Toronto Public Library Homepage

This page has been archived and is no longer updated.

« Previous | Main | Next »

Romance as a Mirror of Popular Culture - Guest Dr. Nancy Down

October 8, 2009 | Deborah Cooke | Comments (9)

Today we have a very special guest - Dr. Nancy Down. She is Head Librarian at the Ray and Pat Browne Library for Popular Culture Studies, at Bowling Green State University. Because Nancy will be travelling tomorrow, this week's guest post is appearing on Thursday - I wanted her to be able to stop by and answer your questions!

N Down (2)

Nancy Down is Head Librarian of the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University (OH).  She has an M.L.S. from Indiana University and a Ph. D. in English Literature from Drew University. She has been a librarian for twenty years and is an avid reader of romances and mysteries.


    At the beginning of each semester, the Browne Popular Culture Library offers tours for classes of it’s collections back in the stacks. We usually pull the requested materials for the patron’s use in our reading room. Students are often surprised that, as an academic library, we archive romance books. As we stand in front of the shelves holding series romances such as Silhouette Intimate Moments or Harlequin Intrigue or Candlelight Ecstasy, reactions vary from “Wow!” to “I think my mother reads them.”  I always try to explain why we collect the materials we do and what their role is in relationship to the study of popular culture. Romances tell us a lot about our culture, especially series romances. First, by comparing the art work on the covers, we can see how our society’s attitudes towards sex have changed from the 1950s and 1960s till today. Both men and women can expose more flesh and be seen in more compromising relationships on today’s covers. A graphic design instructor once remarked how the covers would be a good example for students of how to create a generically defined situation over and over again, but bring something new to your cover.

    The stories within romances also tell us about our culture and how our views towards women and relationships have also changed. In the earlier romances, women were nurses, governesses, or paid companions to elderly clients. Many were orphans who needed guardians to look out for their welfare. In today’s romances women follow almost any career you can name—scientists, business owners, ministers, law enforcement, etc. I am surprised when people criticize the earlier romances for depicting women as weak. Even back in the pulp magazine era, romance pulps such as Western Romances and Rodeo Romances would portray strong women managing their own ranches or dealing with gunslighters. The early Harlequins of the 1960s and 1970s are interesting for their choice of locations. Many novels are set in exotic places like Australia, New Zealand, Spain or Greece. Yet, these English heroines travel to these locations, hardly knowing anyone there, and undertake various adventures.
    Romances are also important in popular culture studies because they function as “myths” or fantasies, as the stories we tell about our culture. Romances basically tell a story about two people who meet and struggle (often they don’t even initially like each other), but they come to see each other as whole people and overcome their difficulties to be together. We value the happily ever after story-- though the road to get there is beset with both physical and psychological barriers to overcome. 

    To me, romances are also exciting because they are also changing and crossing boundary lines. We have romantic suspenses, paranormal romances, and historical romances. Whatever elements enter into the romance, the narrative structure must still follow the basic plot of a love story. Romances tell us much about how genres are structured and operate over time. 

    As material culture, the series romances point to romance as an industry. Different series are designed with a similar look, including the colors on the spines, to promote loyalty to a particular series and publisher. For instance, the Harlequin Intrigues all sit together on the shelves with their blue spines and arranged by the publisher’s numbers.

DC - Thank you, Nancy! I'm en route to a conference today - but will try to log on, if possible. I'm counting all you blog readers out there to ask Nancy some good questions, but I'll start things off with one. Nancy, can you tell us a bit more about the collections at BGU and how they're used?


Toronto Public Library's Romance Writer-In-Residence Deborah Cooke discusses writing and getting published in the romance genre.

Comments on this blog are now closed. Visit Deborah's website and her regular blog for more information about Deborah and her books. About