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Find more Notes from the Field
Regular Booklist readers know David Wright as the “he” in our popular “He Reads/She Reads” column. David can be found on Twitter @guybrarian. Here, he tells us more about his position at the Seattle Public Library and his many readers’-advisory pursuits.
Tell us a little about yourself and your position.
David: I have worked as a librarian for 15 years now, after drifting into library work as a library technician, so I’m pretty ripe for some sort of mid-career crisis or self-reinvention right about now. I feel fortunate to have always worked in the same library system that I grew up with here in Seattle. I work in the Reader Services Department (formerly the Fiction Department) at the landmark Central branch. I predate the department, which was largely formed out of Nancy Pearl’s classes at the University of Washington, so I have some very talented colleagues. I know this is a common refrain, but it really is impossible to overstate the great positive influence Nancy Pearl has had on my work life: she is as generous and kind as she is well read.
While I’ve stayed put in my position, things have certainly changed around me: I’ve worked in three buildings for five City Librarians, interims included. The dogs bark, the caravan passes, though I’m unsure whether I’m the dog or the caravan in that proverb. Likely both. My basic work, and the one unchanging constant, has to do with conversing one-on-one with readers, of which we have a bountiful supply in Seattle. We pursue them, they pursue us, and we talk books all over the library. We have the luxury of a good-sized collection to draw on, although working in an 11-story library has its challenges as well, particularly when it comes to “whole collection” advisory.
Given our central position on a highly trafficked floor of a somewhat daunting building, of course we do all kinds of work to help people get to wherever it is they are going, but it all comes back to the books. I think it is crucial that at the heart of this magnificent showy building, you can walk up to the person at the desk in the middle of it all, mention your favorite author’s name, and not get a blank stare in return but, rather, find an engaged and informed interlocutor who can help you in all kinds of ways, many of which you hadn’t suspected when you came in. Our patrons—from Seattle and all around the world—seem to feel that way, too, although it sometimes saddens me to see how surprised the average library patron seems to be these days by a knowledgeable response.
I’ve also had the opportunity to present at such conferences as ALA, PLA, BEA, WLA, PNLA, OLA, and even a fun thing called “Beyond Hope” up in Prince George, British Columbia. I also teach at the University of Washington iSchool. I’ve written quite a few pieces for local and national media, including Library Journal and ALKI (the Washington Library Association quarterly). I also write for NoveList, and I contributed chapters to Research-Based Readers’ Advisory (2008), The Readers’ Advisory Handbook (2010), and the latest edition of Genreflecting (2013). And there there’s those “He Reads/She Reads” columns for Booklist, which started as something Kaite Stover and I dreamed up back at PLA 2004. That’s always been fun, and I’m fortunate to be somewhere in the shimmering tail of Kaite’s cometlike orbit. Lately I’ve been doing more reviews for the Seattle Times, including columns on reprinted titles, and really enjoy writing things for readers in our own community.
How has your work in libraries changed over the last 10 years?
David: The biggest difference would have to be the amount of time I now spend doing readers’ advisory online, which we were only starting to dabble with a decade ago. Now, we have a very active, all-ages, forms-based online readers’-advisory service—“Your Next 5 Books,” which is one of the busiest around from what I hear. This isn’t a service that has been heavily promoted, but here in Seattle, it doesn’t much need to be. People love the idea, and they seem to love the reality of it as well, as the profusion of kudos we get from our patrons really buoys us along. I expect that tallies with the experience of other libraries doing online RA. Readers’ advisory is a hugely valued service, and doing it in ways that are clear and intentional—be that with an online service, or with a sign on the desk stating “Reading Suggestions” (and the staff on hand to make good on that promise)—makes for happy patrons. I really think that any library that purports to offer readers’ advisory should go ahead and put that in black and white by also offering a forms-based service. This isn’t a replacement for face-to-face conversation, but I think it can really galvanize and advertise a library’s commitment to RA.
I find doing readers’ advisory online can become quite a compulsion— addiction?—and I think it is something I’d want to do even if I weren’t getting paid for it. My dream project at some future date is to create a nonprofit social Q&A site devoted to reading suggestions—something that combines the wide-open social aspect of GoodReads with the book-suggesting chops of professional networks such as Fiction_L and whatever the bookseller equivalent of that might be. It would be open and participatory but would also be able to attract and keep some skilled RA folks in the mix, not for specific profit but just for the joy of the work and perhaps some brownie points: people who love what they do will do amazing amounts of it for little more than the recognition of a gold star. Readers’ advisory strikes me as a great area for this way of mixing it up with the general public, learning from them and teaching them and serving them all at once. (If anyone wants to help build something like this, let me know; I already have a good domain name: “ReaderSource.”)
How many people work in your department?
David: The lines between departments are becoming a bit more blurred than they used to be, but the Reader Services department has five librarians and one paraprofessional.
