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Emily LakdawallaAugust 12, 2015

Community service: Vetting my local library's children's space books

Space fans, here is a valuable community service that you can perform in your neighborhood: Vet your school library's space book collections. My kids' elementary school librarian asked me to take a look at the nonfiction space book collection and cull any outdated or just wrong books. It took me an hour and a half to thumb through the six feet or so of shelf space that composed the planetary science section, and I plan to return to go through the astronomy, geology, Earth science, and planetary exploration sections. I wound up eliminating almost a third of the books, for which the librarian was grateful, and I promised to get back to her with a list of some recommended books on subject areas that are now thin. I was glad to have a volunteer task that I could do on my own schedule.

I only eliminated about five books for just being terrible. Age was the major factor in my decisions, but it was a complicated issue: the less actively a world is being explored, the older the books that are still good. The oldest book I found was first published in 1963 and revised in 1984, and I actually left that one on the shelf. Its last page is hopefully still inspiring to young children at the same time that it is heartbreaking to those of us who were children in 1984...or 1963.

This book was first published in 1963, updated in 1984. Heartbreaking last page still true after 30 years.

— Emily Lakdawalla (@elakdawalla) August 12, 2015

This book was an example of an interesting trend: I found that books illustrated with art rather than photos tended to age better. I'm not saying that art necessarily makes for better illustration. I think art-illustrated books age better because illustrations are often used for general concepts that don't change as much over time -- things like orbital diagrams, or phases of the Moon or Venus. Often, concept art illustrates future events that still haven't happened or haven't been observed, like those lunar colonies, surfaces of worlds beyond Mars, or a major impact onto Earth.

The newest book that I eliminated for being out of date was a book on Mercury published in 2007. That was before MESSENGER arrived, and the quality of the Mariner 10 images that are included in children's books is pretty uniformly terrible. The Mars section of the shelf also fared very badly, because for some reason all the books I found there were quite old -- the newest mission mentioned by any of them was Pathfinder, and our understanding of Mars has changed a lot since 1997! Books about the Moon tended to be old, too, but have held up better with time. That being said, nearly all of the newer books about the Moon barely mentioned any of the missions launched since Clementine, and many stopped at Apollo!

Left book, 1994, good except post-Apollo mission list ends at Clementine. Right, 2008, mentions none after Apollo O.o

— Emily Lakdawalla (@elakdawalla) August 12, 2015

As I worked through the shelves, I developed these cutoff dates for planet-specific books. Books older than these should be closely investigated to see if they still hold up. This list of dates would be different (more recent) for middle- and high-school level books, which should cover the topics in more detail so would need to be more up-to-date, particularly for Mars, asteroids, and Saturn. This list only applies to the planetary books in the Science section (Dewey 520s), not the space exploration books in the Engineering section (Dewey 629.4), which I have not gotten to yet.

Pluto presented an interesting challenge, because New Horizons will change everything, but those changes haven't propagated to books yet, of course. In the end, I eliminated none of the Pluto books on the shelf; I deferred that for a year. I also didn't eliminate any books just because they called Pluto a planet, because I don't think there's any harm at all in letting kids notice that its status changed over time. It was interesting to see how books published in different years handled Pluto's planetary status. Some from the early 2000s had sidebars talking about differing opinions on its status. More recent ones that included Pluto generally also included Ceres and Eris in solar system diagrams. I think it would be a fun library project for a strong elementary-school reader to take a stack of solar system books off the shelf, learn how to look at the publication date, sort them by date, and then read what each says about Pluto.

When I was done, I had eliminated nearly all of the library's books specifically about Mercury and Mars, and I wasn't particularly happy with the comets section for its lack of spacecraft images. So here is a list of books that I will recommend that the school librarian investigate for purchase, based on my past book reviews. Many of them are actually series of books that cover the entire solar system, so if your library is missing a different subset of planets, you can probably find replacements here.

General solar system books:

Book series:

I have just gone through Amazon to find new nonfiction space series and have sent out a pile of emails requesting review copies of brand-new space books. I usually post my reviews in November; stay tuned!

Read more: product review, personal stories

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
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