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Find more Notes from the Field
Becky Spratford is truly a librarian’s librarian. She is passionate about books, excited about her patrons, and, even better, is more than willing to share that enthusiasm with others. I recently had a chance to chat with Becky about her library, her popular and critically acclaimed blogs, and a particularly interesting e-book project with which she was recently involved.
Tell us a little about yourself and your current activities.
Becky: I work at the public desk helping leisure readers at the Berwyn (IL) Public Library, but I also write the RA for All blogs and provide training to librarians everywhere and anywhere. I have spoken at various conferences across the country, both in person and via webinars. Recently, I even had my first international gig (via Google Hangout) in Australia!
I am the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror, 2d edition (2012) and am a contributor to NoveList in many different areas of the database and their newsletters. I have also begun a collaboration with Neal Wyatt and her “Readers’ Shelf” column in Library Journal to push horror books.
Finally, I am a steering committee member for the Adult Reading Round Table (ARRT). Our mission is to develop readers’-advisory skills and to promote reading for pleasure through public libraries in the Chicago metropolitan area. This year, I’ll be the leader of our Crime Fiction Genre Study. I like to say I am more of a team captain than the leader, as I have assembled a team to make sure that a variety of opinions and styles are incorporated into this fairly large undertaking. We have created a website for the Genre Study, found here.
I feel very passionately about using readers’ personal tastes as a springboard to helping them find the correct book for their current mood. I want every patron to have a positive experience at their public library, so I do all I can to help librarians be better at this.
When did you really start to hone your interest in horror fiction?
Becky: I have always enjoyed darker books—I find them intriguing and alluring. I often attribute this to the fact that people read fiction for escape and to see a different side of the world. As I have been lucky to be happy with my life, the darker side is my escape. I have also always known that I wanted to write but came to terms, years ago, with the fact that I was much better at writing about books than actually writing fiction, so when I was approached by Joyce Saricks to write a horror readers’-advisory guide for ALA Publishing, I jumped at the chance—but also recruited a cowriter so as not to get in over my head! That first book was a learning experience. I was both new to writing a reference book and newish to being a librarian. With the second edition, I was more confident. Not only had I now been entrenched in the horror community for a few years (having become eligible to join the Horror Writers Association after the publication of the first edition), but I was also a more confident readers’ advisor. You can see the confidence in the book and the horror blog I created to go with it. That being said, it is still shocking and humbling to me that I have become a go-to person in the horror community.
One would think that you keep busy enough between your blogs, books, and programs, but you also work at a public library. Tell us a little about the Berwyn Public Library (BPL).
Becky: No matter how many places I travel or articles I write, I am always excited to return to my day job of working with patrons at BPL. We are a community of about 60,000 people just a few miles west of Chicago. I co-created the RA department in 2000 with Tammy Clausen, who is now our library director. In the 14 years (!) since, I have cut back to part-time, but I still assist readers at the desk, run a monthly book-discussion group that began back in January of 2001, and co-lead the library’s popular Book Lovers Club and Trivia Night programs.
In terms of collection development, I am one of three selectors for the adult and teen fiction collections, which includes graphic novels. We have one of the larger fiction collections in our system, and as a result, we attract a lot of leisure reading patrons from all over the area. We are committed to helping all readers, no matter their home library. One of the things I am most proud of is how BPL was one of the first libraries in our system to give new books a longer, three-week loan and to also interlibrary loan new books to other libraries as long as no one at the BPL had a hold on them. We are all about spreading the joy of reading and being as customer-friendly as possible. But we see our customers as all readers, not just Berwyn residents. The books want to be read and loaned. Why leave a book on the shelf if there is a reader who wants it? I always say in my training programs, you are not successful as a readers’ advisor until every single one of your books is checked out at the same time. That impossible goal is what drives me to continue to help readers every day, even after 14 years.
How do you keep up with collection development at BPL?
Becky: At BPL we go out of our way to get our patrons to tell us what they want. Here’s how. We have an automatic hold program in which we allow any patron who comes to the library (no matter the town they live in) to put any author they want on an automatic holds list. We call it “Holds without Hassle.” Many libraries allow people to choose from a preapproved list of authors to help them know how many copies of the most popular authors to buy; however, our way takes this a step further, letting the patrons choose any author. By allowing patrons to let us know their favorite authors, we can better anticipate their needs. They are telling us which books they most enjoy, and we can use this information in our collection-development decisions. As a result, we are able to take the pulse of our collection in response to our most avid users in real time without any prodding. We make it appear like we are anticipating their needs, and they love it!
We also use the popularity of our summer reading program to collect statistics on what our patrons are reading. Our rules for the program are very simple: read whatever you want, but you have to tell us the title and at least one sentence about how you felt about the book. By the end of the summer, we have an eight-week snapshot of what people are reading at our library. Compile that data over 10 years, and you can really see trends as they ebb and flow. I have more information about this on my blog.
And, of course, we keep up with patrons’ tastes the old-fashioned way, by talking to them about books and authors whenever we get the chance. Overall, I feel like we are very self-aware at BPL. We know what works and what doesn’t. We also have a culture that encourages us to try new things without being afraid to fail. This is the key to staying up to date with trends.
