Librarians and Romance: An Interview with Jennifer Lohmann

When I went down to Durham, North Carolina, for a reading at the Barnes and Noble sponsored by the Durham County Library, I met the Librarian of Awesome, Jennifer Lohmann. She mentioned while we were having lunch that she often talks to libraries and library students about the romance genre – what romances are and what they’re not. I asked if she’d be willing to talk about her presentation and her experience as the Local Romance Expert Librarian.

Having read her responses, I can’t tell you how proud I am to know her. Go Jennifer!

Tell me about your Intro to Romance Presentation?

Jennifer: It’s not really a presentation about what to stock, it’s more an introduction to what romances are and what they aren’t (Pride and Prejudice= romance and Romeo & Juliet=two kids who are dumb enough to commit suicide).  I talk about the difference between category and mainstream and then a lot of the subgenres (historical, Regency, paranormal, contemporary, romantic suspense) and the hero and heroine, why I think people read them (fantasy, baby) and why, as a librarian, we should always be respectful of others’ reading tastes and talk a bit about how difficult it was for me to “come out of the closet” and the crap I’ve gotten for it and the people who have adjusted their thinking a bit about romances. 

How did you get started doing this introduction? Where have you presented outside of UNC?

Jennifer: I guess this starts with my husband telling me I should “come out of the closet” about my romance reading before I entered my library program.  He said if the stereotypes of romance readers pissed me off so much, the only way to fight them was to be honest about my reading.  When I got to SILS (School of Information and Library Science at UNC-Chapel Hill), I was already upfront and honest about my reading choices.  I read them openly and with no hiding of covers.  Dr. Moran, who taught the Popular Materials class, asked if I would come talk to her class about romances.  My reply, “Of course!”  I put together my presentation with lots of romance covers and tried to cover what I thought were the basics for a three hour class.  She’s asked me to come back every other time she’s taught the class and another professor asked me to lead his class discussion on romances when he taught the class.  It’s fun to be the local romance expert for librarians.

Outside of UNC, the database of fiction called NoveList (see if your local library has it—NoveList is AWESOME!!!) is headquartered here in Durham.  They asked me to come talk to their catalogers about romance so they would better understand the genre as they cataloged the books. I’m happy to talk to more public libraries (especially within driving distance) and library schools.  I love to talk about romance and am happy to promote the genre.

What are some of the more awesome questions/comments you’ve received? Most awful/shocking/eye opening/hilariously insane?

Jennifer: I think the most awesome is just how many people did not expect to like the books they read.  One professor asked everyone to read Outlander and a lot of the class was surprised how much they liked the book, especially since there was the scene where Jaime beats Claire. When the class got to choose their own romance, many of the women were really shocked that they were entertained by the romance, no matter what they choose. 

Most of the men didn’t seem to be so entertained, but I think a lot of them tried to get “a sample romance,” which to them meant horrible cover, purple prose, etc, rather than thinking that a sample romance would be something like Lord of Scoundrels or Jennifer Crusie.  A sample romance still means Old Skool to most people, as you and Candy point out in Beyond Heaving Bosoms.  Despite giving out a list with Jo Beverley, Mary Balogh, Jennifer Crusie, Suzanne Brockmann, etc., some students were still looking for a book with a ripped bodice and heaving bosom.

In the classes, no student will say anything awful.  Whether or not their stereotypes of romance have been shattered, no library science student wants the teacher to think they are disrespecting someone’s reading tastes.  That’s a BIG librarian etiquette no-no, especially now.  Library school now usually teaches (and—hopefully—librarians promote) a “given ‘em what they want” attitude towards reading. People read for different reasons and all reasons and all choices should be respected. 

The idea that the role of the librarian is to move the reader from Georgette Heyer to Jane Austen to Charles Dickens is now considered poor librarianship.  Of course, it’s still practiced and many librarians still subscribe to the “improving” idea of reading and role of the library, but you don’t want to admit to it in front of the teacher.  That’s a quick way to a nasty look from the teacher.

