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Chick Lit in Historical Settings by Frida Skybäck
by Helene Ehriander

Chick lit is a genre that usually depicts what life is like for young women in big cities, or occasionally—for the sake of variety—on fashionable country estates. They pursue their careers, go to parties, gossip with their girlfriends, and shop, while dating a series of men in their hunt for the right one. They contemplate their identity and their life, and they want everything at once so that their life will be perfect. Being slim and fit, having flawless nails and well-coiffed hair, enjoying success at work, and having a beautiful, well-kept home is a must for these women who aim for perfectionism and long for happiness. Chick lit is usually associated with the present day, and tends to be regarded as a humorous and ironic commentary on contemporary ideals and expectations. Most of the books classified in this genre take place in our own time. [End Page 1]

There are, however, several novels very close to chick lit that take place in a historical setting. These novels include many of the ingredients that we find in chick lit, but here it is grand balls instead of clubbing, muddy streets instead of asphalt, horse-drawn coaches instead of sports cars, rustling silk and bobbing tulle from dressmakers in Paris instead of famous designer brands, and visits to the confectioner instead of a latte at the sidewalk café. The important questions that the young female protagonists have to confront are not very different from those occupying Bridget Jones and her sisters, and it is not difficult for the reader to recognize herself and identify with them (Ehriander).

“Chick lit in corsets” is written by women, read by women, has female heroes, and conveys a picture of women as being basically the same throughout the ages, so that much is still as it was in the past. The readers, moreover, are often young, and this is the type of book that attracts teenage girls and their mothers. In this article I discuss Swedish “chick lit in corsets” with examples from two novels by the Swedish author Frida Skybäck (born 1980): Charlotte Hassel (2011) and The White Lady (Den vita frun) (2012). I am particularly interested in these narratives as adolescent literature and adolescent reading. Frida Skybäck’s novels are marketed by the publisher Frank Förlag as adult literature, but Skybäck deliberately writes primarily for teenage girls, and Charlotte Hassel has been offered to teenage readers in the children’s book club Barnens Bokklubb (Skybäck, interview).

Chick lit in historical settings

According to Rocío Montoro, “Chick Lit is sometimes seen as a revamped version, a rebranding, or (for some) simply a renaming, of other more traditional forms of popular writing, namely romance or romantic fiction” (7). “Chick lit in corsets” can be regarded as a genre hybrid with some of its roots in older romantic literature. The novels are very close to what is usually called “romance” but they also have several typical features of chick lit. Many of them could also be called “feel-good” novels, a designation that comes from the emotions they arouse in the reader. Kaye Mitchell writes in her article “Gender and Sexuality in Popular Fiction” about how chick lit has also influenced the traditional romance. Chick lit is considered to have higher status and is treated with greater respect than romance, and authors and publishers alike believe that the romance genre has something to gain from being influenced by chick lit as regards, for example, the portrayal of better-educated, more ambitious heroines (Mitchell 134). Chick lit has also challenged the old boundaries between popular culture and more highly esteemed literature, and publishers tend to advertise romance together with chick lit so that the two genres will attract readers from each other (Harzewski 2011, 32, 41). That genres in today’s literature cross-fertilize each other is the rule rather than the exception, and there are many reasons for this. Authors who write in a particular genre are often regarded as innovative if they break one or more of the traditional structures. They can also profile themselves and express their personal authorial style by relating to the set framework of the genre, and by going against the conventions they can criticize the accepted norms and values of the genre. [End Page 2]

Maria Ehrenberg, in a book about present-day romance from Maeve Binchy to Marcia Willett, divides light historical novels into four categories:

  1. The unique person. In this category we meet historical personages and read about historical periods and events from the perspective of one person’s actions.
  2. Laborious everyday work. These books describe the misery and toil of everyday life.
  3. Recent history. The Second World War is a common topic here, and the narrative often continues down to the present day.
  4. The Miss Novel, also known as the governess novel or the manor-house novel. Here we find mystery and elements of thriller, as well as issues of class, money, and wealth. The historical backdrop is often sketchy and stereotyped, and the stories end with the by tradition dictated kiss (39-40).

Frida Skybäck’s novels do not fit into any of these four categories, although there are elements of the Miss Novel in particular. Maria Nilson writes that it may seem strange to call historical portrayals “chick lit,” and she cites as an example Anna Godbersen’s four-part suite The Luxe, which takes place in Manhattan in 1899–1900, of which at least the first part is close to chick lit (40). Nilson writes that it is fairly unproblematic to call the first book, The Luxe, chick lit jr., that is, chick lit for young readers: “There are parties and clothes and shopping and intrigues in an upper-class milieu. Then the series develops in a different direction, turning much darker, and it also becomes more difficult to identify the genre” (40, author’s own translation). Chick lit jr. is characterized by the inclusion of typical chick lit ingredients while simultaneously considering matters such as reaching adulthood, identity, awakening sexuality, the future, and relations to friends, customary elements in stories for adolescents and young adults (Johnson 141 ff.).

The action of Frida Skybäck’s debut book Charlotte Hassel (2011) takes place in 1771, with flashbacks to 1758. In 1758 Charlotte is a young woman from a well-off family who falls in love with a man of her own age. After a party she walks the short distance to her home, waiting for her parents, when an older man, influential and wealthy, follows her closely in order to assault her. Charlotte puts up a fight when he finds his way into her bedroom and tries to rape her, and she kills him with her letter opener in self-defense. When her parents arrive they help her get rid of the body and they send her to safety in England, where she finds a good life with a male friend, to whom she becomes engaged. Her parents and sister suffer fraud and extortion, and after thirteen years Charlotte decides to come back to Stockholm incognito to try to put things right. She also understands that a coup d’état is in the making. She meets once again the man she loved in her youth and breaks off the engagement in England; it turns out that her fiancé is homosexual and that they can only ever be good friends, which they remain even after Charlotte marries someone else. The kind, thoughtful homosexual male friend, with interests in fashion and interior decoration, is a common character in chick lit. The female characters in the novel are complex, and Skybäck plays with the stereotypes of the whore and the Madonna when she allows room for young women’s thoughts and feelings. [End Page 3]

In this novel there is plenty of female culture and feminine attributes: Charlotte buys mineral makeup, enjoys delicious pastries, and has exquisite dresses made for her. However, there is also a feminist intention in that Charlotte takes control over her life and her situation. She gets involved in the game of politics, showing a clear vision and sense of purpose as she averts the planned coup d’état. The reader follows Charlotte from the time when she is a young and somewhat insecure girl, which makes it easier for younger readers to identify with her, up to the happy ending, when she has developed into a grown-up woman who takes her share of what life has to offer.


The term “romance” is one that embraces a wide variety of literature on the theme of romantic love.[1] In Barbara Fuchs’s book Romance the analyses range from ancient Greece, through medieval tales of chivalry, Shakespeare and the Renaissance, to end with Harlequin romances. Fuchs also underlines how many sub-genres there are, and how popular contemporary romance literature is (124 ff.). Romances in the sense of romantic literature written by women for women usually have a similar construction, consisting of a number of set narrative structures that are varied in a more or less predictable way up to the happy ending when the heroine receives a kiss, an offer of marriage, or both. Frida Skybäck’s second novel, The White Lady (2012), contains less chick lit and more romance in the narrative, but it is powerful in its feminist message when it comes to emphasizing women’s right to shape their own lives and to be respected even if they are neither beautiful nor rich. This novel combines several literary motifs and patterns that often occur in both romance, chick lit and books for young adults: for example, the “ugly duckling”, “Cinderella,” and the orphan child (Harzewski 2006, 38). Most of the action takes place in the castle of Borgeby in Skåne. The story is about the fates of individual women, insolvency, and love across class boundaries: “love across the classes [is] an extremely common theme in historical romance,” Jerome de Groot writes in his survey in The Historical Novel (58).

