The capstone course in library school back in the day before the Internet was called “Basic Reference.” In our version, the professor described several reference books, listed twenty questions, then turned us loose. We had one week to find the answers, and explain exactly how we did it.
That course was exasperating and devoured hours. It was also a blast, even though I was struggling through my doctorate in counseling at the same time. One question, however, stayed with me. How do you categorize non-circulating reference books versus those that stay on the shelves for check-out? Sets, of course, were obvious. Others, not so much.
Ultimately, all non-fiction books could be classified as reference. People are searching for answers. Librarians chatted with the individual, then made recommendations. Today, people unthinkingly search the Internet instead, without exploring the source or checking the validity of the information.
There are numerous categories of nonfiction, but one of the most amorphous is the “self-help” category. Years ago, everything was pretty much lumped under the heading of psychology, with a sprinkling of paranormal titles and hauntings. During the past thirty or so years, however, the category has exploded, and both librarians and booksellers struggle to describe this niche. Through the years, I saw the old term “Metaphysics.” It then evolved into “New Age,” although most of it seemed to be the same old stuff repackaged. Does anyone remember “How to Make Friends and Influence People,” circa 1936?
Most recently it has been labelled “Mind/Body/Spirit,” which then spills into religion and philosophy. The ever-present titles in the paranormal category now include channeled material from non-physical entities, alien abductions, and an increasing range of out-of-this world material.
When I binge-read in self-help, I’m befuddled by the sheer amount of information available. Much of it is contradictory, and often based on personal experience, not any kind of empirical research. Most of these authors include blogs, podcasts, and seminars to supplement their books. People come to me and ask for information, and ask about the legitimacy of these titles. I can point them to additional information, but I continue to struggle what to say. In many instances I sense there is a yearning for some sort of spiritual or emotional comfort.
What should I do? Warn people to use common sense?
Gently question the need to spend hundreds (or thousands) of dollars for additional resources?
What do I tell people who ask for recommendations?