Book Review of Integrating Pop Culture into the Academic Library

Janet Brennan Croft
University of Northern Iowa
Cedar Falls, Iowa

Integrating Pop Culture into the Academic Library. Edited by Melissa Edmiston Johnson, Thomas C. Weeks, and Jennifer Putnam Davis. Rowman and Littlefield, 2022. 9781538159408. $112.99 hardback, $55.00 paperback.

This collection of essays is not just for academic librarians—it’s equally useful to faculty working in popular culture studies or wishing to integrate more popular culture materials into their pedagogy. Its readers can gain both a historical and theoretical grounding in pop culture issues and learn about a wide range of practical applications.

The editors’ preface provides us with an orientation to the study of pop culture, pointing out that the inclusion of popular culture materials in libraries initially lagged a little behind the academic study of the topic. With academic study, early concerns about commercialization and indoctrination gave way to an appreciation of popular culture as a tool for connecting with students, then eventually to a recognition of the importance of popular culture as a legitimate area of study for its own sake.

Presley Dyer’s lead essay, “Uses of Popular Culture in the Academic Library,” is a literature review demonstrating that academic library attitudes followed a similar arc from the reluctant acceptance of popular culture to its enthusiastic and even proactive support. Overcoming academic snobbery—“rigid partialities, conventional training, and feasible experiences” (6)—was an issue in the late 1970s and early 1980s, where questions of collection overlap, networking, classification, and integration with the rest of the collection versus relegating such literature to special collections were being raised. The collection, organization, and preservation of non-print or ephemeral material was another issue coming to the fore; I clearly remember pop culture clippings relegated to a poorly-maintained ephemera file in the early days of my own career as a librarian. Communication with faculty teaching and doing research in popular culture was considered key to focusing collection efforts. Dyer finds a shift in focus in the 1990s, as librarians began to use their own popular culture collections in instruction in information literacy and research skills.

“Classic to Modern Conceptions of Popular Culture and the American Academic Library” by Erin Sweeney Smith is a thorough introduction to the application of literary and political theory to popular culture and particularly to why academic libraries should proactively collect and teach with pop culture materials. Theories of political and racial oppression are particularly relevant to the library’s mission of preservation: “populations who do not fall within long-standing hegemonies” (26) are particularly subject to erasure through failure to preserve their cultural production, and libraries have a role to play in working to “offset or abolish structural inequities” (31).

The remainder of the essays are more specifically focused on case studies and examples of how popular culture is used or supported by the various functions and activities of the modern academic library: enabling knowledge production, building collections, instruction in information literacy, and programming. The aforementioned theoretical foundation regarding the importance of pop culture for understanding cultural and political forces and amplifying marginalized voices is a thread that connects many of these essays.

Sean Pessin and Robert D. Montoya, for example, explore the “critical making” potentialities of book and zine production in library makerspaces, while Monika Chavez and Esteban Aquilar promote a study of the means of dissemination of popular culture as a way to develop essential information literacy skills. Essays in the “Collections” section of the book tout the importance of collecting popular culture artifacts to cultural diversity and social justice efforts (Miriam Intrator), and using maps of fictional places to both reduce “library anxiety” and to grow the necessary academic imagination to develop research questions (Jeremy Brett and Sierra Laddusaw). Gene Kannenberg Jr. lists many of the “unexpected but remarkably fruitful opportunities” (97) the Black Pantherfilms and comics provide for an entrée into collections and questions regarding the African and African-American experience: history, politics, Afro-futurism, language, women’s roles, and so on. A popular film collection in an academic law library provides ways to understand popular conceptions of and attitudes towards lawyers and the practice of law (Rebecca Ciota, Jill Sturgeon, and Baylee Suskin).

The first three essays in the “Instruction” section position several popular culture phenomena as excellent bases for a study of media issues like fake news, doomscrolling, confirmation bias, and resource evaluation in general: the Harry Potter books (Jean Boggs and Jamie Witman), the musical Hamilton (Jessica Mattera, Susan Adkins, and Bethany Dietrich), and reality television and influencers (Naomi Binnie, Jesus Espinoza, and Gina Levitan), while the next essay on zines (Claire Du Laney, Clare Maakestad, and Monica Maher) reiterates some of the same points about the value of zine production as a teaching tool as the earlier essay by Pessin and Montoya. The excellent final “Instruction” essay, by Franny Geade and Kate Thornhill, focuses specifically on the value of high-profile popular culture cases and issues for teaching the practical application of copyright law; pop culture examples not only make the instruction “more fun and relevant” but add “weight and a certain complexity that cannot be manufactured” (199).

The last section of the book addresses “Programming.” Programming outreach in academic libraries takes many creative forms, and here contributors talk about paranormal walking tours organized through the library (Courtney Block), gaming communities gathering in libraries (John Meier, Christopher Burke, and Stephanie A. Diaz), a display and lecture series on Barbie dolls (Jennifer Tang), science literacy through a pop culture speaker series (Erin Burns, Amanda Laubmeier, Robert G. Weiner, and Innocent Awasom), and perhaps most unexpectedly, teaching good data management practices through pop culture (Hannah C. Gunderman)—I find myself quite intrigued by the possibilities of “Develop[ing] Good File Naming Habits through 1980s Album Covers!” (277).

This book is an excellent source of ideas for librarians who want to leverage pop culture collections, or educators who want to work with their librarians to better engage students through the use of these resources. Both groups will benefit from the theoretical and historical foundations outlined in the first two chapters, but the meat of the book is in the specific case studies.

Janet Brennan Croft is an Associate University Librarian at the University of Northern Iowa.  She is the author of War in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien and has also written on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Orphan Black, J.K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, Lois McMaster Bujold, and other authors, TV shows, and movies, and is editor or co-editor of many collections of literary essays, most recently Loremasters and Libraries in Fantasy and Science Fiction with Jason Fisher. She edits the refereed scholarly journal Mythlore and is assistant editor of Slayage.