Janice A. Radway, who has written a study of female readings of romance literature, Reading the Romance, states that the reading works for readers “as the ritualistic repetition of a single, immutable cultural myth” (194). But Radway goes on to claim, albeit in a rather limited study, that the reading women display different strategies and that their reading serves a number of different purposes. This is interesting given that romance literature and the reading of it has been criticized from many quarters for being conservative, presenting a distorted picture of society, fooling its readers, and even turning them into addicts and slaves since their real problems are never solved; instead they get stuck in a reading that brings temporary relief through illusory solutions. This outlook on the reading of romantic literature and female readers as victims has a long history. Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary (1856–57) has achieved great significance with its portrayal of a reading girl who through time loses contact with reality and as a young woman falls into a destructive pattern with reading, eroticism, fashion, and shimmering pink dreams of romantic rendezvous, while she cheats on her husband, runs up huge debts, and ends up seeing suicide by arsenic as the only way out. [End Page 4]

Perhaps some romance literature over the years could be called escapist, and can justifiably be accused of building on stereotyped gender roles, with protagonists that are poor role models for young readers, but in today’s romance and chick lit there are interesting exceptions which actually use the genre and the form to communicate feminist messages to their readers through playful, knowing hints and examples of energetic heroines who shape their own lives. It is also not infrequent that the genre comments on itself in its portrayal of literature and reading. This gives readers the chance to read subversively and to read against the text; instead of passivizing the reader, this can give strength. It is also quite common for the female protagonists to be interested in literature, and using the wisdom they have derived from their reading. Maria in The White Lady enjoys the castle library and immerses herself not only in romantic novels but also reads, for example, contemporary female poetry.

Diana Wallace, who has written a study titled The Woman’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900–2000, argues that the historical novel was one of the most important forms for women’s reading and writing during the twentieth century. She testifies to how she herself and many of the women she knows have read historical novels by and about women ever since childhood: “From an early age I read women’s historical novels avidly, as did my mother and sister. The same was true, I later discovered, of many of my female friends and colleagues, and of many of the literary critics, writers, and theorists who have been central to the development of feminist literary criticism” (ix). She points out, however, that there has been a tendency to associate female authors’ historical novels with romance and label them as escapist: “Associated with the ‘popular’, women writers have thus been doubly excluded from the established canon” (Wallace 10). What I think becomes clear when one studies what has been written about the different genres is that romance is perceived as a female genre while historical novels are masculine (and “serious”).

 Historical novels

Då som nu (“Then As Now”) by Hans O. Granlid from 1964 is still the standard Swedish work about the historical novel. Granlid does not write anything about children’s and young people’s literature, nor about young people’s reading, and of all the novels he analyses, only one is by a female author. The situation is similar in major English-language studies, and another remarkable thing is that, when the origin of the historical novel is described, only male authors are highlighted, with Walter Scott taking pride of place. Female authors and the genres they have developed and published their works in have to take a back seat as male authors set the pattern for how historical novels should be written.

In his introduction Granlid poses interesting and fundamental questions about what a historical novel is and what characterizes it. He is interested in the problems of analogy and archaization: that is, how the historical period is described in the literary work, how the matter is presented and placed in a particular time, how it is related to the present, and what specifically is archaized in content and style. Closely linked to the problems of analogy and archaization is the problem of anachronism: that is, what happens when writing about something from the past that is to be read in the present, made comprehensible to contemporary readers (Granlid 16 ff.). Archaization is thus about how the text is made [End Page 5] “old-fashioned”: anachronisms are things or expressions that are out of place in the period, and analogies are agreements between our time and the historical time.

Historical books often incorporate a large amount of fact in the narrative, which means that people often ask where the dividing line between fact and fiction runs. A historical novel can never be regarded as “true,” for somewhere the author has decided where history ends and the story begins: in other words, where facts give way to fiction, and if a factual event is described we must remember that it is slanted in some way by the author.

Maria Nikolajeva, in her book Barnbokens byggklossar (“Building Blocks of the Children’s Book”), discusses what a historical portrayal is, with examples from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, published in 1868. The novel is about the author’s experiences in a domestic setting during the America Civil War, and it is partly or mostly autobiographical. The book has been read by many generations of girls and has also been filmed:

Historical novels are set in the past. It is important to remember, however, that it is the author’s past, not the reader’s, that determines whether a novel can be called historical. From the perspective of a reader in the 1990s, Tom Sawyer, Little Women, Nils Holgersson, and Elvis Karlsson all depict a bygone time, but they were written as contemporary accounts. This may seem unimportant, but it is crucial when we judge values in the text. Little Women expressed its period’s view of the role of women in society. A modern young people’s novel set in the same historical period as Little Women would perhaps express our modern view of the same issue. (Nikolajeva 49)

With regard to values, which Nikolajeva finds important, a story thus cannot just lie maturing and subsequently become historical (49).

Ying Toijer-Nilsson writes that most historical novels for young readers have a boy as the leading character (24). This no doubt has something to do with the conventions of historical books for young people, where war, for example, is a common topic, and girls have traditionally stayed at home while boys have been at the center of the exciting events. Moreover, girls and women learned early on to read texts where boys and men have prominent roles, whereas boys and men tend to read only about their own gender, since they are brought up to view anything associated with the female sphere as less important. However, Maria Nikolajeva writes in Children’s Literature Comes of Age: Toward a New Aesthetic that one can discern a change in historical narrative as regards the leading characters: “In particular, the masculine viewpoint of the earlier historical novel has been challenged by contemporary writers in favor of the ‘her-story’” (131). To attract all readers it has often been considered important that the protagonist should be a boy or a young man and that there is excitement enough to keep the reader’s interest to the very end. It has also been common for the author to choose to have both a girl and a boy, often siblings, so that readers of both sexes can identify with one of the leading figures. Kent Hägglund has written about the significance of the historical novel both for our perception of history and as reading matter for young people:

Ever since the middle of the nineteenth century, the historical novel has meant a great deal for the interest that children and young people take in [End Page 6] history. Novelists have often taken the lead in giving new perspectives. Women, children, minorities, and war victims of bygone times were given a central position in literature, long before they were included in school history books.

It has even happened often that authors of young people’s books have taken up an interesting topic before historians have tackled it. There is nothing strange about that: both historians and authors are driven by a conviction that knowledge of the past can help us in our lives here and now.

Both use knowledge and imagination to explore people and phenomena in a bygone time. But the researcher always reaches a limit where he or she must stop, and dividing lines between what we know, what we can assume, and what we have no idea about. The author has the freedom—or perhaps rather the compulsion—to step over that line, to give life to persons who never existed, to forge links, to invent. (Hägglund, author’s own translation)

Hägglund goes on to say: “Of course there are novelists who use a historical setting merely as a backdrop for stories that could just as well have been enacted in the present.” The concept of the historical novel thus includes not only the time aspect but also a quality aspect. In research on literature and history there has long been awareness that history and fiction are closely related since all attempts to depict our past take some form of narrative, but this can be done in more or less responsible ways. There are and have been authors who have endeavored to write serious historical novels and there are those who have written what are somewhat condescendingly called “costume novels,” seeking to tell an entertaining story in a historical setting. In costume novels the historical period is just a backdrop; the historical details can be quite correct while the people and relationships are not put into any factual historical context.

There are thus many levels to take into consideration as a reader when reflecting on a historical novel and what is “true” and “correct”. The details must be accurate in that the clothes, for example, should correspond to the period and that there should be no cars in a period before the car was invented. In Frida Skybäck’s novels, the characters are placed in a historical time where genuine historical figures are named and possible historical events are depicted. Frida Skybäck, who teaches history and English, faithfully uses the vocabulary of the period and she is also careful to try to get the historical details right. During the time she was working on Charlotte Hassel, one of the books she read was the diary of Märta Helena Reenstierna (Årstafruns dagbok 1793-1839), and she learned how modern that lady was in her way of expressing herself, and how her thoughts did not differ noticeably from the way we think today. In both of Skybäck’s books there is an afterword outlining how much of the narrative is fact and how much is fiction.