Is there something unique or different that your library does in its approach to readers’ advisory or collection development?
David: Would I sound like a smart ass if I just said no? I’m sorry—I tend to get involuntary eye-roll when the word innovation is mentioned, just because it often is synonymous with hyped. So much of the best of what we do is inspired by the work of others, which was in turn inspired by the work of others. We all build on each other, and some of the most original ideas that are touted as being free of the stultifying influence of other libraries wind up being pretty dumb ideas. The idea I’m most excited about right now is our “Booktoberfest” programming around beer and books next fall, which I’m stealing from several other libraries. I really can’t wait to do some bookish outreach in area brewpubs—I’ve never book-talked buzzed. Honestly, I don’t think the challenge is finding enough original ideas for things, so much as finding the time and capacity to try out even a fraction of the good ideas already floating around out there.
That said, I do think we do some neat things, if not uniquely so. I’m very impressed by the social media team at our library: we have a great blend of folks— primarily librarians—who do some very smart work out there on our various channels. This has included a number of readers’-advisory events on Facebook and Twitter that have gone very well, and like the online RA work, are another way of advertising our services by simply doing them out in the public square where all can see and join in. That seems to always go well, and really impress everyday people not with what we claim to be, but with what we truly are and what we actually do, and the skills we bring to bear for all to see.
It has been 10 years since I created “Thrilling Tales,” our library’s story time for grown-ups, and it is still going strong. There are all kinds of other terrific programs we do at our library (including a variety of book groups and book chats and a rich calendar of author events and panels), but the story time is “my baby,” so to speak, and I’m pleased and proud that this has been a sustainable program that has continued to draw strong, appreciative crowds on a regular basis for all these years, and that it has helped inspire similar programs in other libraries, as well as at homeless shelters and in at least one prison. I don’t have an exact count, but I’ve done close to 300 of these, which probably means closer to 600 stories shared, and it still feels like a fresh and surprising way to bring literature to life in our library. Selecting and reading suspenseful stories is one of the most fun things I get to do, and it really delights both regular attendees and out-of-towners, who tell me they wish their own library had such a program.
What advice would you give to a library looking to emulate the things you do?
David: Well, first you have to build a gigantic multimillion-dollar library that becomes an international tourist attraction. Just kidding. One fun perk of working where I do is that I get to chat with visiting library workers from all over the world, and I see firsthand how all of us in libraries are prone to grass-is-greener thinking. I’ve seen so many librarians speak dismissively of their smallish libraries and nondescript systems as their eyes gaze up seven stories to the glass roof of the grand pleasure dome where I have the presumed good fortune to practice librarianship. But truly, some of the best and most valuable things we do in our system are also some of the cheapest and most scalable. Facebook and Twitter are free to all, and if you don’t have any good ideas (yet), just steal and share those of others; we certainly do. Our online RA service is one of the lowest-tech versions I’ve seen, built onto existing reference software with paper clips and gum; you could do much the same thing with paper forms. “Thrilling Tales” is simply a story, enough light to read by, a voice, and some listeners: they’d have done it this same way in 1915, or 1715, and probably did. Believe me, there are plenty of times when I envy people working in smaller library systems, with their reduced bureaucratic rigamarole and swifter turnaround times. Of course, we’re all pressed for time and resources, and we can’t do everything, but nowadays, more and more, almost all of us can try out almost anything. If you have to try out 50 things to find 5 really good ones, that isn’t a 90 percent failure rate: it’s the most reliable way to find 5 really stellar programs and services, and learn lots in the process. Let the failure begin!
What kinds of things do you find your collection is in need of most right now?
I expect this is the same all over, but the growth of our digital collections has had an interesting effect on the demand for print books and even books on CD. When we suddenly acquire an extensive digital backlist for authors who might not be as well represented with physical copies on the shelves, we find that patrons can get pretty irate about what they perceive—rightly or wrongly—as a diminishment of our physical collection. The commitment of many of our readers to paper is impressive and ardent and has evolved from the more aesthetic or sentimental considerations one used to hear—the smell and feel of books and bindings, as if library books were ever something you’d want to be smelling—to a more measured and informed preference. These are readers who have tried and are open to reading digital books, but many of whom simply prefer the experience of reading off paper, unplugged, for the sake of their eyes and the quality of their attention. And so we find ourselves on challenging and often forlorn quests to fill holes in our backlist that only became an issue because of the availability of digital editions. I suppose the answer is better print-on-demand accessibility—I don’t know the supply of things terribly well, but I do see the user end, and I guess I’d like to disabuse anyone still laboring under the false impression that we’re moving inevitably away from physical collections, or who dismiss these as somehow outmoded or “warehousing.” That isn’t what we’re seeing on the ground at all, in Seattle anyway, and it doesn’t seem to be generational either. Lots of digital natives really relish paper. So we need to be doing both, to the greatest degree possible.
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