffering from acute pop anemia. The bad news is, you’ve got some catching up to do. The good news is, catching up is fairly easy. (It’s staying caught up that can be hard, but we’ll get to that later.) Today’s post is a handy toolkit of links and tips designed to bring you, the librarian, a few steps closer to applying your keen observational skills to track trends in popular culture and use that knowledge to anticipate user needs at your library. Much of the focus here is on teen pop culture, because teens are my patron base, but there’s stuff with all-ages appeal here, too.

Pop Quiz!

Erin Helmrich and Wendy Woljter write sharp, web-based quarterly quizzes for Voice of Youth Advocates. In 15 questions or less, each quiz covers the latest developments in movies, TV, and music.

Take the latest quiz and treat it as a diagnostic tool. If you aced the Televisionary section, but got busted on Musicality, you know what to do: add some Top 40/hip-hop/R&B radio stations to your presets. I flubbed a couple of the artist/single match-ups, so I know that my commute needs to feature a more equitable NPR/Wired 96.5 split.

If you’re a keener, and want to take a retrospective approach, try Helmrich & Woljter’s archived quizzes. Linked here, in reverse chronological order for currency purposes:

December, 2003
August, 2003
April, 2003
December, 2002

Quizzes 1-7 appear in print only, in back issues of VOYA.

Want something a little less teen-centric? Try The Baltimore Sun’s weekly pop culture trivia quiz.

Read the Charts

Read the Nielsen Ratings every week. The nice folks at Nielsen Media update them each Wednesday. Don’t feel obligated to become a devoted watcher of every single one of these shows. I often feel I’m the only one in the world who doesn’t love Raymond. In fact, I invite you all to name for me a less lovable show currently in production. But I’ve sat through an episode or two, and seeing its name in the ratings every week reminds me that that lots of people do like it, and watch it regularly.

Read Billboard’s charts. Start with the album charts and singles charts. Each section includes a host of charts, for Country, Latin, Indie, Christian, Dance, Hip-Hop/R&B, Rap, and more, followed by more detailed specialty charts. Scan the charts that interest you, or that you know will interest your patrons.

Keep an eye on the box office bottom line, too. Of the three major sets of popularity charts, this is probably the easiest one to incorporate into your weekly information intake: on Monday mornings, most news outlets report on at least the Top 5 films of the previous weekend.

You probably do this as a matter of course, but a reminder can’t hurt: check the weekly bestseller lists. Take your pick.

So, what can you do with all of this information? Keeping up to date with popular culture can help you…

  • 1)…create current, high-appeal material displays. Take this week’s earnings for Mean Girls. Apart from being the latest Lindsay Lohan vehicle (see also: Freaky Friday), it’s also scripted by Saturday Night Live head writer Tina Fey, based on Queen Bees & Wannabes. Here’s a opportunity to create a great cross-generational, multi-genre book display about friendship, bullying, parent-child communication, and the trials of adolescence. Fiction, nonfiction, books for kids, books for grown-ups. It’s all there. Just a few weeks ago, Hellboy was the top box-office earner. It’s based on a comic book by Mike Mignola. What a great opportunity to highlight your library’s graphic novel collection, with a Hellboy trade paperback as the centerpiece.

  • 2)…make connections with your patrons. Knowing what your patrons are reading, watching, and listening to gives you a conversational in with them. Yesterday, I saw a couple of teens browsing my library’s CD collection, and overheard them complaining that they couldn’t find anything good to listen to here. I approached them, asked them what they wanted to see here at the library, and let them know that we did have three out of the five albums they most wanted to hear, and that I’d be happy to show them how to place holds on the CDs that were checked out. They were impressed that I’d heard of Ludacris, and I was happy to teach them how to place holds on materials.

  • 3)…focus your spending. Your budget is tight, and you want to buy materials that you believe your patrons will want to use. By combining pre-publication information from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, School Library Journal, and VOYA with our knowledge of trends from sales, ratings, & box office charts, we can make better, more informed choices about where to spend our precious dollars.

Next week: PCBC: Indie Edition.