Once the conversation is over, the spa recipient is given some tea and cake while the staffer heads to the bookshop stacks to pull recommended titles. Upon collecting piles of books--my Reading Spa included 25 recommended titles--the staffer returns to the spa-goer and book talks each title, making sure to note why they thought the reader might find said title interesting. The Reading Spa concludes with the spa recipient left on their own to browse the recommended titles and make decisions about what books to take home from the experience.
For me, this Reading Spa was pure luxury. It was wonderful to be on the other end of talking about books--me sharing what I like as opposed to me being the careful listener of others' tastes. Having full freedom to talk at length about my reading tastes led me to discover things about myself as a reader that I had never consciously realized. For instance, that I am a science fiction fan. I never would have self-identified as a sci-fi reader, although considering what I love to read, yes, that makes sense. Also, without talking about lots of books I've enjoyed, I wouldn't have been able to easily put my finger on the fact that I particularly enjoy narrative structures in which multiple characters share narrative duties. I had previously read maybe half a dozen such books in a year, but had never overtly realized that I have a preference for this style of narration.
I left with a stack of 15 books--enough that I needed to check two bags on my flight home instead of one--all of which I have been thoroughly enjoying. But I also left with some thoughts on reader's advisory. The three big ones follow.
Readers often don't know what kind of readers they are. Especially young readers.I am a librarian. I read a lot. I talk about books every day. I've taken reader's advisory trainings and classes. I possess the vocabulary to talk about books and reading. And yet, I did not recognize that I am a sci-fi reader. I did not fully understand what actually draws me to a book, and I am theoretically an expert on books. If someone like me isn't able to self-identify my reading proclivities, how might the casual reader, the young reader, the struggling reader be expected to do so? It takes a wide pool of books to really suss out a reader's true colors. Think of those kids who come to the reference desk and say they like fantasy. Great! But, in fact, upon further conversation, it's not really fantasy that attracts them--it's not magic, it's not dragons, it's retellings of folk and fairy tales. Unless you compare a wide range of books read, something most readers don't know or think to do, it's hard to stumble upon that specific preference. Which leads to my second thought...
Quality reader's advisory takes time.I'm talking about those reader's advisory interactions where a customer comes to the desk and says, "I'm looking for something good to read." Not for class, not for a project, just for fun. These true reader's advisory interactions take time, because you need to have a conversation about books and that customer as a reader. A full conversation.
I think that, since reader's advisory so often happens at the reference desk, we have gotten into a habit of treating reader's advisory requests like reference questions. That is, the customer provides the query, and we provide the response. One-two and done. That's not going to be sufficient for quality reader's advisory, for helping readers find lots that they'll enjoy reading. Quality reader's advisory means starting with a basic response question--"What are some books that you have enjoyed?"--and encouraging the reader to keep talking from there. Quality reader's advisory means the staff person asks questions to deeper understand a reader's preferences, but does not interrupt the reader's answers with suggestions. Suggestions come only after the reader has finished detailing their reading life.
And on that note, please notice that I say "suggestions" plural. Because quality reader's advisory will not leave the reader with just one book to try next. Quality reader's advisory will leave the reader with a whole host of possibilities for reading, able to be perused and enjoyed over the course of several months and subsequent library visits. Reader's advisory isn't a one-and-done service, not when done right.
One staffer cannot be an expert on every genre or format.One of the most transformative aspects of my Reading Spa experience was that I got to talk to someone who likes the same types of books as me. That may seem obvious, but it doesn't always happen in reader's advisory interactions at the library. So much of the reader's advisory training I see in libraries involves bringing staff up to speed on every genre so that we all have five go-to titles to recommend in any given reader's area of preference. That's good to satisfy those reference-style RA questions--I need a historical fiction for my book report--but not so much for quality reader's advisory.
I think libraries need to take more of a slow food approach to quality reader's advisory. That is, it won't all happen instantaneously via whoever happens to be staffing the desk when the reader comes in. Think of your staff instead as artisans of different genres and formats. If a customer comes in wanting animal stories, direct that customer to your staffer who enjoys and thus reads animal stories. Know and use your staff reading expertise. The reader's advisory interactions that follow will be that much richer and successful because a person who knows what they're talking about is serving as guide to a reader with similar tastes. The resultant recommendations will be better, and customers will be happier.
My Reading Spa experience has left me ruminating quite a bit on what reader's advisory does and looks like in the library setting. How do you use reader's advisory to truly support your readers as opposed to just making sure they leave with a book?