In the student break room though, it was a different story.  Without professors it was acceptable for students to say that romances have poor writing, are just a simple formula, they rot your brain, etc. The basics stereotypes still apply.  Most students did not spout such crap, but there were those that did (and probably still do).  At a certain point, you just have to give up.  Some people are just mules. If you pull harder, they will just sit in the mud and refuse to go in any direction.

As for a short answer to your question, the comment I remember most was about Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation.  One person described it as a “one-handed read,” which made a lot of people giggle.  Especially since she meant it as a compliment.

What tired ass stereotypes do you regularly see, and how do you answer?

Jennifer: Formulas and sex.  The first stereotype BLOWS MY MIND!  The stereotypical librarian has her bun, sensible shoes, glasses and is reading a mystery.  Many people who talk about the romance formula are librarians I know are mystery readers and I usually ask if the bad guy got away in the Margaret Maron they are reading, or if he got caught again.  The most interesting argument I got into about the romance formula was with a couple my husband and I know.  They aren’t librarians, one is a nurse/poet and the other writes short stories.

The poet, a man, talked about how romances were formulaic and there was such a rigid structure.  His wife, the short story writer, defended the romance mostly by saying how all fiction is formulaic. If you write short stories, she said, there is a formula.  She referenced The New Yorker formula, which I didn’t know existed, not being a New Yorker reader.  If you don’t write in the manner of the New Yorker, you can not get a short story published.  She said the New Yorker set the formula for “literary fiction” and if he didn’t notice the formula being taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, he wasn’t paying attention.  If the person telling me about the romance formula is willing to have a conversation, I will usually talk about that conversation with the poet and short story writer.

The second is harder, I think.  The person either does not want to read about sex, in which case I can say that their are sweet romances with no sex, or they don’t seem to notice the, often graphic, sex in what they read.  I guess it’s different when the sex in the book is not about love.  Sex without love is more literary or something.  In this case, I usually ask what they read and then ask them about the sex in the books they read, i.e. if child sexual abuse in Toni Morrison, incest in Phillipa Gregory, or rape in The Color Purple are better examples of sex.  This is almost always a losing battle.  If women are enjoying the sex, clearly it’s trash.  Now if it’s forced on them or if they use sex to manipulate men, that’s literary.

What books repeatedly come up in your discussions?

Jennifer: A lot of people have read Jennifer Crusie or Outlander.  Jennifer Crusie is popular because her heroines don’t fit the stereotype people have of romance heroines, especially Min from Bet Me.  I think for a lot of women who consider themselves to smart and modern for romance, Min is the perfect heroine.  She doesn’t want kids, has a biting sense of humor, and is independent.  She’s a good gateway heroine for the hipster librarian.  And a lot of people have read Outlander but will swear they’ve never read a romance or, if they read it, it can’t be a romance.  Other than that, it’s a mixed bag.  People choose all kinds of romances for their book.

How difficult was it to “come out” as a romance reading librarian?

Jennifer: Since I’d already made the decision to “come out” before library school, all of my colleagues know what I read and most of them respect it.  More difficult than my colleagues or peers are the library patrons.  The ones who like romance love me because they know I won’t judge their taste and they love that there are now romance reviews in our annual publication of staff reviews called Season’s Readings, but I have to be careful with the others.  I like to help people find new books and a lot of people just won’t trust my suggestions if they know I read romance.  It doesn’t matter if I just finished Bleak House or also read biographies, if I admit to reading romance, my suggestions are immediately suspect.  Usually if they ask what I read, I just say that I read a lot of different things and wait to get a sense of them before I give more details.

Coming out to my book club was really hard and I waited almost a year to do that.  With some other librarians, I run a book club aimed at people in their 20s and 30s and we meet at local bars and restaurants.  We try to pick more unusual books (Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, God’s Middle Finger by Richard Grant, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link, etc) and I had to make sure they trusted my taste before I admitted to reading romance.  If they didn’t trust my taste, they won’t come, no matter what books I chose. Now I’m open about it and so are a number of the other women who come. The men are still terrified I’ll pick a romance for them to read, but they come anyway so they must have some faith in my taste.

