Thursday, August 09, 2007

A Look at 63 years of ALA Notable Books

I have been mining lists of American Library Association Notable Books awards to find worthy titles for my biography project. In the process, I have read 50 Years of Notable Books thoroughly and noticed a few things that I wish to report. I also used the The Lists on the Reference and User Services website to bring the research up to date.

Some Lists Hard to Use

Identifying the biographies was not exactly easy, as the various committees at RUSA (and at both the Lending Round Table and the Division of Public Libraries before RUSA) have not agreed through time on how to report the Notable Books. A single alphabetical list that did not distinguish between fiction and nonfiction was issued until 1974, when the committee divided the titles into the two categories. Someone must not have liked the idea, for the dividing into fiction and nonfiction did not reappear again until the 1987 list. Most years since then are divided, but some are not. I am happy to see that the most of the recent lists do separate.

Before 1970, the committee did not write annotations. I had to look at a variety of online library catalogs to identify the subjects of many of the books without subtitles. The titles alone were often insufficient. Some possible biographies turned out to be fiction. Some that I suspected were novels turned out to be biographies, histories, or other nonfiction topics. I'm glad recent lists are more informative and of more help to readers' advisers.

For my purposes, I am excluding autobiographies and memoirs.

Biographies by the Years

The number of biographies in Notable Books have decreased since a high in the 1970s, but may go up slightly again in the 2000s.

  • 59 in the 1950s
  • 53 in the 1960s
  • 67 in the 1970s
  • 33 in the 1980s
  • 21 in the 1990s
  • 21 in the 2000s (through 2007)

Individual years can go way up and down. There was only one notable biography in 1991, 1992, 1997 and 2001. There were twelve in both 1950 and 1973.

The Lists Reflect Their Times

According to the introduction of 50 Years of Notable Books, the first list, called "Outstanding Books," was compiled by the Lending Round Table in 1944, a time of war. Among the titles on that first list were the following:

  • How to Think about War and Peace by Mortimer J. Adler
  • How New Will the Better World Be? by Carl L. Becker
  • They Call It "Purple Heart Valley" by Margaret Bourke-White
  • Ten Years in Japan by Joseph C. Grew
  • America Unlimited by Eric A. Johnston
  • U.S. War Aims by Walter Lippmann
  • Prejudice: Japanese Americans by Carey McWilliams
  • Brave Men by Ernest Pyle
  • Tarawa: The Story of a Battle by Robert Sherrod
  • People on Our Side by Edgar Snow
  • Lend-Lease: Weapon of Victory by Edward R. Stettinius
  • They Shall Not Sleep by Leland Stowe
  • The Veteran Comes Back by Walter Willard
  • Time for Decision by Sumner Welles

In the late 1950s and 1960s, there were many books reflecting the civil rights movement and environmental concerns. At that time, there were also many anthropology books suggesting nontraditional social arrangements.

What will people notice looking back at the 2000s?

Some Authors Repeat

As you might expect, some great authors appeared in several lists. Wallace Stegner, John Updike, and Eudora Welty were honored six times each through 1996. The committees always seems to like historians. Arthur M. Schlesinger and Catherine Drinker Bowen each appeared in the lists seven times. The champion of Notable Books was the very famous Sir Winston Churchill, whose books were listed eight times.

Some Subjects Repeat

Just publish a book on Samuel Johnson and you get a Notable Books honor. The same can be said for books about Franklin D. Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt. Margaret Bourke-White not only won for a book that she wrote, two books about her were also named Notable Books. Can you say John Maynard Keynes and Douglas MacArthur twice quickly. Did I mention John F. Kennedy?

Many of the Books Have Lasted

In my checking library catalogs, I found all the books that I checked were still available in Illinois somewhere. Most of the Notable Books of the last fifty years are still in my library's seventy library consortium. From the mid-1950s to the beginning lists, many of the titles that I searched are only available at colleges and universities. Of course, I was searching for the titles that I did not recognize. The more famous titles are available everywhere.

Reflection of Me

I was please to see books that I read on many of the lists from the late 1970s forward. I have often thought I had rather specialized tastes. Maybe I just fit a public librarian profile.

I also saw many books to try if I ever find the time. How about Popular Book: A History of America's Popular Taste by James D. Hart from 1950? I wonder what it would say to us now?

Take a look at the old ALA Notable Books lists. Allow a couple of hours.


Maggie said...

Thanks for the insight, Rick. Do you include memoirs in w/ bios?

Later, I'm off to write my biography of Samuel Johnson for instant fame and wealth. ;D

ricklibrarian said...


In my library, many memoirs end up in the biographies. A few that are much about a topic, such as surviving a disease or a historical event, end up elsewhere.

For my project (the book), I am focusing on biographies written by a writer who researched the subject - not a book by a person who is or knew the subject.

Good luck with Samuel Johnson.


Laura said...

Damn, I was going to take Sam Johnson--but perhaps there's room for two.

The total inconsistency of ALA book lists drives me crazy--the YALSA and ALSC book lists are just as bad. It makes it hard to judge what sort of book you have, as you noted, and it also just looks bad, as though we don't care enough about details--or so it strikes me.

Sandy Whiteley said...

I edited the compilation 50 Years of Notable Books which ALA published (now out of print). What surprised me then (in the 1990s) was that almost 50 per cent of the books were still in print. Some publishers such as Norton and OUP keep their books in print for many years. Sandy Whiteley

ricklibrarian said...


Thanks for commenting. I hope you liked the playful look at the lists. It is good to know that at least some publishers try to keep their titles in print. I wonder if ebook versions will be issued for their old titles.