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Find more Readers'-Advisory Reality
In the May 15 issue of Booklist, I gave several reference librarians from across the country the opportunity to talk about their job duties and the current state of reference work. It occurred to me that readers’-advisory librarians should get their say as well. While RA librarians don’t have the same issues that reference librarians do (with the number of questions declining and the shrinking of print resources), they are experiencing great change themselves (the rise of e-books, for one).
I’m often amused by the notion that RA work means getting to sit down with patrons and chat about books and authors until you find them their perfect next book and send them merrily on their way. In my dozen years on the desk, those leisurely interactions were few and far between; instead, I was lucky if I was able to spend even a few minutes getting patrons to tell me what they were really interested in and then praying that the few matches I came up with were actually on the shelf. But oh, how delightful it was when that did happen! Or when patrons would come back, weeks later, to tell me how much they enjoyed the book I recommended to them.
The real meat of my RA experience was in the work that was done to keep books and reading at the forefront of the library’s mission. Creating displays, cultivating collections, promoting the backlist, keeping current on authors—those were the things that made my librarian heart happy. And, as evidenced by the comments below, that is still the heart of RA work, with a few new technological twists.
To get the pulse of today’s RA desk, I asked a variety of current practitioners for their takes on the state of their art. Their opinions follow. Engaging Readers in Many Ways
Our situation in the Reader Services Department at Seattle Public’s Central branch is doubly unusual. First, we’re located right smack in the middle of an architectural landmark, frequented by visitors from all over the world who flock there to look around, past, and through us at the building itself, together with a fair number of visiting librarians who want to peel back the curtain and get “the real story.” Next, we are an entire department devoted to readers’ advisory, something of a rarity. While we do field and refer many ready-reference questions and answer mountains of directional queries, our primary focus is on engaging, assisting, and counseling readers.
We recently added an online personalized reading list service called “Your Next 5 Books” and have created an average of 150 lists per month since this service started. On our new, highly visible service desk (previously we’d been hidden on the periphery), we’ve placed a sign that simply says “Reading Suggestions,” and we get more RA questions as a result of this, as we do from staff-picks slips sprinkled throughout our stacks.
Regardless of where our desk happens to be, we do much of our advisory while roaming, casually engaging readers in the stacks or in front of displays, asking, “Can I help you find a good book to read?,” constantly selling ourselves and creating awareness about what we do. Readers’ advisory seems even less expected by most people than reference, but with a little promotion, patrons do find it, love it, and come to expect it. With a busier service desk, it has become harder to do some of our other reader-oriented work—like book lists, blogging, social media posts, and online advisory—not to mention the demands of collection and display work. It’s great to be in a visible spot, yet as we take on greater responsibility for supporting readers’ advisory systemwide, we’re needing to juggle priorities on the desk and off. We feel fortunate to be a department that specializes in helping readers, and we’re happy that our toughest challenge is coping with too much of a good thing.
—Misha Stone and David Wright, Reader Services Department, Seattle Public Library
Sneaking in Readers’ Advisory
The readers’-advisory interview, as it has been passed down through library school and continuing-education seminars and programs, is a myth, at least as far as I can tell. Very rarely in my career have I had the chance to have a 20-minute dialogue with a patron that begins with a meaningful discussion about mood, tone, setting, and other appeal factors and ends with me making thoughtful suggestions, and the reader walking away enlightened and appreciative. More often a reader will come to the desk, list in hand, and demand to be put on hold for the latest title in a blockbuster series. Although I attempt to take this moment to initiate a conversation and add a few authors to their repertoire, the readers in my large, urban library are generally in a hurry and are pretty clear about what they want, which for the most part doesn’t include my expertise or, at least, not my booktalking skills. My response to this has been to give them what they want when they are in front of me and sneak readers’ advisory into as many other areas as I can find.
In the last several months, my library has reworked our downloadable e-book subscription and begun circulating e-readers. This has turned into an RA bonanza of sorts. Answering patron questions about the transition has opened up a whole new avenue to connecting readers with books. Even though the conversation never begins with, “I’m looking for a good book to read, can you help me?,” it usually ends up with a reader leaving with a new author to try and a new awareness of the ways in which the library can keep them abreast of new books and authors or reintroduce backlist titles that have been largely forgotten.
Meanwhile, traditional methods of tacit readers’ advisory, like displays and bibliographies, continue to work well. It amazes me how impressed some readers continue to be that I am able to present them with a complete list of James Patterson titles in series order in under a minute. If that is what the readers are looking for, then I’m happy to provide it, even as I am trying to come up with new ways to introduce a conversation about reading for pleasure where they least expect it.
—Magan Szwarek, Popular Materials/Readers Advisory Librarian, Aurora (IL) Public Library
Enthusiasm, Impatience, and Your RA Drug of Choice
In response to Booklist’s query, I asked my RA colleagues for their thoughts on the state of the RA desk today. The responses I received ran the gamut from enthusiasm to frustration. The enthusiasm comes from the satisfying interactions that result from helping customers who actually ask for assistance in finding good books to read. These customers, even if in a hurry, will work with the staff and let them point out titles that may be of interest. Our staff usually work with customers one-on-one, but if the title or genre we’re asked about happens to be one we are not familiar with, we ask coworkers to provide suggestions.