Most librarians I know are accepting of romance; they are just a bit scared of it because they don’t read it.  I can understand that—I’m a bit scared of science fiction since I don’t read a lot of it.  The stereotypical judgmental librarian is going away, though they still exist.  And, I think, more and more librarians who really love readers’ advisory are picking up a romance.  I know at least one of the librarians in the audience on Saturday is going to stick her toe into the romance sea to better help her advise readers.

I think it is so cool that part of being a librarian is building a trust network among readers on multiple levels. Thus it is so appalling that just saying you like romance can damage your authority, even if you’re a librarian with, one would presume, a wide and varied knowledge of books.

Thank you to Jennifer for a fascinating interview, and for being a most excellent representative of romance.


Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Rae says:

    Yeah for you two. Hope you had a great time in Durham. Now if I could only convince my branch in Wake County that Categories shouldn’t be segregated out by new and the latest stand-alone novels aren’t the only ones they need to have on-hand, that would be great. :)

  2. 2
    Liz in Australia says:

    Really interesting read. Thanks for including it.

    I am a librarian in a public library and I am a prolific reader of romance so I have to reserve titles from all our branches and sometimes Inter-library Loans. This means that many staff end up handling my reserved items so they get to see what I read. I actually had my assistant comment with a sneer “I don’t know why you read those!” I was so flabbergasted I didn’t know what to say to her apart from “They are really good. Don’t knock them unless you’ve read some.” It’s an attitude I find incomprehensible. Thanks goodness for SBTB!!

  3. 3
    snarkhunter says:

    Several of my students hated Welcome to Temptation. I mean HATED. One particularly memorable line was, “I hate this book so much I’m almost offended by it.” Or something like that. But she said it with good humor and used her distaste as a springboard to discussion, so the comment didn’t bother me. (I don’t know that I’d teach WTT to freshmen again, though.)

    I like the idea of having library students read a romance. I’d rather like to try the same thing with English majors. See if I can get them to expand their minds from this literary = good nonsense. (And what a terrific point about sex in books. I think it’s more complex than just forced/manipulative sex = good. I think it’s more like, if the woman enjoys it, it’s bad. B/c, after all, old-skool romances aren’t any more acceptable, and those heroines aren’t necessarily willing.)

  4. 4
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    I was especially struck by this comment:

    Sex without love is more literary or something.

    as the woman I carpool with and I were having much the same conversation yesterday.  Basically, we were complaining that unless a book isn’t a sea of misery and despair, it’s not considered “literature” and is sneered at by the literary establishment.  Apparently unhappiness is equated with “depth”, or something.  As my friend put it, “I knew a girl who was raped in high school and she didn’t come away from it saying, “Oh my God, that was so deep!”

  5. 5
    kinseyholley says:

    I’m a librarian, and an English major, and a romance reader and a romance writer and a devourer of all manner of genre fiction, and when anyone dares insult me for my reading taste I get very Bitchy very quickly.  Do you consider yourself well read? I ask.  If they say yes, I ask them if they’ve read Rushdie, or Barnes, or….If they say no, I say—oh dear.  You mean you consider yourself well read because you follow Oprah’s list?  Or because twenty years ago someone forced you to read the Great Authors?  And then they stammer that I can’t make arbitrary judgments like that,  and I reply that they just did…

    I’m generally so non-confrontational as to be timid, but the idea that it’s acceptable to judge someone else’s taste in reading, and to their face no less, burns me up.  Try to think of any other case in which people would consider this okay. 

    I can’t stand the Oprah Book Club = I’m A Serious Reader people. 
    Know why I’m well read, byotch?  Because not only do I know George Eliot sucks, I can tell you why.

    My spam word is came39 but once again, I can’t think of anything remotely clever.

  6. 6
    Martha says:

    I’m currently transitioning from being a Duke student to being a Durham resident (I graduated in May but I’m now working in the area). I would absolutely LOVE the opportunity to meet people and read new books. Would you be able to give me the information for your book club?

  7. 7
    Jan says:

    What a wonderful interview, and what a wonderful outlook. Thanks for educating readers, librarians, and John Q. Public alike.
    Now, if we could take on the bookstore owners!