Historical events must be correctly depicted, but as a reader one also has to be aware that they are probably depicted from a particular angle, perhaps with a specific intention, and that it is often the victor who writes the history. In historical accounts women, poor people, and children are portrayed less frequently than men, kings, and well-off people, although this is slowly changing (Brown and St. Clair 186). It is even more problematic in a historical narrative to picture how different people have thought and felt [End Page 7] through the ages. There is more documentation and material when it comes to men, but the material for women and children is very limited.

People are the same through the ages

“The problem for historians,” Karin Norman writes, “is that we have so little access to the way people perceived their own situation and justified their actions. It is easy to resort to ascribing our own thoughts and values and emotions to other people. It takes a balancing act between generalizing and relativizing: how similar or different were people in the past from us today? Similar or different in what way?” (51, author’s own translation). Authors have greater freedom in this matter than historians do. John Stephens, in his study Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction, says that major historical events tend to be described through love stories and human relations in this kind of fiction (206). On several levels, as Stephens also points out, there lies a contradiction within historical fiction. While the text links past and present, it simultaneously gives the illusion of an older literary discourse. The discourse constantly balances between “the same” and “different.” In a broader perspective this is a matter of a transhistorical outlook versus cultural relativism (Stephens 202 ff.). As I see it, it is not a question of either/or, but of where the discourse is positioned on different occasions on a scale between these two poles. In portrayals of the past there must be more similarities than differences to facilitate understanding, especially for young readers. A text that is placed too far on the scale towards “difference” makes identification difficult and risks not being perceived as plausible, and may even be incomprehensible. It is also a matter of the level on which one wants to put the interpretation. If you go straight into the text and look at the details, relations, or emotions that display similarity or difference, you tend to perceive the text as showing a high degree of cultural relativism. If, on the other hand, you choose to abstract and raise the relations and emotions to a higher level, there is a good chance of seeing the text as transhistorical and common to all mankind. The foundation is similar but the constituents take on relative expressions depending on the time in which they exist and the culture and social class they reflect. The transhistorical position means that humanity, wishes, and needs are the same through the ages, but that they find different social expressions. In other words, one could say that people are alike through the ages and that it is the stage on which they act that differs from one period to another. People are steered by their environment and their culture, but they are basically the same; if we peel away or abstract the exterior, the human core is constant. By emphasizing the similarities and the basic correspondences, it is possible to create an understanding of both past and present.

This understanding is also used by Frida Skybäck. The distance from the historical period allows readers to see their own lives and their own problems in perspective, and it offers an opportunity to come to terms with these. Moreover, the reader gets an idea of what it means to be a woman here and now in comparison with what it could be like in the past. When women read about women and the things that have occupied women’s time and interest through the ages, it also establishes a historical community. Family sagas tend to be popular, and by reading them one can glimpse historical connections that would not otherwise be visible. Women get their share of history and can draw parallels to their own [End Page 8] experiences. Frida Skybäck’s The White Lady depicts two generations of women in parallel. The older woman has just had a daughter, and since she is growing increasingly weak from a terrible illness that she does not understand, she writes a diary for her newborn daughter. The novel ends with the daughter reaching adulthood and having a daughter of her own, for whom she starts writing a diary. Through her own mother’s notes she has found out who she is and has got to know the mother who drowned herself to save her newborn daughter when she was just a few months old. Diana Wallace writes: “As a genre, the historical novel has allowed women writers a license which they have not been allowed in other forms. This is most obviously true of sexuality where it has allowed coverage of normally taboo subjects, not just active female sexuality but also contraception, abortion, childbirth and homosexuality” (6).

In Frida Skybäck’s two books we find, beside the portrayal of the young woman who does not understand that she has contracted syphilis from her husband, accounts of pregnancy before marriage, the contraceptive methods used in those days, attempted rapes, a sexual relationship with a man who is not a potential future husband but a tender lover who teaches the young woman “the art of love”, and sexual relations across class boundaries. History is written here from a female perspective, and female concerns are visibly in focus. At the same time, this can be viewed as a comment on life today, an explanation for why we relate to these parts of life in a particular way. Girls and women are lifted out of their exclusion and marginalization, and the author has the liberty here to write alternative history. John Stephens says that what is depicted as universal human experience in a historical account can mean that our descriptions of the past are colored by our image of present-day reality (202 ff.). In Frida Skybäck’s books this is entirely intentional, a narrative device to enable the reader to reflect on herself and her own life as she reads.

Role play in a historical setting

Diana Wallace writes in her preface how history lessons in school disappointed her since they were never about women, and she sees this as one reason why so many girls and women have read and still read historical novels where women are allowed to be central figures (ix). Wallace goes on to write:

The “woman’s historical novel”, then, encompasses both the “popular” and the “serious” or “literary” ends of the spectrum, but one of my arguments here is that the two are intimately linked. [. . .] We need to read both “serious” and “popular” historical novels together and against each other if we want fully to understand the range of meanings that history and the historical novel have held for women readers in the twentieth century. (5)

Eva Queckfeldt has written about “the historical novel without history” in the annual of the history teachers’ association: [End Page 9]

To restrict the discussion solely to historical novels, these have been considered and discussed both as a source of knowledge and as an educational aid, not least by history teachers. The advantages of the novels are thought to be, among other things, that they let the reader experience the past in a different way from the textbooks. For example, the reader meets figures from the past and it is, probably rightly, assumed that this makes him/her familiar with the people of bygone times, their context, their everyday life, and their thoughts. This almost always concerns the “good” historical novels: Per Anders Fogelström’s novels about Stockholm, Vilhelm Moberg’s emigration epic, Väinö Linna’s crofter trilogy, to name just a few examples. These are novels written by authors who took pains to give as correct a picture as possible of the past. Often they were accounts that not even professional historians could object to.

The problem is that these good novels are just a small proportion of all the “historical novels” produced. There is also a whole undergrowth of novels that call themselves “historical.” (63, author’s own translation)

The good historical novels mentioned by Queckfeldt are also all by male authors, and she contrasts these with seven “pulp novels” in which reality is doctored for the reader and the novels’ “conflicts become simple and are explained as a result of the individual persons’ actions.” The plot “circles around LOVE for the female readership” (64, author’s own translation). These novels have such great defects in their language, the anachronisms are piled on top of each other, and all the historical details are so vague that they could be used almost anywhere. Queckfeldt argues that these novels, carelessly thrown together and trivial in content, are “without history.” Frida Skybäck’s novels counteract this by showing, from a female perspective, how history repeats itself and how today’s women are a part of the past, therein giving women a place where they refuse to “take shit from anybody.”[2]

Frida Skybäck plays with historical depiction, with romance and chick lit, and with the stereotyped characters of the whore and the Madonna, in order to give scope to women’s thoughts and feelings. By playing with genres she opens possibilities for readers to read subversively, to try out new roles and lines, and to find themselves and stand up for who they are. Frida Skybäck, who works as a teacher at an international high school in Lund, is also aware that in other countries much more historical material is used than in the Swedish school. In Sweden, history as it is taught is comparatively dry and lifeless, and she thinks that it is important to arouse an interest in the source of power that history represents through literature that can move people. Diana Wallace writes about how women in Mussolini’s Italy were prohibited from studying history at university: “A knowledge of history, this suggests, has the potential to be dangerously subversive [. . .]. It is not surprising that in women’s hands the historical novel has often become a political tool” (2). Compared with Madame Bovary’s tragic fate, this is the reverse way to view women’s reading: either girls and women read with emotion and can then be affected to the point of madness, or else they are able to read with the brain connected and the result can be a threat to the prevailing society.

