Ruth E. Dish now
Texas Woman's University
Are young adults taking this transitional step by electing to read biographies? Adolescence is the transitional time when reading preferences move from fiction to nonfiction. How are teen readers bridging the genres?
As a district library media specialist, working with approximately seven hundred K-12 students in a small rural school district in North-central Wisconsin, I questioned whether or not young adults were actually self-selecting and reading biographies. During the 1990-91 school year, I began a biography circulation count in the middle school library media center which then served approximately 170 students. While this preliminary count showed the numbers of circulating biographies, it did not satisfy my curiosity about the actual books that students were reading or their motivations for doing so. Consequently, after that first year, I expanded the data collection to include title specific information on the biographies students were circulating. Due to the small size of the school, hand written circulation statistics, including titles, were kept daily during the 1991-92 and 1992-93 school years. The school library media center's circulation system was not automated so information was gleaned directly from circulation cards.
Experience with the teachers and the students, and an examination of the 1990-91 counts led to the belief that the students were checking out biographies only when they were required reading for assignments. At certain points during the school year teachers specifically assigned biographies as required reading. Each year, for example, the 8th grade history teacher scheduled time for classes to come into the library media center for an introduction to period specific biographies and for a review of how to locate them in the card catalog and on the shelves. It appeared that peaks in biography circulation coincided with the months, or school quarters, that biography assignments were given, and that few biographies were circulated for recreational reading. In order to accept or reject this hypothesis, I needed to analyze circulation counts, periods when biographies were checked out, favored subjects, and popular titles.
Twenty-seven broad subject areas such as "Adventure," "African-Americans," "Presidents," "Social Reformers," "Sports," and "World Leaders" emerged from an examination of the titles that circulated during the two year period of the study. A majority of the subject terms were chosen to correspond to students' requests, such as "I need to read a biography on a 20th century African-American," or "Would you help me find a biography on a sports star?" A few narrow terms were chosen, such as "Armenians," because the corresponding biographies did not fit into any of the general categories chosen. If overlap between categories occurred, the subject area most requested by the students was used for categorization. For example, a biography on Martin Luther King Jr. was included in the African-American subject division, because students came to it through this descriptor, rather than targeting his life asa social reformer or his role as a religious leader.
During the first period, the 1991-92 school year, the subject area "Presidents" received the most circulations at 98. "Sports" was the second most popular subject area with 57 circulations. During the second period, the 1992-93 school year, the favored subjects reversed: the highest circulation subject area was "Sports" with 33 circulations, and "Presidents" came in a close second with 28titles checked out.
One hundred twenty six "Presidents" titles and 90 "Sports" titles circulated during the two year period. "World Leaders" came in a distant third with 50 circulations for the same period.
The students showed clear preferences for certain titles, such as those on our presidents or about sports stars. Abraham Lincoln proved to be the most read about president and basketball's David Robinson won the popularity contest in the sports category. There was very little overlap between high circulation titles from the 1991-92 and 1992-93 school years. Biographies on David Robinson and Grizzly Adams were the only titles to make both lists.
Biography circulation dropped from a high of 398 check outs during the 1991-92 school year to a low of 115 during the 1992-93 school year. March 1992had the highest circulation, 114 titles, during the 1991-92 school year. It should be noted that many of these circulations were renewals by students possibly struggling to complete their biography reports. During the 1992-93school year, February was the highest circulation month with 45 check outs, less than half of the high circulation month's total for the previous year.
The rise in circulation during March 1992 and February 1993 coincided with the 8th grade 20th century biography unit taught during the third quarter of both school years. Students came into the library media center in January 1992 and in February 1993 for an introduction to 20th century biographies.
There was also an increase in biography circulation during November and December 1991. This increase can, to a large degree, be attributed to a classroom assignment given in November, which required the 8th grade history students to research the life of a person who lived during the 18th century. The 1992-93 statistics show zero biography circulation during this assignment time period. Biographies were not required reading during this quarter.
A change in classroom assignments possibly contributed to the over 70 percent decrease in biography circulation from the 1991-92 to the 1992-93 school year. For example, the 8th grade history teacher gave the students the option of reading a historical fiction title rather than a biography for one of the assignments during the 1992-93 school year. The assignment had been biography specific the year before. Many students took this option. This response to the historical fiction option suggests that these students were not reading biographies, especially titles about presidents and/or world leaders, unless required to do so. When given an option not to, they took the option.
The statistics compiled from the 172 titles that circulated during the 1991-92 or 1992-93 school years support the hypothesis that this particular population of middle school students check out biographies only for the completion of class assignments.
The subject areas of highest circulation also support this claim, as "Presidents" and "Sports" were the two highest subject areas circulated. Students did use both 20th century sports figures and presidents for their third quarter biography reports. The sports books were snapped up by both male and female readers the first day these students came to the library media center for the biography unit introduction.
The high circulation rates in November 1991, December 1991, March 1992, and February 1993 all coincide with biography unit introductions in the library media center. And, every circulated title could have been read to meet the required biography assignments. Conversely, when teachers did not require their students to read biographies, circulation dropped to zero.
This study was conducted with a small rural middle school population. Nevertheless, school library media specialists can learn from this two year analysis and, perhaps, address some of the very same questions in their own facilities. A replication of this study might well produce quite different results due to the size of the sample school's population, the school's curriculum, the library media center's biography collection, teacher support of trade book use in the curriculum, the proactive role of the library media specialist, and other local factors.
This study did not answer all of my questions, though it certainly did support the hypothesis that there is a very strong correlation between biography circulation and biography assignments, which in turn suggests that students, in this particular middle school, read biographies only when required to do so for class assignments. Could an interest in biographies as leisure reading be cultivated? Would biography circulation improve with the addition of book talks and/or displays in the library media center? I also question to what degree young adults are reading biographical materials in other formats. Are they reading biographical materials for their own edification and pleasure, but in magazines and/or newspapers? US and People , two popular magazines with young adults, both include a great deal of biographical material. Similarly, Sports Illustrated , which young adults read from cover to cover, is also laden with biographical material.
Further research on all aspects of the biographical interests and preferences of young adults is needed. Replicating this study in middle school library media centers across the country will certainly add to our knowledge base by either supporting or refuting the results from this small population. In addition, research should be conducted to determine whether or not young adults are reading biographical materials in formats other than books.
Biographies hold the potential of serving as a bridge in reading tastes. That bridge is useless unless students willingly cross it. Only by analyzing their biography reading patterns can we, as library media specialists and teachers, guide them in taking that transitional step.