  8. 8
    Kalen Hughes says:

    Do you consider yourself well read? I ask.  If they say yes, I ask them if they’ve read Rushdie, or Barnes, or….If they say no, I say—oh dear.  You mean you consider yourself well read because you follow Oprah’s list?  Or because twenty years ago someone forced you to read the Great Authors?  And then they stammer that I can’t make arbitrary judgments like that,  and I reply that they just did…

    OMG, I lurve you. I thought I was the only one who was bitchy enough to do this in public, LOL!

  9. 9
    Barbara says:

    Of course, if she wants to transition fantasy/science fiction readers to romance, she can try The Sharing Knife series by Lois Bujold. It usually quells the fears of the SF/F reader when you tell them that Bujold has more Hugos than anyone except Heinlein….
    *evil grin*

    My spam word was radio64, and all I can think of is that old TV show: Car 54, Where are you?

  10. 10
    FD says:

    Bujold absolutely is a gateway drug, in both directions. *cheshire cat smile*

    Seriously, it’s good to hear about the steps taken to educate actually at the source – I have now had this discussion with 6 out of 12 library staff at my local library and I’m willing to bet that eventually, I will have had it with all of them.

    Spamword: take32.  Yeah, sometimes I have to take not just one, but 32 deep breaths before replying to a comments like, “I didn’t think you’d be the type to read books like those.”  Argh.

  11. 11
    Hydecat says:

    I’m so glad that the library school at UNC has you present to their classes! I noticed the last time I was searching the catalog for fun reads (as opposed to academic books) that finding an actual romance novel at UNC libraries is hard unless you’re looking for Jennifer Crusie or Nora Roberts. I know the SILS library has a whole section of Juvenile fiction to support teaching that branch of librarianship, but it seems like it must be harder to find material on campus that professors could use to teach about other branches of popular librarianship.

    Also, I’m thinking that maybe we should get you, or someone like you, to come give a presentation to the graduate students in the English department . We occasionally are asked to teach classes on Popular Genres, and I think we often flounder because we aren’t taught anything about them. Just the other day I was recommending romances to one of my male colleagues who is teaching that class in the fall because he felt that he should cover them, but didn’t know where to start.

  12. 12
    Robinjn says:

    I have no idea who acquires books for our library, but I lurvve them! Not only is there a huge range of romance (yep, they did have Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander the moment it was available), but except for the series harlequins, they just sort them right in with the rest of the fiction, so it’s very easy for me to find.

  13. 13
    KellyMaher says:

    One of my favorite books to recommend to LIS students who are reluctant romance readers is Nora’s Northern Lights. I think it helps them that the main character is a man rather than a woman for some reason. When I was in library school, I was the one who led the petition to bring back the Adult Popular Materials class, and one of the co-instructors was, and is, a huge romance fan herself. I was upfront about my reading habits from day one myself too, so I was usually the one my fellow students turned to for romance recommendations. I was also the acknowledged Reader’s Advisory-fanatic of my cohort :D

  14. 14
    Shanna says:

    Great interview, I love that’s she’s out there promoting this amazing genre. Librarians rock!

  15. 15
    Laura (in PA) says:

    Awesome interview. I hate to see a librarian, of all people, having to defend what she reads. I love that she’s going out there, fighting the preconceptions.  Awesome!

  16. 16
    JennyME says:

    Wow, great post! I love the idea that librarians are taught to respect people’s tastes. Why don’t they do that at bookstores?

    Can someone explain the rationale behind having separate sections for genre books at the library? Personally, I find it easier just to look for things by the author’s name without worrying about whether it’s a romance or mystery or “regular” fiction. Also it seems like it’d be easier for patrons to find new books outside their comfort zone when everything’s mixed together. A person who wouldn’t be caught dead in the romance section might pick up an interesting-looking romance while browsing in fiction.

    And as a long-time Triangle resident I have to give a shout-out to the Durham public libraries—the book selection is awesome, the genre books are shelved as fiction, and they have the coolest self-checkout system ever. (You just put your book on a gray square! You don’t even have to scan the barcode!)

  17. 17
    anniethelibrarian says:

    Thanks for the great interview.  I’m a librarian, an academic one, at that.  I’d love to get my reading group to read a romance.  I was thinking of either Lord of Scoundrels or anything Heyer.  But, if you’re still here, Jennifer, can you tell us what you had your group read or what you’d have them read?

