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The light stuff

By November 1, 2021September 16th, 2023No Comments

By Allison Campbell Jensen

  • The Robert McCollister Collection of popular reading is on the first floor of Wilson Library.

    The haunting “Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia drops readers into a situation “more complicated and sinister than the initial fear of just a con artist husband isolating his new wife and convincing the world she’s mad so he can steal her money.” (Jessica P. Wick, NPR/MPR News, July 2, 2020)

  • “Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the long tradition of Indigenous resistance” by Nick Estes “is at once a work of history, a manifesto, and an intergenerational story of resistance.” (Verso Books publishing house, accessed Oct. 7, 2021)
  • “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins “is an intense psychological thriller in which reality and perception seamlessly change positions and you can never be totally certain which is which.” (, from Staff top fives 2015, accessed Oct. 7, 2021)
  • Twin light-skinned Black girls run away from home at 16 in Brit Bennett’s “The Vanishing Half,” “a multi-generational family saga that tackles prickly issues of racial identity and bigotry and conveys the corrosive effects of secrets and dissembling.” (Heller McAlpin, NPR/MPR News, June 3, 2020)

Along with “Becoming” by Michelle Obama, these are among the most checked-out titles recently from the Libraries’ popular reading collections. The McCollister Collection in Wilson Library and the popular reading collections in Magrath and Walter libraries each offer about 200 answers to students’ frequent question: “Where are the fun books?” Without these collections, light reading would be tough to find amidst the more than 7 million volumes in University Libraries.

Finding the fun

Mexican Gothic

Readers can scan the Libraries website for leisure reading and request items or they can visit the libraries to browse.

“We hope that people will come in and visit in person and then explore what else Magrath Library has to offer them,” says Scott Marsalis, who selects the books for Magrath’s popular reading collection. It is located across from the service desk on the ground floor.

In Walter Library, “when I’m working at the service desk on the second floor in the Great Hall, it really does make me happy to see students wander over and browse,” says Julie Dinger of the books she selects. “It’s nice for them to see this collection for them.”

Wilson Library spotlights the McCollister Collection on the first floor not only with shelving but also with comfortable chairs and a table. “Currently, there are over 300 items in the McCollister Collection and over 100 are checked out,” says Becky Adamski, who manages and promotes the collection. “That means people are enjoying them.”

Recreational reading selections have been featured during Welcome Week, in pop-up libraries, and in the February favorite Blind Date with a Book. The Blind Date books are wrapped; part of the fun is “not being able to judge the book by its cover,” she says. Adamski and a few of her colleagues write clues to the content. The check-out rate exceeds 90%. Year-round, readers also can try the book matchmaking service, run by Adamski, Richmond Kinney, Lacie McMillin, and Ashley Merrill.

What’s in the mix?

Our History is the Future

Our History is the Future:

The collections differ from each other based on the interests of the donors in one case and on the interests of library users. Dr. Robert McCollister of the Medical School and his wife, Virginia, gave funding for the McCollister Collection. As a faculty member, he used Wilson to check out literature for pleasure reading but it is hard to browse for these titles in an academic library. The McCollisters like to highlight contemporary literature in this browsable collection, as well as leisure reading, says Malaika Grant, who selects that collection.

“They are interested in award-winners and recommended titles,” she says. Current mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, and well-reviewed nonfiction also are on the shelves.

Grant likes to have a few books that people can flip through while they are waiting for friends, class, or an appointment in Wilson. Image-heavy books and short stories can suit those waiting. “We really focus on diversity, too — diversity of authors as well as subjects addressed in the books,” she says.

Marsalis seeks to reflect top-of-mind topics for the St. Paul campus.

The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train

“I look for new and interesting books in natural sciences, things relating to food and agriculture, as well as a range of fiction,” he says. Nonfiction makes up anywhere from 60% to 75% of the Magrath collection. “In fiction, I especially look for underrepresented voices and diverse voices,” he adds. He also included the Bridgerton romance series, “thinking it might be a fun way for people to relax with something that is not serious. Yet, ultimately it does relate to family relationships, which is a part of the St. Paul campus subjects.”

For the Walter collection of popular literature, Dinger checks over the lists compiled by the book leasing agency, and also keeps in mind the physical sciences and engineering materials housed there.

“Certainly, I select general popular novels, but if there’s a new science book that’s kind of hot or makes the New York Times bestseller list, I would certainly get that.” She coordinates with Jody Kempf, who collects popular science books for Walter, so that their collections don’t overlap too much.

Because Walter’s users come from all sorts of majors, she also looks for gentle introductions to science topics: “What if you’re not a Physics major but you’re physics-curious, so to speak?” She adds: “They are meant to be light reading so I would never get anything super heavy or esoteric on any topic, science or otherwise.” Personally, she is a fan of graphic books — nonfiction or graphic novels — so she likes to have those in the mix at Walter as well.

She also seeks a few books for students about wellness, in the broadest sense, like finding life balance or learning how to budget. “While those aren’t necessarily fun books, I think it can be cool to learn about those topics, especially if you’re a young person living on your own for the first time.”

Who needs fun?

The Vanishing Half

The Vanishing Half

The popular collections meet students’ needs.

“We have had requests over the years for people who are looking for something to read during break or vacations,” Marsalis says, “or just to give their brains a rest from their studies.” Designed to respond to those requests, the Magrath popular reading collection is brand-new.

Students are pleasantly surprised to find recreational reading in Walter Library — or any academic library — Dinger says: “lighter reading they don’t have to get tested on.” Walter was the first to have a popular collection, Grant notes, based on answers to a student survey.

The Libraries want to support students as whole people, Grant says.

“We want to do more as a library to support all of their needs and that includes reading for pleasure as well as reading for their academic work,” she says. “That’s still our main priority, of course, but we want to do this, too.”

By leasing the books, the selectors can have additional copies of titles that are trending, acquire a few with staying power for the permanent collection, and, on a quarterly basis, refresh the collections. “Anecdotally,” Adamski says, “the students love it.” As for the selectors? Marsalis says: “It’s great fun.”


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