Reader’s Advisory Services are an essential function of both public and academic librarianship. Professional literature offers supportive resources to assist librarians in reader’s advisory roles. This paper will examine the reader’s advisory experience at two branches of a county-wide public library system, in consideration of the professional literature.
Anne Cox and Kelsey Horne compare four reader’s advisory databases. They are surprised to find that there is little overlap in suggested reading lists between the databases. While they suggest that this lack of overlap might lead reader’s advisory librarians astray, it seems to make sense from a profit-seeking standpoint, as each database seeks to distinguish itself from its competitors. And despite the fact that providing access to multiple databases is expensive, searching all the databases, rather than relying on one overlapping all the others, would provide the most thorough result list for the patron. If several databases provided overlapping information, what would be the motivation for using or offering more than one?
Victoria Caplinger considers reader’s advisory from a cataloging perspective, discussing the selection of appeal terms for inclusion in the library catalog. Whether she intended to or not, she eventually leads readers to suspect that the selection of appeal terms would best be left to patrons, rather than to catalogers, as she appears to argue. Regardless, the article encourages a new perspective of that catalog as a reader’s advisory tool and not just a catalog of materials.
Finally, Heather Nicholson provides reasoning for including recreational reading material and reader’s advisory services in academic libraries. She reiterates the fact that pleasure reading improves academic success, and offers ways to go about integrating these services into an academic setting, mostly through partnership with public libraries.
So how well did the observed reader’s advisory experiences compare to the ideal recommendations in the literature? Not well. By far, the first experience was the best, though hardly ideal. I had prepared, ahead of time, a list of books (with authors) that I loved, a couple I didn’t, and some general appeal terms. Approaching the desk, I handed the list to the librarian and asked her if she could help me find what to read next. She said, “I don’t know what that means, ‘what to read next.’” OK, maybe that’s on me for not using the professional terminology. Though to her, I was just another patron, and I wouldn’t think I’d be expected to know the professional terms. But when I said, “You know, like reader’s advisory?” She said, “Oh, OK. Sure, I can help you with that. Then, what’s this?” indicating the list. I told her it was a list of books I liked and didn’t. She said, “Oh, I just didn’t know what you were handing me.” At this point, I kind of felt like I was pulling teeth. But she did, then, look over the list and consider my titles. The list included:
• Idylls of the King – Tennyson
• Harper Hall Trilogy- McCaffrey
• Dark is Rising Sequence – Cooper
• The Black Cauldron – Alexander
• Thomas Covenant – Donaldson
• The Crystal Cave – Stewart
• The Last Unicorn – Beagle
• Narnia – Lewis
• Fantasy & Sci-Fi Magazine
Absolutely could not stand:
• Mists of Avalon
Didn’t really care for:
Don’t want to read:
• GRR Martin
• Stories centered around solving a murder.
• Anything that sounds like someone wrote down the plot of their RPG.
• Literary High Fantasy
These titles taken together communicate a certain tone or literary quality within the fantasy genre. However, recognizing this would require extensive familiarity with the genre, or use of many of the tools suggested in the literature. This librarian did seem to have a good knowledge of the genre, and ultimately was able to point me to an author I hadn’t read before. On looking the book over, it appeared to have the tone I was looking for, and I decided to check it out.
However, it did not appear that she used any resources other than her own opinions of the books she was familiar with. She used the catalog to check to see if the books she was recommending were in. We did discuss several of her suggestions, and how they compared to the titles on my list. And the conversation did jog my memory to include Michael Moorecock’s books. I did come away feeling the experience was positive and helpful, if it did start out a bit rocky.
Wondering if another librarian could do better, I stopped at a second library, bringing the same list. When I approached the desk, I had to wait a couple of minutes even to be acknowledged, despite the fact that there were three staff available. Deciding to be clear from the start, I asked, “Do you have anyone who does reader’s advisory?” The librarian (or staff at the desk) responded, “What’s that?” I said, “You don’t know what reader’s advisory is?” He said, “No.” I explained. He said, “Oh, yeah,” then briefly looked over my list. He then got up from the desk, walked over to a shelf labelled “Classics,” and stood in silent perusal. Finally, he took The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy off the shelf, presented it to me and said, “I don’t know if you’ve heard of this book before.” I said, “I’m looking for Arthurian legend, high fantasy.” He nodded. I said, “That’s OK, I’ll try another branch,” and left, dumbfounded.
These experiences might have been improved by utilizing methods suggested in the professional literature. However, nothing is going to help if staff don’t even know what reader’s advisory service is. Though the first librarian’s personal knowledge led to a positive conclusion, use of additional resources might have provided a better outcome.
For comparison, I tested out some of the databases discussed in the Cox and Horne article. I am quite familiar with NoveList, and knew from experience that its read-a-like suggestions are too loosely related to point me toward anything I would be interested in. It seems to point only to the most popular authors in any genre. Reader’s Advisor Online, I found to be far too complicated. The service relies on drilling down through subgenres, and leaves out appeal terms. Social sites such as Goodreads offer the appeal term tagging suggested in the Caplinger article. But again, I find them too vague, and leaning toward the popular.
I did, however, have better luck with “What Should I Read Next” (ironic, considering that’s precisely what I asked the librarian) than I did with either reader’s advisory interview. I only input my first title, Idylls of the King. The results returned didn’t fit my request at all. But by clicking on the subject terms related to the title, I was directed to The Once and Future King by TH White, Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, and Poul Anderson.
As I respond to reader’s advisory requests at the library, I will rely more on available tools than my own knowledge of materials. Currently, I show patrons how to access and use NoveList for themselves, and many are already familiar with Goodreads. But I believe, now, that “What Should I Read Next” is probably the best resource available, and I expect I will use it often in the future.
It’s clear from my experience that librarians could use more training and practice with Reader’s Advisory tools. Though we might be tempted to rely solely on our own knowledge, that is, perhaps, not the best way to help patrons find what they’re looking for. As the literature suggests, patrons would be best served through the use of databases and appeal term tagging. And it’s imperative that we integrate these tools into our service.
Caplinger, V. A. (2013). In the Eye of the Beholder: Readers’ Advisory from a Cataloging Perspective. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 52(4), 287.
Cox, A. C., & Horne, K. L. (2012). Fast-Paced, Romantic, Set in Savannah: A Comparison of Results from Readers’ Advisory Databases in the Public Library. Public Library Quarterly, 31(4), 285-302.
Nicholson, H. h. (2012). How to Be Engaging: Recreational Reading and Readers’ Advisory in the Academic Library. Public Services Quarterly, 8(2), 178-186.