Janice A. Radway has exposed the narrative structures in romances in the same way that Vladimir Propp in the 1920s identified the set narrative features of Russian folktales. Radway has found thirteen recurrent features, which she calls functions, in romances: [End Page 10]

  1. The heroine’s social identity is destroyed.
  2. The heroine reacts antagonistically to an aristocratic male.
  3. The aristocratic male responds ambiguously to the heroine.
  4. The heroine interprets the hero’s behavior as evidence of a purely sexual interest in her.
  5. The heroine responds to the hero’s behavior with anger or coldness.
  6. The hero retaliates by punishing the heroine.
  7. The heroine and hero are physically and/or emotionally separated.
  8. The hero treats the heroine tenderly.
  9. The heroine responds warmly to the hero’s act of tenderness.
  10. The heroine reinterprets the hero’s ambiguous behavior as the product of previous hurt.
  11. The hero proposes/openly declares his love for/demonstrates his unwavering commitment to the heroine with a supreme act of tenderness.
  12. The heroine responds sexually and emotionally.
  13. The heroine’s identity is restored. (134)

It is important to have knowledge of how narratives are built up, since this is also the foundation for our interpretation of them. When we recognize the set form, we know what type of story we are reading, and when we have read several of them we soon detect when an author is going against the familiar pattern. In these deviations an author’s ideological intentions can be obvious: for example, when an author with feminist ambitions breaks the pattern in a traditional romantic narrative. This also opens up for questions about how historical literature functions, namely, that it brings our history to life and invites the reader to take the step into an alternative time, a kind of role play where one can learn something about our history, about our own time, and about ourselves and the contexts to which we belong as girls, women, and humans.

[1] “The term romance derives from the French and was first used exclusively to refer to medieval romances (sometimes called ‘chivalric romances’) written in French and composed in verse. These narratives were concerned with knightly adventure, courtly love, and chivalric ideals, often set at the court of King Arthur. Later the term was used to refer to any medieval romance, whether in verse or prose, and regardless of country of origin” (Harzewski 31).

[2] This idiomatic expression is often used by young women in Sweden today to indicate that they do not accept infringements of their integrity, outdated values, stupid comments, or lack of respect. [End Page 11]


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— — —. “Tradition and Displacement in the New Novel of Manners.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 29-46. Print.

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Nikolajeva, Maria. Barnbokens byggklossar. Lund: Studentlitteratur, 1998. Print.

— — —. Children’s Literature Comes of Age: Toward a New Aesthetic. New York: Garland, 1996. Print.

Nilson, Maria. Från Gossip Girl till Harry Potter: Genusperspektiv på ungdomslitteratur. Lund: BTJ Förlag, 2010. Print.

Norman, Karin. Kulturella föreställningar om barn: Ett socialantropologiskt perspektiv. Stockholm: Rädda Barnen, 1996. Print.

Queckfeldt, Eva. “Den historielösa historiska romanen.” Historielärarnas förenings årsskrift. N.p., 1995-96. 63-70. Print.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Print.

Skybäck, Frida. Charlotte Hassel. Stockholm: Frank, 2011. Print.

— — —. Den vita frun. Stockholm: Frank, 2012. Print.

— — —. Interview by Helene Ehriander. 2 August 2012.

Stephens, John. Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction. London: Longman, 1992. Print.

Toijer-Nilsson, Ying. “Lite välkommen ‘herstory’.” Abrakadabra 6 (1997): 24-25. Print.

Wallace, Diana. The Woman’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900–2000. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

[End Page 12]


Love in the Digital Library: A Search for Racial Heterogeneity in E-Books
by Renee Bennett-Kapusniak and Adriana McCleer

[End Page 1]

Introduction and Background

The romance genre is one of the bestselling genres in the United States (US). It is also the largest genre read in e-book (electronic book) format in the consumer market (RWA). An e-book format, for the purpose of this study, is defined as Adobe PDF, Mobipocket, Adobe EPUB, OverDrive Read and Kindle library downloads (OverDrive). The discovery of e-books and the growth of e-reading is rapidly increasing as more materials become available online and accessible on different technological devices. With this growth in e-reading, the demand for a diverse range of titles in e-book format is increasing. OverDrive, a global digital system that distributes e-books and other multimedia, offers the primary source for e-book library downloads. The Wisconsin Public Library Consortium (WPLC) currently has an OverDrive digital library (DL) of electronic materials for Wisconsin residents.

This exploratory case study examines how Wisconsin public libraries’ digital collections present a range of racial and ethnic perspectives and reflect the racial and ethnic demographics of their service communities by reviewing multicultural romance genre e-book title records in the WPLC digital library. Within this context, the study addresses the following questions: Do public libraries’ digital collections present a diversity of racial and ethnic perspectives and reflect the racial and ethnic demographics of their distinct service communities? What is the accessibility of these e-books within the digital system? This study analyzes the availability (number of titles, copies and holds) of the books as well as their accessibility (language selection and classification of titles) within the WPLC digital library system, determining whether the DL was supplying racially and ethnically diverse romance titles in e-book format and whether the e-books were accessible to potential users. The study also examines whether the DL is increasing the amount of these e-books in the collection to assist in the demand for the popular romance genre.

Romance Fiction and Multicultural Romance Fiction

Romance fiction has developed and expanded as a genre since its early beginnings. It is, by definition, a genre of literature that presents a fictional or legendary love story, tale, or prose narrative, which may include heroism, chivalry, adventure, and mysterious and/or supernatural elements (Merriam­-Webster). Romance fiction writing and leisure reading has been a popular activity for centuries. Subgenres include historical, contemporary, paranormal, suspense, westerns, inspirational/religious, fantasy, and young adult romance (RWA). Romance novels specifically focus on relationships. They may contain varying sensuality degrees, from sweet to extremely hot (Bouricius 3-11). Readers can become involved on an emotional level with the story’s characters, experiencing a journey to a “Happily Ever After” that makes them feel satisfied at the end (Radway 61; Wendell 8). [End Page 2] Romance fiction has traditionally presented homogeneous representations of White, non-Hispanic characters, cultural traditions, and social values.

Multicultural romance fiction includes works written by authors who identify as Hispanic or Latina/o, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska native, and/or Asian. It also includes romance fiction that depicts characters of color or indigenous characters and culturally diverse narratives, either by authors from that same racial/ethnic group or not (Bostic 214). The representations of characters of color or indigenous characters vary within romance fiction (and among other genre fiction), ranging from one-dimensional, stereotypical characters to characters with three-dimensional depth and realistic characteristics. The range contains problematic stereotyping of women of color and indigenous women as hypersexual, sexually aggressive, violent, or submissive sex objects in contemporary fiction (White 1-3; Gregor xiv). Characteristics of less educated people or those from lower socioeconomic classes have often been used to add “ethnic flavor” to stories (Forster paragraph 10). Narratives that interrupt and challenge such stories introduce more positive, relevant representations, highlighting culture, empowerment of families and communities, and a range of realities (White 7). Multicultural romance encompasses a variety of cultures, with the most frequent emphasis on African American romance (Ramsdell 290).

Authors of color and indigenous authors have been writing and publishing romance works for centuries, but it has only been within the past twenty years that they have benefited professionally and financially from such publications (White). Publishing companies did not publish African American authors’ romance fiction until the 1980s and only began introducing publications representing African American characters in the 1990s (White 6). Before this time, publications with African American and American Indian characters were rare (Osborne; Gregor 175-176). The early 1990s brought a boom in multicultural romance publications, with major publishing companies establishing specific multicultural imprints. In 1991, Ballantine was the first major publishing company to establish an imprint specifically focusing on multicultural books of “African-American, Asian, Latin, and Native American interest” (One World). In 1994, Kensington established “Arabesque Books,” an imprint focusing on African American romances (Osborne; White), and in 1999, “Encanto,” a line of “Hispanic contemporary romances.” The “Arabesque” imprint was sold to B.E.T. in 1998, which prohibited Kensington from publishing competing books. After this limitation was lifted, Kensington launched “Dafina” in 2000 “by and about people of the African descent” (Publishers Weekly, “Kensington Returns to African-American Market,” 1; Kensington Publishing Corp.). Furthermore, Harlequin developed Kimani Press, a division publishing mainstream fiction predominantly featuring African American characters, in 2005. Kimani now includes five distinct imprints (Harlequin; Reid). Harlequin also publishes Spanish translations in their “Bianca” and “Deseo” lines, which are popular romance novels written by White, non-Hispanic authors, featuring White, non-Hispanic characters (Engberg 237). Independent publishing companies have likewise committed to the publication of multicultural romance novels. Genesis Press, established in 1993, is the largest privately owned African American publishing company in the US. It has expanded to produce eight distinct imprints as well as classic and new books that are translated into Kiswahili. Parker Publishing is a small publishing company that was developed in 2005 to create literature for “Black and multi-ethnic readers,” including the Fire Opal line of publications (Parker Publishing). [End Page 3]

