Saturday, March 26, 2011

NPR and Books

NPR has been in the news quite a bit recently. Have you noticed? I am not here to rehash all the arguments about plans to cut NPR's funding or to lay out a detailed case for why I would oppose or approve of the cutting of NPR's funding.

All I would say is that I think NPR's reach is much greater than skeptics would have you believe and that its audience is not as narrow as some would have you believe.In working with the interlibrary loan requests that come in to us at the library, I occasionally notice some out-of-the-expected books to keep popping up in our requests. These are books that are decades old, not by widely known authors, not written by someone who Oprah likes (though she could like them, I guess, if she knew about them).
I wondered for a year or so why these uncommon books suddenly would be getting requested often, sometimes a few times a day for a week or so period. Then, I did a fairly obvious act to appease my curiosity. I "Bing"ed it (I don't Google or Yahoo!).

Recent coverage on NPR of these books became the most likely source of their sudden and returning popularity. Turns out NPR is a great advertiser of off-the-beaten path books. Three specific books our patrons have requested I am almost certain stem from specific NPR broadcasts.

These three books are: The House Without Windows by Barbara Newhall Follett, Oreo by Fran Ross and Operation Family Secrets by Frank Calabrese Jr.

House Without Windows was published in 1927. The author was a teen prodigy who had two books published by the age of 16, but then the author mysteriously disappeared. Here's a link to the NPR story: Bangor Public Library owns a copy of this book. It is currently checked out.

Oreo, originally released in 1974, is a story of a biracial young women searching for her estranged father. Here's the NPR link: Finding an available copy of this book is difficult, so Bangor Public Library is ordering a copy of the book, which was republished in 2000.
Operation Family Secrets is a memoir of a son who helped authorities with the conviction of fourteen notorious Chicago mobsters, including his own father. Here's that NPR story: This is a newer book that the Bangor Public Library has ordered a copy of for our collection.

These three books do not have much in common as far as their themes, content or time period. But what they do share is that all were reviewed by NPR correspondents who broadcast to an audience most likely more diverse than these books are.

These books may not be for everyone. NPR may not be for everyone. But, lost often in the discussion of reducing our investment in NPR is a fair evaluation of who public radio reaches and what ideas (ideas often utterly devoid of any political content or stance) it may alone being broadcasting in our culture. I don't know that a commercial market would let us know again of books like Oreo or The House Without Windows because these books are no longer commodities that will be sold on any market in any large amount.

Ideas that are sold as products have a definite place in our country, but so do ideas that are largely commerce-free. NPR serves a terrific purpose in this regard, as do many of its other "public" kin like our public libraries and our public parks.

Let me know how you feel.

Patrick Layne
Bangor Public Library
Reference & Interlibrary Loan Librarian

Bangor Public Library

Bangor Public Library
Bangor Public Library,
145 Harlow Street,
Bangor ME 04401