The frustration is a by-product of our world of immediate gratification. Some customers want a book to take with them immediately, and even if a suggested title has appeal, they don’t want to place a reserve on it. They want it now! These customers also insist that staff provide the “perfect” title with our very first suggestion, and if it’s not to their liking (or they’ve already read it), then they will walk away. Staff bemoan this lack of patience—this “I want it now!” attitude—as it doesn’t give them the opportunity to really do readers’ advisory.
This frustration is also reflected in customers who tap dance around the issue of what they are really interested in while staff patiently attempt to engage them in a readers’-advisory conversation. An offbeat example: one of our staff members assisted a young man who asked for help finding fiction books about drugs. She found some titles for him and happily handed him the list, ready to help him search the shelves. He read the plot descriptions and promptly said, “But I don’t do any of these drugs.” He then turned around and left, not giving the staff member a chance to ask another question or offer further assistance!
We also experience frustration with RA databases. Even though we’ve had them for more than a decade and promote them constantly, many customers still do not seem to be aware of these useful tools. And, worse, sometimes even if a customer is aware of our databases, they don’t know how or refuse to use them.
How do we do RA when the model interview is not happening? Many staff find customers like printed read-alike lists, which they can take with them into the stacks or use later, if in a hurry. One librarian mentioned that customers don’t like standing at the desk—perhaps it makes them nervous? So she will compile a list of suggestions from a readers’-advisory database and then lead the customer into the stacks, where they tend to be more willing to spend time.
Some of our branch book-discussion leaders like to apply readers’-advisory skills when holding their regular group meetings. They will booktalk read-alike titles and provide prepared lists for participants to take home afterward. One librarian mentioned that she has been showing her group how to use Goodreads. Another said she’s found her group likes author interviews, so she provides printed copies of interviews wherever possible.
—Lucy M. Lockley (with comments provided by staff from the St. Charles City–County (MO) Library District: Cindy Menkhus, Lisa Lucido, Sheri Kohl, Lisa Kimmel, Claire Jacobi, Sue Dittmar, Debbie Groulik and Mary Anne Hoeman.)
Do you like to talk about books? Maybe you should try being a readers’-advisory librarian. When it comes down to it, that’s what I do for the majority of my eight hours a day. If I am not actively talking about books, then I am reading reviews, writing reviews and annotations, updating our blog of staff recommendations, or checking on series and requesting books.
But, wait, there’s more! I also create genre brochures, order books, run two book clubs, and use social media to give suggestions and hear what others are reading. Yet talking about books to patrons and coworkers is still the best part. The thing is, I don’t want to be the only one doing the talking. I need patrons to tell me about what they love to read so that I can suggest new authors and read-alikes. I want to create a culture where reading is no longer a solitary pursuit. We are all individual readers, but why not be a community of readers? This is exactly what we try to accomplish with our latest book club, where participants join us at a martini bar to discuss any book they have recently read. The response from patrons has been great. Now part of every day is spent listening to our regulars make suggestions for my own reading or book club, or just telling me how excited they are about their latest read.
How do e-books change this dynamic? As the department in our library that has led the e-book charge, we now answer a lot more questions related to technology, and we spend much time troubleshooting devices of all kinds. Still, regardless of format, talking about books is still at the core of our interactions.
So if you drive your friends crazy because all you want to do is talk about books, then maybe readers’ advisory is right for you.
—Kathy Sexton, Head of Readers’ Advisory, Berwyn (IL) Public Library
While the core mission of readers’ services—connecting the right book to the right reader—has not changed despite recent advancements in the technology surrounding reading, much of what we do (and the kind of questions we’re asked) has changed. Such terms and acronyms as ADE, DRM, and mobile apps are heard just as often as the more traditional read-alike, genre, and appeal factors. E-books are sexy, and suddenly, readers’ services is the hippest department in the library! It has been gratifying to see the number of patrons who are reading more because of e-books and to note the many stories about reading and e-books in the national media. The frustration comes from not being able to provide the e-books that the patrons want—not because of any budget concerns but because these titles and authors are so often unavailable to the library market.
Though technology has added new tasks and cool gadgets for readers’-services librarians to play with, we are still performing such traditional tasks as setting up displays, helping patrons place a hold on a book, recommending a new author, and determining the order of titles in a popular author’s series. Besides recommending books in the physical library through our displays and in-person interactions, we now use social media to have these same book conversations virtually. Librarians post and tweet variations on “Friday Reads” and “Find Your Next New Book.” In addition, Pinterest has become a great place to showcase library book lists in a more visually appealing way, just as the booktalk comes alive for YouTube viewers. We also recommend titles via our library’s blogs, which allows for more in-depth discussion. Our library catalog even allows staff (and patrons) to add tags to books, adding a new layer of discoverability to the collection.
Sadly, though, technology still hasn’t changed the fact that we just do not have enough time to read all the books that interest us!
—Lynnanne Pearson, Manager of Adult Popular Services, Skokie (IL) Public Library
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