Encounters with literature that reflects one’s own experience, familiar settings, or recognizable themes can be empowering and validating. Encounters with literature that portrays a diverse range of representations and narratives can expand individuals’ worldviews. Librarians have the opportunity and the responsibility to facilitate such encounters by developing collections that portray diverse perspectives and representations, regardless of the local community (Bostic 216). Van Fleet in 2003 addressed the lack of diversity in popular fiction library collections by recognizing the failure to understand popular literature’s impact on social and personal validation (70). Library materials need to reflect the diversity of their service communities and present a diversity of ideas. These goals can be fulfilled through the development and maintenance of an e-book DL.

E-Books in Public Libraries

E-books range in format variety and are downloaded on an e­-reader or other technological device (Pawlowski 58). While the first e-book became available in 1971 via the Internet DL Project Gutenberg, e-book commercialization in the late 1990s was a turning point for their current ubiquity and popularity (Galbraith). Downloadable audiobook availability in 2004 helped spur librarians’ interest in providing access to e-books in public libraries (Pawlowski 55). NetLibrary became the first e-book lending platform for libraries in 1998 (Galbraith), while current library e-book vendors include Baker & Taylor Axis 360, EBSCO eBooks, Gale Virtual Reference Library, Ingram MyiLibrary, OverDrive, ProQuest ebrary, and 3M Cloud Library (Blackwell et al. “ReadersFirst” 4). OverDrive is the highest ranked vendor for e-book services in libraries by ReadersFirst, a group of 292 library systems working to improve e-book access and services for public library users (3-6). OverDrive offers the most e-book format options for libraries (Pawlowski 61). Adobe EPUB, or “electronic publication,” is the current industry standard for e-books as developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum (Pawlowski 58-59). These e-books are accessible via e-readers, computers, handheld mobile devices, and tablets (Griffey 8; Library of Congress).

E-book popularity has been increasing in the last few years. There was triple digit growth in 2011 of e-­book discovery and online readers due to the expanding use of digital devices and consumer awareness (Burleigh). E-book collections and overall demand have stabilized, yet a 2013 public library survey reported that e-book circulation in libraries has continued to rise (Enis, “Library E-book Usage,” 3). Keeping note of item usage can show how popular the item has been among users over a period of time (Wolfram 169). A 2012 Pew study of e-book usage illustrated that 21 percent of the American population has read an e­-book (Rainie et al.). The most popular genre read in e-book downloads is romance (Veros 303). In 2011, OverDrive’s data from over five million users indicated romance was one of the top four genres searched in a DL (Reid). Libraries need to understand user habits to connect them to digital content (Menchaca 109).

Library development and maintenance of digital and print collections provides a diverse range of materials and formats for all users. Results from a 2013 PEW study indicates more than half of American participants definitely want more e-books offered as a library service (Zickuhr, Rainie and Purcell). With the increase in e-book availability and popularity, public library collection practices have changed to include print and digital [End Page 4] content (Bailey 57). Findings from a 2013 study showed that 89 percent of public libraries offer e-books to their patrons and a majority (also 89 percent) expect their e-book circulation to increase within the next year (Enis, “E-book Usage Survey,”3). A study tracking e-book circulation from 2004-2010 at the New York Public Library (NYPL) depicts an increase in patrons and e-book usage, with e-book usage disproportionately higher. A 2009-2010 NYPL e-book study showed that usage rose 37 percent and reported that library e-book users read digital content repeatedly (Platt 252). Libraries need to refine e-book services to accommodate users’ interests and needs. Public libraries provide collections of popular digital materials by working with a commercial vendor, rather than through a direct relationship with publishers (Pawlowski 56), which can present a cumbersome user experience (Blackwell et al. “ReadersFirst” 3). A PEW survey comparing e-book and print titles revealed 50 percent of library e-book borrowers feel there are long waiting lists and a lack of novel titles in e-book formats (Rainie and Duggan). While few studies have examined public libraries’ e-book services (Platt; Rainie and Duggan; Zickuhr, Rainie and Purcell), none specifically analyze racial and ethnic diversity within a public library’s e-book collection. This study explores diversity in the popular e-romance genre.

Library Policies and Philosophies

The Wisconsin state legislature’s policy for libraries states that libraries need to provide free access to information, a diversity of ideas, and knowledge, as well as providing electronic delivery of information, in order to maintain eligibility for state aid (Wisconsin Public Library Legislation and Funding Task Force; Wisconsin Statutes 43.00(a-b); Wisconsin Statutes 43.24(f-m)). Local policies and professional ethics drive public librarians’ commitment to providing materials that respond to community interests and needs, including racial, ethnic, and linguistic relevance and format interests.

The American Library Association Code of Ethics provides normative ethical guidelines for library and information professionals, beginning with, “We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests” (“Code of Ethics”). This principle recognizes the profession’s commitment to serving all library users with equitable access, without distinction based on race or ethnicity. Librarians have the opportunity as well as the obligation to provide encounters with e-books that reflect their diverse communities’ experiences and portray a diverse range of narratives with the potential to expand their worldviews.

E-book collection development

The WPLC mission is to provide Wisconsin residents with access to a broad, current, and popular collection of electronically published materials in a wide range of subjects and formats (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 2). The Digital Library Steering Committee manages the WPLC digital library, including the development of policy and budget recommendations approved by the Board, decision-making for daily operations of the DL, and the establishment and management of a Selection Committee tasked with selecting materials for the DL. It is led by a member-selected Chair and membership is [End Page 5] comprised of one Board representative and one or more representatives from each partner, based on annual investment (Gold et al., “Members,” 2012).

The WPLC has a Digital Media Vendor/Product Selection Committee of eight members representing public library systems, individual libraries, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and Wisconsin Interlibrary Services. This committee surveys the marketplace for products to support digital media material distribution in public libraries, develops criteria for WPLC vendor selection and contracts, and recommends a purchasing strategy for digital media to the WPLC Board (Bend et al. “Digital Media Vendor”). In 2011, the Vendor Selection Committee reported an “awareness of the inadequacy of the WPLC E-Book collection to cope with current demand” and a commitment to focus on offering “a rich collection of E-Books to public library patrons” (Bend et al. “Vendor Selection Committee”). The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Division for Libraries, Technology, and Community Learning organized an E-book Summit in 2012, which spurred WPLC organization of a statewide initiative to pool funds and purchase $1 million of e-books and audiobooks (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 2). As of 26 April 2014, the WPLC digital library collection contains 9,433 romance e-book items, which has steadily increased by 505 items over the past two months.


            The researchers in this study investigated how the WPLC digital library collection presents a range of racial and ethnic perspectives and reflects the racial and ethnic demographics of their service communities by conducting an exploratory case study with targeted searches for multicultural romance e-book authors and book titles in the WPLC digital library. A case study method was chosen to examine and better understand (Stake “Case Studies” 237) this particular DL and was the first phase of a longitudinal examination (Glesne 22). Future phases will include triangulation of multiple sources of evidence to validate findings (Stake “The Art of Case Study Research” 45).

