Monday, June 9, 2014

Thoughts on Reader's Advisory

At the end of April, while I was struggling as a reader, I decided to spend a few hours of my vacation in a Reading Spa at Mr. B's Emporium of Reading Delights, a fabulous indie bookshop. At Mr. B's, you reserve your Reading Spa in advance, giving their staff some info about your personal reading tastes. This allows them to pair you, the spa recipient, with a well-read staff member who has similar tastes, thus upping the chances of said staffer being able to make recommendations that the spa recipient will actually like.

The Reading Spa itself starts with a 30-45 minute chat in which the recipient talks about books, authors, themes, etc., they like, while the staffer take notes and asks clarification questions. Note: At no point in the conversation does the staffer make title recommendations.

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.

And, lastly...

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?


  1. This sounds like an amazing experience! I would love to do this someday.

    1. I was such a great way to spend an afternoon, Anne!

  2. Holy cats, that looks AMAZING. I agree with your thoughts on Readers' Advisory and I think I'll have a conversation with my staff at our next Reading Wildly meeting about what their genre/formats are. I think you're right, we all try to be generalists, but I already know that if a kid comes in looking for a scary book they're going to get better/more suggestions from Miss Amanda than from me because that's a genre she LOVES.

    One idea I always try to leave in the heads of our patrons is that if they like OR don't like the things we suggest, to come back and let us know. I don't know that we get a lot of repeat readers' advisory customers and I'm trying to figure out how to cultivate those relationships. (We have a few I can think of, but I'd like more!)

    1. I think you're absolutely right, Abby--really high quality reader's advisory is going to necessitate cultivating relationships with our customers. I wonder how we can best set the stage for these types of initial and repeat interactions--to denote that we are happy to spend the time on them, etc. Also, the very beginning concern of: how do we let folks know that this is a service we even offer?

  3. I love the sound of your Reader's Spa. How delightful to be able to discuss with someone else the books that you love to read! As I was reading, I did have some thoughts. I work in the children's section and often have parents shove their children at me saying "Go ahead, ask." I do what I can to draw out the child, asking "What was the last book you enjoyed?" but am stymied by the shrug and vacant stare. And often, if kids HAVE actually read a book they enjoy, they are often clueless about what the title was, and NEVER know the author. I don't know how to do reader's advisory for this child. I ask about genres (Space? Adventures? Dogs? Fairies?) but often have kids just shrug and look at their parent. So, I go to books that kids their age usually like. I occasionally strike gold, but am just as likely to strike out. So I guess I think that your idea of having a drawn out conversation about what the child likes is nice, but rarely possible. Secondly, there's the time issue. Only about 20% of the time is anyone willing to stand and let me probe them to find out what they like. Usually, they just ran in to get a book and want me to instantly cough up the next great read. Your ideas sound wonderful, and I would love to do them, but how would it work in real life? For the hurried, I do offer the "read alike" function of our catalog, and the wonders of Novelist, but feel I'm letting down the team by not having a broader knowledge of everything we have to offer.

    1. I think you raise some really great points here; most of the time, the reader's advisory interactions that we have wouldn't be conducive to a deeper RA experience--whether that's because a child doesn't know how to or want to have the discussion about reading, the parent is hurrying the child, or the information desk feels like too frantic an environment.

      I'd respond firstly by saying that it's helped me to think of reader's advisory are taking two different formats: 1) "I need a book" vs. 2) "I'm looking for something to read." The first is more like a reference interaction--that is, it's presupposing a quick response. Honestly, most of the kids I see at the information desk for reader's advisory fall into this category; they need a book, for whatever reason, and they need it immediately. These are instances when having go-to recommendations is helpful.

      The second scenario falls into the deeper reader's advisory category. The customer wants a book to enjoy, and so (in theory) would be willing to put a bit more time and/or effort into a conversation to find books they'll enjoy. These interactions happen with kids who enjoy reading, and so tend to have a bit more capacity for talking about what they like and don't like in books. These conversations don't happen as frequently.

      I wonder if part of the reason why most of our RA interactions are quick and needs-based is because the information desk doesn't seem like the place for longer conversations. My thought is that, in order to support deeper reader's advisory for our customers, we'll need to advertise and offer it differently than we do our regular reference services. Whether that's a sign that says "Looking for a personal booklist? Let a librarian know!" or something else, I don't know. But I do think that if we make this offer of a deeper type of RA available, the customers who would benefit from it would use it.

    2. Advice I got from a YA librarian was to ask kids or teens what their interests are, not what they like to read, if you suspect that they're not readers. They might be a bit bemused by this line of inquiry, but I think it's a great place to start the conversation.

    3. Great advice, Becky. I often ask what tv shows and movies they like as a starting gauge.

  4. Amy- this is such an amazing post! Thanks for sharing and I agree that it often takes a fresh new experience to examine ourselves and our "everyday" in a new way.

    A couple thoughts: Seattle Public Library has a dedicated RA desk (albeit for adults) with signage and everything. David Wright (@guybrarian) is an awesome person to ask for more information on this. It is also my understanding that desk staff at Prince George Public Library (BC, Canada) are called Readers' Advisors, which even in name changes our and the public's understanding of what we do. Neato!

    One last thought is that I think a lot of RA goes on in other environments. While you're right about the reference desk not being the ideal place to enter into what could be an in-depth conversation, I find programs a perfect time to engage. Maybe we could more intentionally structure RA opportunities into our programs or outreach?

    Thanks again for an awesome read!

    1. Dana, thanks for pointing out that many libraries DO have a designated RA space, with professional readers' advisors. Every community should be so lucky to have such a resource.

      I think you've got a great point about the RA that happens in other library environments, especially programs. I have in-depth book discussions all the time when I'm with my teen volunteers, but my programming format for school-age hasn't been quite as conducive to the deep RA conversations. I'm going to ponder how to change that fact.

  5. I love this post and (jokingly) immediately suggested a "field trip" to Mr. B's Reading Emporium to my manager. This is a great conversation about Reader's Advisory, and I've appreciated all of the comments. One thing I always try to incorporate in to any RA interaction is the line, "I'm good with 'No.'" I think children are typically hesitant to reject a suggestion, and I want them to know that it's perfectly okay with me if they don't like what I put in their hands. It will encourage me to either a) keep going or b) suggest, for example, talking with Miss Nina -- who is our Teen Librarian and knows that collection better than I do. I also try to always encourage them to let me know what their thoughts were AFTER they've read the book....which leads to that repeat customer/cultivated relationship approach.

    1. So true, Kary! I see LOTS of kids at the library whose parents instruct them to only say "yes, Ma'am" to me because I'm an adult authority figure, when really they need to know it's okay to say, "I don't think that book sounds good." To help kids feel more comfortable rejecting my suggestions, I'll usually give them a stack of books I've book talked and say, "Why don't you go look at these at one of our tables? If a book sounds good to you, great! If it doesn't sound good, just leave it on the table. You won't hurt my feelings if you don't want to read it."

  6. Energizing talk from an expert! Thank you, Amy!


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