Library Life or Questions Your Professor didn't Prepare You For

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Reader’s Advisory or, how to respond when a patron asks you for a “good book”

As a reference services librarian, one of my main responsibilities is providing reader’s advisory services.  Reader’s advisory or RA, which at this point is more of an art than a science, is the process of connecting patrons with materials they’ll enjoy.  There are two kinds of reader’s advisory, direct and indirect.  Direct reader’s advisory is having a patron come up to you asking for help while indirect reader’s advisory involves the reaction of displays and readlists.  Today, however, I’ll be focusing on direct reader’s advisory.

Even with on the job experience and a strong knowledge of popular titles and authors, it can still sometimes be difficult to determine what kind of materials to suggest.  Here are some insights and tips from my own experience that might help you if you’re just starting out providing reader’s advisory services.

One: Knowing What You’re Looking For

At this point in the reference interview, you’ll want to use open-ended questions to get a better sense of what the patron is looking for.  Questions like “what kind of genres do you like?” or “what was the last book you read?” helps to narrow down their tastes and might provide you with an author’s name you can use in a readalike list.

Two: Ask for Specifics

Once you’ve gotten a general idea of what the patron is looking for, start to ask more specific questions.   If they’re looking for a fiction book, ask what they liked in a book:

  • Storyline – This is a great way to determine the book’s focus – is the plot what drives the story or is it focused on character development? Is the plot nonlinear that shifts between time periods or is it more intent on building up the world for its characters to inhabit?
  • Tone – The tone of a book can run the range of creepy and explicit like Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects to a bittersweet heartwarming story like Jan Karon’s Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good. Determining what kind of tone a patron is looking for helps to gauge what kinds of authors and materials to suggest.
  • Writing Style – This can be the most difficult part, especially if you don’t have first-hand experience with a specific author (something I’ve run into myself while providing materials to homebound patrons). Writing style includes the type of language used in a book, the amount of detail given, as well as the level of writing, whether it’s more nuanced and complex or more accessible and easy-to-understand.
  • Pace – This is fairly self-explanatory, but important nevertheless. Whether a patron is looking for something that is fast-paced or leisurely can provide you with insight to what kind of storyline they might like (e.g. someone looking for a book that is fast-paced is probably not looking for a fluffy romance).

Three: Use Your Tools

Having a good knowledge of what is in your library’s catalog is great, but being a librarian mean using all the tools at your disposal to connect patrons with the information, or in this case books, they’re looking for.  Here are a few of my favorite resources:

Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County – This is one of my favorite readalike lists.  It has readalikes for a number of authors from M.C. Beaton to Anita Shreve, as well as lists of readalikes based on author’s works in different genres including chicklit, cozy mysteries, and techno-thrillers. It also have a very, very long list of readalike for different series.

Library Thing – Library Thing has a ton of useful information for librarian engaged in readers advisory.  It has a faceted search feature allowing users to search by author, title, subject matter, and user generated tags.  Each entry includes work details, reviews, images of alterative covers, and links to similar works.  Additionally, Library Thing also provides quick links to different access points including Google Books and Project Gutenberg.

The Readers Advisory Online – Including a blog detailing upcoming titles, trends in the field, and opportunities for ongoing professional development in the area of RA, this is a resource I wish I’d heard about sooner!  Readers Advisory Online also provides resources for providing RA services for patrons who are interested in different subjects, from African American frontier literature to romance, with each entry containing an overview of the genre, a breakdown of its appeal, themes, and links to additional resources.   The site also has a fully faceted and very useful search feature that helps you connect patrons with materials basted off their answers during your RA interview.

NoveList – You’re library will probably have a subscription to Novelist, but if it doesn’t or you’re new to the field and haven’t had a chance to use it yet, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used it during a reader’s advisory interview!  Novelist provides a few different products, from NoveList k-8 to Library Aware, but each has some basic features.  Each one has a faceted search by author, title, publication date, and appeal factor, and includes recommendations, reviews, articles about upcoming titles, and lists of similar works.

With the rise of the Internet, it was initially thought that Reader’s advisory would decline in importance, but the reverse turned out to be true, with a survey conducted by RUSA/CODES Reader’s advisory Research and Trends Committee finding that half of libraries surveyed responding that the RA increased in importance in the last three years.  Providing RA services to patrons is a great way to connect with the community and it’s important that we’re able to provide it in an effective manner.

I hope that these tips and tools help, and if anyone wants to comment on a RA experience they’ve had or add some more resources or interview techniques I left out, as always feel free to add them in the comments section.


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This entry was posted on March 9, 2015 by in Uncategorized.
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