Wisconsin Demographics

            Out of the 5.6 million residents of Wisconsin, 878,000, or 15.5 percent, self-identified as Black or African American, Hispanic or Latina/o (of any race), Asian, and/or American Indian or Alaska native in 2010 (United States Census Bureau). Within this group, 6.3 percent of Wisconsin Census respondents identified as Black or African American, 5.9 percent identified as Hispanic or Latina/o (of any race), 2.3 percent identified as Asian, and 1 percent identified as American Indian or Alaska Native (see Fig.1). Additionally, 2.4 percent self-identified as some other race and 1.8 percent identified as two or more races. [End Page 6]

Figure 1: Wisconsin residents, by race and ethnicity, 2010

Figure 1: Wisconsin residents, by race and ethnicity, 2010.

Wisconsin Public Library Consortium

The WPLC was formed in 2000 as a partnership of eight library systems and now includes 17 libraries and systems, covering almost all public libraries within the state (Gold et al. “For Patrons”; “Members”). WPLC focuses on increasing public access to information technology and digital materials through research, development, public awareness, library staff training, and public library cooperation (Gold et al. “About”). Advantages of consortium partnerships are vendor discounts, access to a larger breadth of titles, and less local spending on bestsellers that may quickly lose interest (Wisconsin Public Library Legislation and Funding Task Force; Schwartz, “OverDrive Data,” 6). The WPLC Collection Development Policy states its intention to “portray different viewpoints, values, philosophies, cultures, and religions in order to serve the varied statewide community” (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 2).

Selection Process

The general descriptors for race and ethnicity by the US Census Bureau that are used as categories for exploration of multicultural romance e-books within the WPLC digital library are Black or African American, Hispanic or Latina/o, Asian, and/or American Indian or Alaska native. The researchers use the term multicultural to represent the collective racial and ethnic groups throughout this paper. The researchers explored a [End Page 7] variety of romance websites, wikis, and books to select a range of racially and ethnically diverse authors and book titles to include in the study.

The Reader’s Advisor Online website is based on the “Genreflecting Advisory Series,” a print book series published by Linworth Libraries Unlimited which is designed to help library staff with readers’ advisory, reference, and collection development in various fiction genres (Maas et al. “About”). The modular tab “Sample Core Collection” provides a recommendation list for basic romance collections, which includes a section for “ethnic/multicultural” authors and book titles organized under headings of “African American,” “Asian,” “Latino,” and “Native American (sometimes called ‘Indian’ in the trade)” (Maas et al. “Sample Core Collection”). The listing includes 31 authors, though the list might be used as a guide to be adapted and expanded to respond to the libraries’ specific needs. The modular tab “Publishers” lists trends in romance publishing and provides detailed information about various publishing companies and imprints, including Ballantine, Fawcett, One World, Genesis, Arabesque and Kensington (Maas et al. “Publishers”). The RT Book Reviews website is based on the RT Book Reviews Magazine that feature reviews of romance novel published along with blogs, news, awards, upcoming releases and themed booklists (Romance, “RT Book Reviews”). The website lists two themed (Asian and Native American) titles and a list of titles by author as recommended reads in 1999 and 2001 respectively (RT Book Reviews Themes: “Asian”; “Native American”). The All About Romance website consists of reviews, blogs, lists and features from readers and romance writers. The website offers a compiled list of Native American titles and authors from 2001-2007 (“American Indian Romances”). The Goodreads website includes options for a reader to find and share books as well as to create an account to keep track of personal books wanted or read (Chandler). Under the modular tab “Genre” is African American Romance, consisting of Most read this week titles tagged African American Romance and Popular African American romance books (“African American Romance”). These books are compilations from reader tags where contributors review books and place information on the website. The RomanceWiki website is based on the premise of Wikipedia, where anyone can contribute to the website., a leading literary blog, produces it. The website contains a range of information, featuring romance history and today’s leading romance bestsellers as well as reviews, books, publishers, authors, and articles of the romance genre (Simpson). Different categories in the RomanceWiki include information on titles, authors and publishers under the different category names. The categories examined on the website were African American, Chica Lit, Cuban-American Authors, Interracial Romance, Latina, Latina Lit, and Multi-Cultural (“Romance Sub-Genres”). The authors and book titles from these resources are categorized for inclusion in this study.


Study results were analyzed by examining the history (Huberman and Miles 436) of the collection, including availability and accessibility of titles within the WPLC. Data was then scrutinized for underlying themes or patterns and clustered into meaningful groups (Creswell 101). [End Page 8]


A total of 151 individual authors in the study identified as Black or African American, Hispanic or Latina/o, Asian, and/or American Indian or Alaska native; or as authors who write multicultural romance fiction. A total of 153 individual book titles were identified as Black or African American romance book titles, Hispanic or Latina/o romance book titles, Asian romance book titles with settings in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, or historical and contemporary American Indian romance book titles. The researchers searched for each author and title individually in the WPLC digital library between 12 February 2014 and 26 April 2014. Keyword searches were conducted for authors’ names and book titles. Search results were limited to e-books, excluding some available audiobooks by selected authors.

Figure 2: Authors searched and findings in WPLC, February 2014.

Figure 2: Authors searched and findings in WPLC, February 2014.

The results of these searches returned records for individual author titles and records for multiple author titles. In some cases, the catalog had multiple records of the same title, such as when WPLC digital library purchased copies of a title and partner libraries purchased additional copies of the same title for exclusive use by their local library cardholders. Additionally, 29.8 percent of the authors had e-book titles (see Fig. 2) and 15.7 percent of the individual book titles were available in e-book format within the WPLC digital library (see Fig. 3). [End Page 9]

Figure 3: Titles searched and findings in WPLC, February 2014.

Figure 3: Titles searched and findings in WPLC, February 2014.

Data for each search includes the number of e-book titles present in the WPLC digital library; the number of copies of each title, the number of holds on each title, and the number of available copies of each title (see Fig. 4). Additional data includes subject headings (e.g., romance, fiction, African American fiction, historical fiction, urban fiction) and e-book format (e.g., Kindle, Overdrive, Adobe EPUB, Adobe PDF).

Racial or ethnic group Author Number of titles Number of copies of each title Number of holds on each title Number of available copies of each title
Black or African American Alers, Rochelle 18 2

Figure 4: Example of monthly data collection.

Additionally, the researchers found that in February 2014, at least 10.3 percent of the WPLC romance e-book collection was multicultural romance e-books, and in April 2014, 10.2 percent of the total romance collection was multicultural romance e-books. The total of multicultural romance e-book records (i.e., individual authors, individual titles, and titles by multiple authors) in the collection in February 2014 was 430 items and 926 copies, which increased by 19 items and 41 copies over the two-month study period. There [End Page 10] were likely additional multicultural romance e-books within the WPLC digital library that were not found in this study because of the limited selection of multicultural romance authors and book titles.

The WPLC digital library provides a range of formats for the multicultural romance e-books. The e-books are available in four different formats, Kindle, Overdrive READ, Adobe EPUB, and Adobe PDF. The findings reveal the first three formats presented balanced numbers, while the lowest availability was in Adobe PDF format. The Library of Congress states that a PDF format is widely used among individuals, so e-books presented in Adobe PDF might be accessible to a greater population. However, there can be limitations with Adobe PDF because the fixed layout can make it difficult to adjust text size. The WPLC digital library provides a balanced number of options, facilitating access to the multicultural romance e-books for current and potential users.

The researchers found that there were an adequate number of copies of multicultural romance e-books available to respond to user interest and appeal to potential users. Most of the multicultural romance titles listed two copies available at a time. One person may check out a copy of the title for seven to twenty-one days, depending on the format. All items are available for at least seven days and Kindle, Adobe EPUB, and Adobe PDF may be checked out for seven, fourteen, or twenty-one days (WPLC). If an item is not available, users may place a hold on the item that prompts the system to send an alert when the item is returned by the previous user and available for checkout. Using NVivo data analysis software, the researchers conducted a text query for all holds and found that 82.6 percent had zero holds on the item, while the next highest holds were one (6.2 percent) and two (2.1 percent). The highest hold was eighty-one, but that was on a single item in one month. This outlier might have affected the results, which show that 78 percent of the holds are on American Indian records (see Fig. 5).


