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February 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
Find more Every Book Its Reader
There’s a gap in almost every field between the articles in professional or scholarly writing and actual daily practice. On one level, that’s great: we need ideals that show what we value. Fields where we quit believing in the ideal version (politics, anyone?) become rife with cynicism and bad behavior justified away as “normal” practice. But if we mindlessly accept the idealized version, we can fail to fix basic problems or, even worse, become paralyzed with shame about how our own performance isn’t matching up.
I’m looking at you, librarians.
Readers’ advisory is a service that is fun and interesting to provide in theory but easy to let slip away in actual practice. If you are waiting for that theoretical reader to make her or his smiling appearance, curtsying or bowing before launching into a rhapsodic quest for great books, I wish you the best of imaginary times. More often, you are going to be lonely, and perhaps a little ashamed about your failure to serve enough people.
Readers’ advisory is a service that is fun and interesting to provide in theory but easy to let slip away in actual practice.
There are dozens of surprisingly good reasons why people don’t ask us about what to read next, and examining these reasons is the path to better RA practice. The clever reader who found and loved that treasure for which we are aching to suggest read-alikes is probably perfectly capable of building his or her own Jenga tower of books by the bedside. Those who do need our help are confused about which library employees provide which services or perhaps they had a misunderstanding or bad experience with one employee 10 years ago that left them reluctant to ask questions ever again. Many are so blinded by that “reference” moniker that it doesn’t dawn on them that popular reading is a legitimate area for questions. Many are embarrassed about their taste in fiction or assume that we would dismiss it.
Often they look at us, assume against common ground, and never start the discussion. I have to remind myself regularly that it’s not irrational for the elderly gentle reader, the urban-fiction fanatic, the gushing romance addict, or the fantasy-series warrior to walk past the middle-aged white guy in business casual to address a female colleague (who’s brilliant but with nonfiction), the young shelver (who isn’t quite prepared for this question), or even another patron (who might have a good answer but also might corner them for an hour with conspiracy theories).
And so, as a new year starts, I have to resolve myself (and so do you) that if we want to serve more than imaginary readers, we’re going to have to go out and get ’em. We’re going to have to prove ourselves as a resource, again and again and again.
How can we do that? If you’re like me, the answer is a work in progress, but I have a few tricks. First and foremost, you have to get every last hint of book shaming out of your system. Nervous readers smell it on you faster than a vegan will smell fast food on your breath. They see it sooner than an overprotective mother can catch the salacious gleam of curiosity in Junior’s eye. You can’t love every author, but you’re going to have to truly embrace the right of others to read what they like. Find common ground in your love for a good story, in the empathy that comes with reading, in the emotional needs that you share, or in the ideas found in books that somehow make life a little better.
Although it will help if you are good at talking to strangers, that isn’t as important as the ability to actively listen to strangers. Develop an advisory radar for all the ways in which they will say, or subtly signal, that they are looking for a book. The act of browsing a rack of book lists, the shelf of new books, or a display may be the only hint they will give that they are on the hunt. Maybe it will only be a confused look about where to go next. Try being in the area when this happens, and show your own enthusiasm for the quest. Turn hold requests or pickups into opportunities to hand-sell similar authors. Make surprising comparisons across genres, subject matters, and media types. Try asking them what they think of certain authors, books, television shows, or films to get the discussion rolling. Confess your own guilty pleasures when you can tell that the patron suspects you of book snobbery.
Develop an advisory radar for all the ways in which they will say, or subtly signal, that they are looking for a book. The act of browsing a rack of book lists, the shelf of new books, or a display may be the only hint they will give that they are on the hunt.
Advisory encounters don’t have to be face-to-face. Work with your tech-services department or vendors to build RA content into the library catalog. Lead the development of a personalized recommendation service, or instigate a day of quick-pick recommendations over social media. If you don’t have the pull at your library to do those things yet, build a creative display that draws comparisons between items in the collection in a new way. Create a better book list for fans of a particular genre or author. If you don’t even have those options yet, talk to colleagues about books, films, or music, building your knowledge base and showing a mind for advisory. If you can’t do anything else, go out and straighten a shelf, put a book face out. Such simple acts are the beginnings of advisory, the first step toward a year of reaching more advisory customers.
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