“I’m looking for a good book to read…Any suggestions?”
In the library field, this is a common request from patrons, occasionally asked in half-jest. After all, don’t librarians spend their entire working day reading books? If given the scantest bit of information from their inquisitor (“I can’t remember the title, but the cover was green”), aren’t all library employees able to riffle through their encyclopedic knowledge of literature to produce just the right title?
If only it were that easy.
In fact, there is a certain amount of trepidation among some library employees about readers’ advisory service. “I once surveyed the public service staff of a library I was managing, in order to find out their most dreaded reference questions,” recalled Cynthia Orr in Genreflecting: A Guide to Popular Reading Interests. “Imagine my surprise when ‘Can you help me find a good book to read?’ was in the list of the top three most feared questions…” (16). How is this possible, and just what is readers’ advisory? According to Joyce G. Saricks in Readers’ Advisory Service in the Public Library, “[r]eaders’ advisory service…is a patron-centered library service for…leisure readers. A successful readers’ advisory is one in which knowledgeable nonjudgmental staff help fiction and nonfiction readers with their leisure-reading needs” (1).
While it is unquestionably important that a librarian be well-read, there are other skills involved in readers’ advisory. The art of the RA interview, for example. A librarian must be able to navigate through a patron’s (sometime confusing) inquiry. There is also the librarian-patron relationship to consider. A patron who enjoys their librarian-recommended book will be likely to return for more. A librarian must also be familiar with, and have ready access to, the various print and online resources available.
Readers’ advisory for children brings its own set of challenges. For example, how does one handle literature that may be deemed controversial or inappropriate for kids? How does one conduct an RA interview with the parent instead of their child? What if the child is a reluctant reader, grudgingly brought to the library against their will? How does one bring the interview down to the child’s level without confusing them with unfamiliar terms and jargon?
Saricks, J. G. (2005). A history and introduction. In Readers’ advisory service in the public library (3rd ed., pp. 1-13). Chicago, IL: American Library Association.
What is a readers’ advisory service and what does a readers’ advisor do? (2013). In C. Orr & D. T. Herald (Eds.), Genreflecting: A guide to popular reading interests (7th ed., Libraries unlimited genreflecting advisory series, pp. 3-20). Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.