Figure 5: Multicultural romance title copies, availability and holds for February 2014.

Figure 5: Multicultural romance title copies, availability and holds for February 2014.

Data in February 2014 (see Fig. 5) depicted that the majority of the multicultural romance copies are Black or African American romance e-books. This aligns with Ramsdell’s point that there is a current emphasis on African American romances over other [End Page 11] racial or ethnic representations (290). The majority of the multicultural romance e-book titles are Black or African American, which is not proportionate to the percentage of Hispanic or Latina/o residents in Wisconsin. Further, each racial/ethnic category is diverse (e.g., nationality, culture, language, and religion) which may or may not be represented within the findings. For example, the majority of Wisconsin residents who identify as Hispanic or Latina/o also identify as Mexican (72.8 percent), followed by Puerto Rican (13.5 percent) (United States Census Bureau). These findings do not reveal the specific representation of distinct racial and ethnic groups in Wisconsin.

Item availability and holds influence the other, meaning if there are holds on the items, their availability decreases. Within the WPLC, the availability and hold status for each item is quite fluid and can change at any given time because the DL is a consortium of 17 libraries with library cardholders accessing the system 24/7. For example, this study shows a significant difference between the relatively low number and availability of American Indian books and the high number of holds for this category. This may be because of the mainstream popularity of authors who primarily write about White, non-Hispanic characters, and happen to have one or more books with characters who are American Indian. This may also simply be because American Indian stories were particularly popular at the time of the study. Romance readers can be loyal and may want to read everything by their favorite author (Bouricius 29) or might pick up a certain book because it is what they want to read at that particular time. This data is a snapshot of the multicultural romance e-books from February to April 2014. When comparing the three total data sets with the same totals compiled over the following two months, the researchers found there was not a significant increase or decrease in the percentage of total number of copies, item availability, or the number of holds with the percentage range of 5 percent or less for all of the racial and ethnic categories. More research needs to be undertaken to explore the data sets over a longer period to determine if the data remains constant within each racial and ethnic category.


Digital library materials need to be accessible to users with a range of information seeking behavior. A library user’s information needs, interests, and information seeking behavior can vary due to “cultural experiences, language, level of literacy, socioeconomic status, education, level of acculturation and value system” (Liu 124). In addition to exploring the availability of multicultural romance e-books, the researchers conducted advanced searches to investigate the accessibility of multicultural romance e-books. These searches were for all romance e-books available in languages other than English, and all romance e-books under the subject headings, “Multi-Cultural” and “African American Fiction.” Search results were limited to e-books, excluding some available audiobooks.

The WPLC digital library collection offers a minimal selection of romance e-books in languages other than English and the DL interface does not accommodate users that speak languages other than English. In February 2014, the collection contained 11 Spanish romance e-book title records, which increased by four items over the following two months. A German language romance e-book was added in March. While the WPLC digital library also contains materials in Arabic, Chinese, Czech, French, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Romanian, Russian, Swahili, and Swedish, there were no romance e-book titles [End Page 12] found in those respective languages. The DL interface is in English and does not offer any options to change the interface to any other language. The advanced search tools provide access to the limited number of materials in languages other than English, yet access to this search tool is restricted by the tools’ exclusive English accessibility. The records that contain words or names in languages other than English are not consistently precise in their presentation. For example, the Latina author Caridad Piñeiro, a.k.a. Caridad Piñeiro Scordato, is listed as “Caridad Pineiro” and “Caridad Pi¤eiro,” neither record accurately representing the ñ in her name. These factors limit the accessibility for users that speak languages other than English or records for materials containing words or names in languages other than English. At the February 2014 WPLC Digital Library Steering Committee Meeting, members agreed on the future discussion item “Multi language interface: Selecting titles in languages other than English” (Gold et al. “Steering Committee Minutes”). Improvement in this area might make the multilingual materials accessible to users that speak and read languages other than English.

The limited subject headings to classify materials within the WPLC digital library present barriers to accessing racially and ethnically diverse romance e-books. The researchers found an advanced search limited to subject headings “Multi-Cultural” and “Romance” returned zero titles between February and April 2014. Only one subject heading, “African American Fiction,” was used to identify racial or ethnic subjects within romance e-books materials. The only other relevant subject heading, “Multi-Cultural”, was not attached to any of the romance e-books. Print materials need to be physically arranged within a particular section of the library, while digital materials such as e-books do not have such limitations. Additional subject headings might increase the accessibility of digital materials. For example, classifications of the Latina/o romance e-books subject headings were limited to Fiction, Romance, Suspense, Short Stories, Erotic Literature, Fantasy, and Western. There is an invisibility of the range of racial and ethnic diversity represented within the DL collection that is a barrier to the accessibility of multicultural romance e-books.


Access and general issues

System usability is important in the discovery of and access to e-books. If a user is discouraged or disappointed with a search, it can lead to unsuccessful interactions with the system, leaving users unsatisfied (Xie 140). As stated earlier, accessing information from a DL can be challenging for users since some users are familiar with a traditional library of print books on shelves to browse titles (Lesk 204). This poses challenges for libraries to design an accessible system interface since there are many complexities to making digital items available and readily accessible for the online user (Van Riel, Fowler and Downes 244). Further research is needed to examine if the design of the WPLC digital library is a factor in current and potential users’ barriers to e-book access.

There can be additional accessibility issues that hinder users’ interactions with a system. These barriers are not covered in the scope of this study, but are explained briefly [End Page 13] here. Being a novice or expert user can determine the success a user experiences when searching in an online system. Users can have more difficulty finding or retrieving desired information if they have less experience with the system. In addition, a user’s information literacy or digital literacy skills can determine how well the user accesses materials within an online system. The fewer skills users have in understanding how to use a system, the less successful the interaction. Another possible issue is connectivity. Users might not have broadband access at home due to lack of infrastructure or affordability. Internet accessibility issues directly affect users’ access to online systems. If users have limited access to the Internet at home, they might rely on institutions, such as public libraries, to provide the access they need to find information.

Relationships between libraries and vendors

Publishers’ licensing agreements and commercial vendors’ policies limit the number and range of e-books. In 2013, “half of the big six publishers did not allow their e-books to be licensed by public libraries. Since then, Penguin has stated they will begin licensing e-books to OverDrive” (Enis, “Library E-book Usage,” 5). The WPLC Collection Development Policy explains how the selection criteria is based on the availability of titles from vendors (2), since some titles are not accessible for acquisition as a result of publishers’ limitations on digital editions of titles or limited embargos on new titles. The publishers might unexpectedly pull other titles from the collection (3). There are additional limitations on the DL collection from commercial vendors. OverDrive allows independent authors to submit titles for inclusion in DLs only if they have at least ten titles available. If authors have fewer books, it is recommended they work with an aggregator who can represent the independent authors as a collective. WPLC digital library contracts with OverDrive to follow these policies. If a local author wishes to add an e-book to the collection, it must be made available to all OverDrive DLs in the US. This can be beneficial to authors since Zickuhr et al. explained that 41 percent of users who read a library e-book are more likely to purchase their most recent e-book. However, OverDrive’s policies present independent authors barriers to making their works available. The option for libraries to increase their collections with items from individual authors can increase the collection by satisfying the demand for more titles, user-requested titles, and more multicultural romance titles by authors who are not represented by large publishing companies.

Commercial vendors hold the control over DL interface design and subject heading maintenance, which limits libraries’ system management. The vendors determine the options for e-book content and management systems for necessary or optional adoption by the contracted libraries. For example, in 2013, OverDrive announced its multilingual interface options in French Canadian, Simplified Chinese, and Spanish with plans to develop Japanese, Traditional Chinese, and additional language options. It was not possible for individual libraries to provide a multilingual interface before it was available through OverDrive. Additionally, libraries cannot customize the subject headings of their own DL collection records. The options to add or remove subject headings for specific titles through OverDrive is possible, yet it is necessary for OverDrive to receive multiple recommendations for subject heading changes before they make global changes to the record (OverDrive Partners). Collective groups of librarians, like ReadersFirst, work to improve users’ e-book access and public library services by addressing barriers to access to [End Page 14] e-books because of external issues related to publishing companies and commercial vendors.


