Building SF Collections and Working With Readers | Q&A with Librarians Ben Cox and Scott Barbour

Ben Cox and Scott Barbour, sff experts at Cuyahoga County Public Library, OH, share tips for working with readers, building collections, and promoting the genres.

Ben Cox and Scott Barbour, sff experts at Cuyahoga County Public Library, OH, share tips for working with readers, building collections, and promoting the genres.

What can you share with librarians who do not read sf to help them understand it, appreciate it, and work with readers?

Scott Barbour: There’s a school of thought that science fiction is just one genre that falls under a broader category called speculative fiction. As Jason Boyd of Fictionphile offers, speculative fiction may be defined as “a type of fiction that encompasses genres with elements that do not exist in reality, recorded history, nature, or the present universe.” Other genres under the speculative umbrella include alternate history, apocalyptic and postapocalyptic fiction, cyberpunk, dystopian, fantasy, horror fiction, magical realism, superhero fiction, hopepunk/solarpunk/climate fiction, etc.

Another key aspect of speculative fiction is genre blending. Take the Star Wars franchise as an example. Set in space with aliens and advanced technologies, it appears to fall under science fiction. However, Star Wars also features a kind of magic in the “force” and notably takes place “a long time ago…,” placing it equally within the realm of fantasy.

My sales pitch focuses on the amount of variety that is available. There is so much to choose from under the speculative umbrella.

Ben Cox: For me, some of best sci-fi and fantasy has a nice mix of big picture or “what if…” questions and action/adventure elements. They combine fun, fantastical elements along with a kind of thought experiment. How would humanity react if aliens contacted us, or if all the men disappeared, or [in] a fantasy setting, rather than kings it was a strong matriarchal society? What would it really be like to be told that you’re the one that has to save the world? A good title can be almost like a fable. Not necessarily with a moral lesson at the end, but the fantastical veneer can allow an author to approach contentious topics from a different angle. Of course, sometimes we’re just in the mood for a swashbuckling adventure but set on the moon. The moon is awesome.

Are there sure-bet authors you would suggest librarians new to sf read?

Cox: Most of Neal Stephenson’s stuff would fit, but his books can be a bit dense (Anathem blew my mind). Hard to go wrong with Ursula K. Le Guin (I’ve reread her over the course of the pandemic. “Earthsea” remains brilliant). Victoria Schwab’s books are great (I’m reading her City of Ghosts at the moment). Nnedi Okorafor’s “Binti” trilogy is awesome. I’ve turned multiple library readers on to Cixin Liu’s “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” series and have convinced a few members of my D&D party to read Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi (which is probably my favorite book of this last year) and James Islington’s “The Licanius Trilogy.” James S.A. Corey’s “The Expanse” series is an awesome example of a modern-day space opera, as is Arkady Martine’s “Teixcalaan” series. 

Barbour: I’ll treat this question like an Oscar’s acceptance speech, knowing I will leave many names out, but here are some contemporary starting picks: Pierce Brown, Octavia Butler, Ernest Cline, Justin Cronin, Hugh Howey, Kazuo Ishiguro, N.K. Jemisin, Alma Katsu, Ann Leckie, Cixin Liu, Emily St. John Mandel, Marissa Meyer, Benjamin Percy, and John Scalzi.

When building a standout sf collection, what factors do you consider?

Cox: I try to have a good mix of stand-alone titles and series. And authors of course. New ones and also the classics. And if we have the series, I try to keep all the books on the shelves, so readers can move on to the next title without much of a wait.

Barbour: I agree with Ben 100 percent. The only thing I would add is a suggestion to dedicate some prime real estate at the front of your building. Too often sci-fi and fantasy collections are buried in the back stacks of libraries like some dirty secret.

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