  18. 18
    Kate Jones says:

    Thanks for this!  I am an avid romance reader and pursuing my MILS, and it’s really nice to hear from someone with similar tastes and ideals.

  19. 19
    Jennifer Lohmann says:

    My cohost and I are debating what to have our book club read.  She really thinks we should have them read one.  Since my cohost is new to romance, I’m going to let her read a couple and see what she thinks.

    Thanks for the compliments on Durham County Library.  We love to hear them!  Separating the fiction into genre (should we, shouldn’t we) is a HUGE can of worms in the library community.  Do we make it easier for genre readers to find their genre or do we encourage people to read cross genre and shelve everything together with little genre stickers?  And then, what do you do about books that cross genres?  This drives catalogers mad.

    If you are in the Durham area, stop by the Main Library and see me.  I would love to talk romance with folks.

    spam word=too59 (so close to 69, but so far away)

  20. 20
    Jane says:

    Jenny- The reason for having genres separated out at the library is that libraries are trying to be more “user-friendly”, meaning “disguised as bookstores”.  At least that’s what my library (my employer) is doing.  A few public libraries have actually stopped using the Dewey Decimal System because they say it’s too user-unfriendly!  Apparently if we don’t look exactly like a bookstore it means we’re intimidating.
    I have mixed feelings about genre-izing everything.  Now, there are some patrons who really only want to read one kind of book, and for them it’s a blessing to have them all in one place.  People who are just interested in browsing also like it genre-fied.  However, users who are looking for a specific title often have difficulty negotiating our sixteen fiction sections!
    What I don’t like about genre-izing everything is that it really puts our patrons in ideological boxes.  There are plenty of people who will never pick up a Toni Morrison from the African-American shelf because “those are only for black people”.  Similarly I have never once seen a man browsing our Romance shelf.

  21. 21
    Hydecat says:

    I have to say, I like having books that are in a clear genre shelved together. If I know I want a mystery, but my favorite authors don’t have any new books out, then it’s easier for me to find a book by browsing through a mystery section than browsing through a much larger section of general fiction. Even with labels on the spines of the books, it’s still an intimidating amount of material to look through.

    Perhaps the way to get people to read cross-genre is to have a separate shelf in an obvious spot with duplicate copies of really popular/awesome books from the various genres and call that shelf “great reads” or “recommended reads” or something. That way, someone might get sucked into the shelf by seeing a sci-fi book, but also glance at the romance next to it.

  22. 22
    Melissa S. says:

    Great interview I love that you go around teaching romance to the masses. I wish the English Majors at my school had learned something about popular fiction because if they had they wouldn’t be writing that stereotypical down and out artist stuff. There’s nothing wrong when it’s really well done, but it seems like that’s the only thing they foster in their students.

    On the Outlander note though, even though it follows all the rules of the romance road, Gabaldon herself is constantly saying it’s not a romance and in the context of the rest of the series it really isn’t…even though I think it is.

  23. 23
    SonomaLass says:

    But I like George Eliot!

    Great post, lots of interesting ideas here.  Yay Jennifer!

    Our public library has mystery and scifi genre sections, but not romance (other than the category section).  I thus find it easier to browse in those sections.  But I do have to use the catalog sometimes to figure out how a book has been classified, especially with cross-over authors like Sharon Kay Penman and Anne Perry.

    Librarians and romance readers are so often the victims of inaccurate stereotyping that you’d think they’d avoid doing it themselves.

  24. 24

    When I was in library school, one of my professors, Mary Kay Chelton, referred to herself as an “in your face romance reader”. She had all kinds of statistics about how popular romances were, and a lot of other things to say about romance readers in general and romances in the library.

    I remember being especially amused at (I think this was from her) the statement that romance readers were more willing to “cross over” than any other kind of reader. That they were easily convinced to read a supernatural romance, or sci-fi romance, or romantic thriller; whereas readers of sf, thrillers, or other genres would never consider reading something in their genre which could also be considered a romance.

    Oh, man, she was the best professor for the Popular Fiction class.

