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Find more Talking Shop with Dave Tyckoson
’Tis the season when the days are short, the lights are bright, and we stop to reflect on the year that is rapidly coming to a close. This is a time when we give help to those who need it, thank those who helped us, and celebrate our achievements over the past year. And while most of us are doing this on a personal level, it is happening at the professional level as well. This is the time of year that many of the ALA awards committees are busy making their selections of the best of 2014.
ALA has lots of committees that choose books and media for “best of” lists. Some are very well known—even outside the field of librarianship—such as the Newbery and Caldecott Medals. The Newbery and Caldecott presentations are the gold standard of book-award ceremonies: the medals are first announced at a standing-room-only program at ALA’s Midwinter Meeting and promptly tweeted, broadcast, and reported across the globe; then, at ALA Annual Conference, the winners give acceptance speeches at an elaborate banquet attended by publishers, press, and hundreds of librarians. This is what awards presentations should all be like.
For adult books, the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction are rapidly rising to Newbery-Caldecott level. Although the “Carnegies,” as they are coming to be called, are only three years old, they are fulfilling a long dream of many librarians for ALA to sponsor an adult book award that gets the same recognition as the Newbery and Caldecott do for children’s books. Much of the credit for making this dream a reality goes to Bill Ott from Booklist and Susan Hornung from RUSA, who cosponsor the Carnegies. In addition, other committees within ALA recognize the best adult books in a wide variety of categories, such as Notable Books, Genre Fiction, and best audiobooks. And, of course, the Booklist editors publish their Editors’ Choice lists every January.
In the reference world, there are also a variety of awards for reference sources. RUSA produces the annual list of Outstanding Reference Sources, which lists the best new reference works for small and medium-sized libraries. RUSA MARS creates a similar list of the best free reference websites. A variety of ALA committees recognize reference sources within defined subject fields, ranging from business to history to agriculture. However, one reference award—the Dartmouth Medal—is considered the pinnacle of reference publishing. This award recognizes the creation of a reference work of outstanding quality and significance. Each year there can only be one winner, and if no work is deemed significant enough to receive the award—as has twice been the case— no award is given. Because there are often several excellent reference works produced in any given year, the committee has the option of identifying works as Honorable Mention winners in addition to naming the winner itself.
By virtue of my association with the reference reviewing section of Booklist, I have had the opportunity to participate in the Dartmouth Medal selection for several years. It’s a labor of love—in part because I get to see all (well, most) of the best new reference books as soon as they are published. However, being on the committee is also a big responsibility. Winning the Dartmouth Medal has a huge impact on book sales—even an honorable mention will increase sales—so the stakes are high for publishers. Every year, the committee must choose wisely so that the integrity of the process remains intact.
I would tell you how the selection process works, but if I did, the chair would have to kill me, and I do want to live a little longer. What I can say is that all of the committee members search for potential winners throughout the year. We read reviews in sources such as Booklist and LJ; we peruse publisher catalogs and ads; we request trials of new databases; we check out the books that come into our libraries; and we use any other means available to identify new reference sources. At the same time, many publishers are nominating their best works. This goes on throughout the year.
On the Friday morning of the Midwinter Meeting, the committee is sequestered and meets to discuss their favorites. RUSA staff make sure that copies of all finalists are available for review during the meeting. Access is also available for electronic products so that committee members can run searches and see displays. This allows the committee members to check and double-check the materials as they are discussed. Needless to say, those discussions can get very heated as members advocate for the titles that they liked best. The committee discusses and votes and discusses again, narrowing down the nominations until the best is identified. This is a closed meeting—no visitors are allowed.
There is no white smoke, but sometimes it feels like there should be. Once the committee makes its decision, the committee chair goes to the exhibit hall to notify the publishers of the winning title that it would be in their best interests to appear at the RUSA book award ceremony. If the committee has any Honorable Mention titles, the chair also suggests to those publishers that they might want to appear at the ceremony. All decisions are confidential until the ceremony on Sunday evening during Midwinter. At that time, the winner and any Honorable Mentions are named—as are the winner of other RUSA book and media awards. Speeches are made, drinks and appetizers are consumed, and joy is spread throughout the gathering. The awards program reminds us that all our work was very worthwhile.
The next day, the process starts over again as committee members begin searching for the best reference source for the coming year.
Having been involved with the Dartmouth Medal for some time, I have a few observations about it:
Some readers might wonder how they can serve on the Dartmouth Committee in the future. To be a member, you will have to show that you really know reference publishing. Most members have been book reviewers for many years, often with Booklist, LJ, or ARBA. Some are collection-development librarians who specialize in reference. Others are subject specialists in subject areas such as business, medicine, or the sciences. Most have served on other reference book award committees before being appointed to Dartmouth. All have long and established careers in reference collection development. We try to maintain a balance between types of libraries and among subject specializations. There are always many academic librarians offering to serve, so your chances will be better if you work in a public library.
If you want to serve on the Dartmouth Committee someday, you need to start at the ground level. Volunteer to review reference sources for one of the reviewing journals. and once you have that experience under your belt, offer to serve on one of the award committees (Outstanding Reference Sources is the best place to train for the Dartmouth.). After serving on other awards committees, you will be ready to serve on Dartmouth. Even then, there are always more people interested in serving than there are places on the committee, so you might have to wait. But when your turn comes up, you will get to use your judgment and your experience to select the best reference source of the year. And when you do, all that training and experience will show you that the wait was worth it.
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