The greatest barrier to developing or expanding e-book collections has been funding limitations, although there has been a lack of interest in some cases (Enis, “E-book Usage Survey” 3). Ashcroft mentions how licensing and costs are issues that continue to be a problem in regards to library e-books (405). While financial constraints can leave libraries in a dilemma, multicultural fiction might not be considered a “special” acquisition, since these might be the first items omitted during budget cuts (Bostic 210). Multicultural fiction might be a constant component of libraries’ offerings that requires careful selection and maintenance. A 2013 survey of public libraries reports 42 percent of Midwest libraries state they might purchase e-books, but it was not a priority (Enis, “E-book Usage Survey” 23). This data might foretell future barriers in regards to e-book collection development.

Selecting materials for a library collection involves the library, the library patrons, and an understanding of the literature available (Van Fleet 78). The WPLC Selection Committee is comprised of two representatives from each of the partner libraries, divided into 24 selectors for adult materials and 10 selectors for young adult and children’s materials (Gold et al. “Selection Committee”). According to the 2014 collection development policy, selectors refer to reviews in professional journals, lists of recommended or award-winning titles, and other selection resources to inform their decisions (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 3). Similar to recommending books to library patrons, a librarian needs to have knowledge of the literature and know what appeals to the patrons. Talking to the patrons to gain a sense of the community needs in turn guides the policy and procedures in acquiring the content for the collection (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 73). George Watson Cole points out that “the library is in existence by the grace of the public, and it is a duty to cater to all the classes that go towards making up the community in which it is established” (qtd. in Bouricius 36, emphasis in original). Community interest, anticipated interest, individual requests and reports of satisfaction related to authors, titles, or subjects, are considered important to the WPLC selectors (Gold et al. “Collection Development Policy” 2). Libraries need to focus more attention on collaborative community assessments rather than library use studies alone, particularly to improve library services for racially and ethnically diverse communities (Bostic 217; Liu 131; McCleer 271). It is challenging for libraries to make an informed choice about collection development without knowing the interests, needs or concerns of the users (Ashcroft 399). Continued research needs to explore how the WPLC digital library conducts community assessment and analyses to inform their collection development.

With the popularity of the romance genre, more attention needs to be given to digital collection development of multicultural romance e-books. According to PEW in 2012, 56 percent of respondents specified that their library did not carry the e-book they wanted to borrow, which might be because the libraries are still building their digital collections (Zickuhr et al. “Libraries, Patrons and E-books.”). Moyer states libraries need to acquire different types of novels to give options to readers’ varied interests (230). Most romance readers enjoy reading a new book by their favorite author (Bouricius 47), so [End Page 15] varieties of romance novels are important to have in the collection. Beyond the limited availability and limited funds for multicultural romance fiction, acquisitions librarians must also work to select materials that present accurate representations of the diverse realities of individuals and communities of all races and ethnicities, taking care to recognize materials with subtle and overtly racist or discriminatory representations (Bostic 218). These limitations relate to users and systems that are compounded by external barriers, which affect the accessibility of multicultural romance e-books.

Future Research

This study reveals the current multicultural romance e-book titles’ availability and accessibility within the WPLC digital library. Some of the challenges to diminishing availability and accessibility barriers can be addressed by the WPLC digital library. However, there are challenges presented by external sources: for example, the available subject headings can be limited by the OverDrive system and publishing companies can limit the available e-books. An advanced search in the WPLC digital library for the African American independent publishing house Genesis Press, Inc. returns only one listing. Such limited availability can be a barrier for all romance e-books and for e-books in general. Further research will distinguish the sources for such challenges as well as opportunities for improvement. Interviews with WPLC librarians, particularly Selection Committee members, might provide further insight to the barriers to selecting and purchasing multicultural romance e-books for the DL.

The racially and ethnically diverse authors and book titles selected for this study were gleaned from a variety of romance websites, wikis, and books. Data analysis illustrates that some of the included authors are White, non-Hispanic authors who might have only one or two titles that include characters of color or indigenous representations, which is why they are listed in the various websites, wikis, and book resources for multicultural romances. Further research methods need to refine this selection process by removing these outliers from the data sets. The book titles need to be explored, rather than the individual authors’ comprehensive offerings in the DL. The selection in this study includes predominantly female authors. Future studies need to add male authors, such as African American authors Timmothy B. McCann, Colin Channer, Omar Tyree, Eric Jerome Dickey, Jervey Tervalon, E. Lynn Harris, Franklin White, and Van Whitfield (Cook 1; Rosen 38). Gay and Lesbian romance novels appeal not only to the homosexual reader but can also be of interest to heterosexual readers (Maas et al. “Gay and Lesbian Romance”). A search for “Gay/Lesbian” and “Romance” limited to e-books returns one title in the WPLC collection. Future studies need to specifically include the accessibility of various perspectives of sexuality and gender in romance e-books. Another search refinement needs to focus on how well a digital library presents complete book series (e.g., Brenda Jackson’s “Bachelors in Demand” series contains three out of the four titles).

An advanced search limited to the subject heading “Urban Fiction” resulted in 116 titles in February and increased by 13 titles over the following two months. Urban Fiction, also known as “Street Lit”, is set in a predominantly city landscape with plots delving into the realities and culture of the characters. It is traditionally a genre written by and for African Americans, though there are also urban Latino fiction novels and it is branching out into different sub-genres (Morris 2, 43). The search for urban fiction narrowed by the [End Page 16] subject heading “Romance” returned 20 titles consistently over two months. While some of these 20 titles were Black or African American romance titles, not all urban fiction romance can be categorized as multicultural romance. Further research needs to focus on this subject heading specifically within the DL.

Further studies of multicultural romance e-book accessibility needs to explore items found through the process of browsing. In 2012, OverDrive reported that nearly 60 percent of readers rely on browsing practices to encounter new e-books instead of searching for specific titles, and romance is the most popular genre for browsing (Schwartz). In this study, several items were added to the data sets because of the researchers’ browsing within the WPLC digital library, but this was not an intentional research method. A study designed around browsing digital collections might further explore multicultural romance e-book availability and accessibility.

This exploratory study provides a snapshot of the multicultural romance e-book availability and accessibility in the WPLC collection. Expanding studies in this DL can give area libraries a more comprehensive understanding of the WPLC multicultural romance e-book collection and identify specific areas that need improvement or refinement. A continuation of this exploratory study to include data over an entire year will establish a record of increases or decreases of multicultural romance e-books over a significant period. This data will be beneficial to discover patterns in collection development for distinct racial and ethnic groups.


This exploratory study finds that the WPLC digital library provides a foundational collection of multicultural romance e-books, which presents a range of racial and ethnic perspectives and provides a general representation of the racial and ethnic demographics of Wisconsin. In 2010, a total of 15.5 percent of Wisconsin residents identified as Black or African American, Hispanic or Latina/o, Asian, and/or American Indian or Alaska native (United States Census Bureau), and 10.3 percent of the entire WPLC romance e-book collection were multicultural romance e-books. The findings do not precisely align with the specific racial and ethnic demographics of Wisconsin. The multicultural romance e-books in the WPLC digital library present an adequate number and range of formats, which is beneficial to user access and appeal to potential users. The barriers to the accessibility of these items are related to language, subject headings, and system interface. Further research will explore the source of these barriers and opportunities for refinement. Overall, the WPLC has developed a solid foundation for fulfilling their mission to provide Wisconsin residents with access to a broad, current, and popular collection of electronically published materials in a wide range of subjects and formats. Continued development of the multicultural romance e-book collection will enhance their public library services to all of the 5.6 million Wisconsin residents with an interest in romance fiction. [End Page 17]

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