  25. 25

    It’s nice to hear that librarians are changing.  I’ve been a member of libraries that flat out refused to carry romance.  Of course, I simply HAD to pull various books out and inform them that they were actually romances, particularly “Jane Eyre”, “Pride and Prejudice”, and “The Taming of the Shrew”. 

    In other libraries that did carry romance, the librarian would literally turn her nose up as if something smelled rank when the patron would check romance books out (usually available only in large print).  Some patrons simply wouldn’t come to the library due to that condescending attitude.

    I read.  It’s what I do.  It is as important as breathing to me, so I’ve always had a book in my hand or bag, always gone to the local library in every town that I’ve ever lived in.  I didn’t read genre romances, other than Georgette Heyer, through most of my childhood due to that attitude.  I didn’t pick up my first Georgette Heyer until I was about 15, Emilie Loring and Jane Aiken Hodge at 16, and Glenna Finley at 18.  There was another long dry spell (caused by bookstore owners instead of librarians) until I was in my mid-20s and discovered Anne McCaffrey and realized that many of her science fiction books were just futuristic romances.  Of course, I had to find her actual romances after that.  I still reread “Mark of Merlin” every few years.

    My belief is that everyone should read.  What they read isn’t as important as the very fact that they read.  When I recommend books to friends with children who won’t read, I find books that are about what interests them.  If they really develop a love of reading, I or someone else can introduce “good books”, but only if we don’t put down what they love to read.

  26. 26
    Jennifer Lohmann says:

    Mary Kay Chelton is awesome!  She asks large print publishers to print more romance—just because you get old, doesn’t mean you don’t want hot, hot reads.

  27. 27

    Great discussion! This reminds of me of my youth, when I began reading romance novels to my mother’s great disgust. At one point, their couple’s book discussion group (held at their house that night) asked me to explain why a smart girl like me would read such books. I explained. They decided the group should read one, to expand their reading experience and they asked me for a suggestion. This was the early 80s and I suggested Kathleen Woodiwiss’ A Rose in Winter. They looked at the book and voted against it. They decided they wanted something pulpier and more vulgar. Nothing like reinforcing the ideas you already have!

  28. 28
    Zinemama says:

    This was really nice to read.

    Can anyone succinctly describe the New Yorker Formula? I have read TNY on and off for years and would love a concrete description of what I have noted but can’t really put into words myself.

  29. 29
    Suze says:

    My local library has finally moved into their new space, which is MUCH bigger, lighter, more airy (and far enough away from the homeless shelter that there aren’t any homeless people living there yet.  Seriously, the homeless shelter is RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET from the old location).

    They split the paperbacks out by genre, but keep all the hardcovers in one large fiction section.

    Given that they now have two floors, I’m kind of wishing they’d amalgamate their paperbacks.  For the most part, a big percentage of the “general” fiction is romance anyway, so having to stroll through more and more and more shelves looking for my author, and the book that I’m looking for, is tedious.

    Maybe when they get the signs installed, it’ll be easier.  In the meantime, I still haven’t located the YA section.  They used to have one, I’m pretty sure they still do.

    Nice interview!

  30. 30
    Gwynnyd says:

    Can anyone succinctly describe the New Yorker Formula? I have read TNY on and off for years and would love a concrete description of what I have noted but can’t really put into words myself.

    I am probably going to fail at linking this so I’ll let you cut ‘n paste the url.

    but it says:

    All New Yorker Stories
    Mary Burger

    All New Yorker fiction pieces stop at the point where the person makes a bad discovery about himself or herself or the world. That he is or she is a failure personally—in love, usually, romantic love or familial love—or that the world is a failure toward his personal or her personal sensitive nature—that the world is violent, that unequal distribution of power causes pain and unhappiness, usually to the less powerful, but sometimes to the powerful as well.”

    Regardless of its narrator, its characters, its particular conceits or conflicts, what anchors each story is the sick feeling at the end. The same feeling that comes after a radiation treatment for cancer. The queasy realization that all this, the technological sophistication, the aggressive preservation of human life, is merely its own reward, not a means to anything.
    There follows many examples….

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