What kinds of things do you find your collection at BPL is in need of most right now?
Becky: Like most libraries, we are struggling with the e-book issue. E-books are very popular, and we not only offer a few different ways for library patrons to access them, but our department also offers one-on-one assistance to get people started with their devices. But now that our patrons are growing savvier, they want more than we can give them. They want access to Kindle-only titles by popular authors, and they want us to sift through self-published e-books to help them find good ones.
Everything surrounding e-books in libraries is very frustrating to me as our hands are tied on many of these issues. As someone who prides herself in going the extra mile to help my readers, the inability to provide the full range of e-books that our patrons want is very frustrating. How do you keep up with what is current and popular with your patrons if you can’t get it for them? This is one of my favorite issues to talk about with other librarians. By this point, most of us are very good at accessing resources so that we are up to date on what publishers think is popular, but we are not as good (as a profession) in remembering that first and foremost it is what our patrons want that is most important.
e-books, you were recently involved with the Soon to be Famous Illinois Author project, sponsored by the Illinois Library Association. What can you tell us about the project?
Becky: Librarians across the state nominated 103 self-published adult fiction titles, and more than 20 librarians served as judges—I was on the judging panel. The award is the brainchild of library marketing professionals who were inspired after listening to a presentation by brand expert and NYU professor David Vinjamuri, who writes and speaks about the importance of libraries in the era of e-books and self-publishing. Vinjamuri wants libraries to wield their collective influence to lift a self-published author to success to create a measurable indicator of the power of libraries and librarians to affect books and reading.
Soon to be Famous was my first experience being a judge for an award. I went into it with trepidation since we were dealing with unpublished manuscripts. Would there be anything worth reading? We judges began with more than 100 submissions. I was given 3 titles to preview and was expected to let the committee know which were worth going on to a second round. I was able to quickly eliminate 2 of the 3 from contention. After all of the judges looked at books, the committee had a list of 12 titles to move on to the second round. We had a very detailed rubric with which to judge each book in a range of categories. We then assigned these titles a score, and the committee came together to compile the scores. Three finalists emerged from the second round. (More information on the winners can be found here.)
Now that we have completed the process, I am happy to say, there was no need for me to worry. I was extremely impressed with the three finalists and can honestly say they all deserve to be published. In fact, I have read many titles from major publishers with large marketing pushes that were not as good as our finalists! As a side benefit, the entire process opened my eyes to the fact that there is quite a bit of self-published fiction out there that my patrons would love. That is the overall message the committee was hoping to get out with this contest. Now we, as librarians, have to work to figure out the best way to bring the cream of the unpublished crop into our libraries. That is the next challenge.[Editor’s Note: See the Corner Shelf feature “Self Publishing and E-books: Time for Libraries to Wade into the Fray?” for more on this issue.]
Let’s switch gears and talk about your blogging. You run one of my favorite readers’- advisory-themed blogs, RA for All (and the companion, RA for All: Horror). When and why did you decide to start blogging?
Becky: Back in August 2004, I began teaching a master’s level readers’-advisory course twice a year. As the semesters kept rolling by, I was getting frustrated that I could not easily share the work of past students with current students. Add to the equation that I was trying to find an easier way to keep a database of the books I was reading and what I thought about them—remember, this was before Goodreads. So, in 2007, I bit the bullet and started a blog, but I really did it just for me, to make my life easier. I knew it couldn’t be the kind of site that was the first to report breaking book news, but I could focus on the information that was most useful to librarians in the trenches. I showcase the work of others and share my views and opinions about serving readers. What started as a way to keep track of my students’ work, my reviews, and links I wanted to easily retrieve has turned into a resource that now shows up in library textbooks. It has been a wild ride, but as long as people find it useful, I will hang on.
The horror blog is different, as it is a supplement to a textbook and acts more as a database with updates. I work much more on indexes and collections of links for librarians, which live on their own pages inside the blog. I post less frequently but do a huge “31 Days of Horror” blog-a-thon every October.
Do you have a set process for blogging?
Becky: I am very adamant about posting at least once a day, every weekday on RA for All. I think it is important to post on a regular schedule in order to be useful to people. When I am on vacation, I arrange guest posters or write posts and schedule them to run during my absence. I do admit that there are times this self-imposed schedule can be grueling. I have worked very hard to stay independent, but that comes at a price. I am RA for All in its entirety; there is no one to pick up the slack when I get swamped. I am constantly urged on, though, by my fans, who contact me with stories about how my resources helped them to help a reader. It is all worth it then.
What have been some of your favorite posts/blogging moments?
Becky: Well Rebecca, I know you and I share a favorite—my “get off your butt” rant from 2010! But I also enjoy the posts that promote the wonderful work of my students or colleagues. I also love my “Becky’s 10 Rules of RA,” which I have updated and changed over time and are on their own easily accessible page .
Finally, I have had a lot of fun with my recurring “Monday Discussion” feature, which is circulated among the BPL staff via e-mail each Monday and appears on the blog. I especially like how the staff has embraced participating. It has allowed us to get to know each other’s reading tastes better and has helped to foster a larger sense of teamwork. The archive is here.
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