Readers’ Advisory (RA) is finding the right book for a patron at the right time. We can use the same methods to provide a similar service to the users of the library’s other collections including music and video (media advisory of all types is becoming more important as libraries focus on service and community building rather than physical collections.), but to keep our examples simple I’m going to focus on books today.
We can provide passive readers’ advisory with booklists, displays, and programming or active readers’ advisory at the desk or in the stacks. For those of you who don’t have experience with RA, rest assured the same things that make for a successful reference interview also apply to the RA interview. Be approachable, ask open-ended questions, and listen carefully to what the patron is saying without jumping to conclusions.
Patrons often initiate the RA interview by asking for a general book recommendation or share that they’ve read an author’s entire backlist and are looking for something similar. Librarians can initiate RA conversations by asking patrons browsing the stacks or displays if we can help them find something to read.
You can get a better idea of what the patron is looking for with a few general questions:
- Can you tell me about your favorite book?
- What is the last thing you read that you enjoyed? Why?
- What don’t you like in a book?
The last one can be especially helpful if you work in a politically or socially conservative part of the country. Often what your patron doesn’t like will have to do with sex, violence, or language. It is so much better to find these things out up front than have an offended patron later. Other times the answer will be something like “lots of description” or “wimpy female characters” which also helps you narrow down the options.
Usually follow up questions present themselves based on the patron’s answers. For example you’ll want to find out if they prefer historical fiction set in specific eras or whether the mysteries they like to read feature professional or amateur detectives. These are what we call appeal factors, the essential things that connect a reader to the book.
Some appeal factors:
- Plot driven vs. character driven
Keep in mind that the obvious answer isn’t always the right one. A reader might seem to prefer mysteries, but what actually draws her to the book is the protagonist being an independent woman of a certain age. Learning what follow-up questions to ask and sorting out a wide variety of possible appeal factors takes experience, but stick with it and you’ll get better. It never hurts to practice on family members and co-workers!
Now that you’ve done your best to establish what the customer is looking for, the next step is to select the best tools to provide the answer. This is another way that the RA process is no different from any other type of reference transaction. Of course, nothing replaces reading broadly and knowing your own collection but that takes time and we are only human. NoveList, online lists created by libraries, and professional reviews are all valuable tools for readers’ advisory. Print genre guides may also be helpful, but obviously become quickly outdated.
While the appropriate professional listservs can often be helpful, please do not use them as your first resource. The rest of us on those listservs are all too busy to send you things you could find on the first couple pages of Google results. You will receive many more helpful responses and help your own reputation by sending a detailed request for help including the sources you’ve already used and the titles you have compiled so far.
Once you have made your suggestions you’ll want to wrap up the interaction on a positive note. We want to send the message that not only is it our job to help patrons with these questions, but that we actually care if they get what they came for.
Always leave the patron with multiple books to consider and let them know they should take only the ones that interest them. I always suggest they check out multiple titles and that they should feel free to stop reading if they find that one is not what they are looking for. Not only do some readers need a strange sort of permission to abandon a book, but it doesn’t hurt our circulation rates either.
Good readers’ advisory takes training and practice, but it’s well worth it to provide good customer service and promote the library collection.
Beth Saxton is a Youth Services Librarian with over a decade of experience in public libraries. She is a graduate of the MLIS program at the University of Western Ontario and tweets at @BethReads and blogs about youth services and young adult literature at http://www.bethreads.com.