Sunday, April 10, 2005

Readers' advisory

One aspect of reference librarianship that has received a fair amount of attention in the library community as of late is readers' advisory (RA) . Here's a definition from the Online Dictionary of Library and Information Science:
Services provided by an experienced public services librarian who specializes in the reading needs of the adult patrons of a public library. A readers' advisor recommends specific titles and/or authors, based on knowledge of the patron's past reading preferences, and may also compile lists of recommended titles...
Joyce Saricks, a national leader in readers' advisory, gave a talk last week at the Graduate School Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Earlier in that day, she had delivered a lecture about nonfiction RA in the Adult Popular Fiction class. Nonfiction RA is an emerging topic of discussion and area of research. (A book about this was recently published by Libraries Unlimited.)

At the talk, she covered a number of aspects of RA, first discussing its beginnings. She noted that modern RA as we know it was truly a grassroots movement that developed in the 1980s. It has evolved into the establishment of an American Library Association committee on the topic in the mid-90s, courses in library schools (here's the syllabus for one such course at GSLIS), and workshops and conferences. Librarians have practiced RA for at least a century, but earlier, librarians had a "we know what's best" attitude and "recommended" books for patrons. Typically, these books were literary fiction or those which were deemed "educational." Modern RA instead focuses on the library patron's interests. A readers' advisor first listens, determining what aspects of fiction appeal to the reader, and then suggests possible books that may be of interest. Modern RA also tends to involve mostly popular and/or genre fiction.

She talked briefly about the Fiction_L listerv, which she called "the premier RA service." It is a free resource that readers' advisors can use to ask for book suggestions. For example, in a recent post, a librarian asked for "read-alikes of Shannon Holmes, La Jill Hunt, Nikki Turner and Teri Woods." People also ask tricky reference questions, like, "I have a patron who remembers reading a book about a woman who disguises herself as a rodeo clown. She doesn't remember the title, but would like to read it again. Anyone know what book she might be describing?" It is rare for the librarians on this list to be stumped by such questions.

There are a number of current issues/problems in RA. The first is simply coming to grips with the huge volume of fiction published every year. Another is the crossovers occuring in fiction, making it difficult for librarians to easily separate fiction by genre. For example, a number of books have elements of romance and science fiction. Should the book be placed with the romance novels or the science fiction? A third issue is the eventual evolution for RA to include (as previously mentioned) nonfiction and audio and visual formats.

She closed her talk by reminding us that "libraries are still the only place to get free books."

If you are interested in learning more about RA, I recommend Saricks' book, Readers' Advisory in the Public Library (3rd ed., Chicago: American Library Association, 2005). This book describes how to start an RA program in your library and how to conduct the RA interview. This book and her Readers' Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (Chicago: American Library Association, 2001) suggest a plan for becoming better acquainted with genre fiction. This second book also introduces the reader to the major genres of adult fiction and each genre's "appeal factors." Third, Diana Tixier Herald's Genreflecting: A Guide to Reading Interests in Genre Fiction (5th ed., Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 2000) provides large lists of popular adult fiction books in all of the major genres and can be a useful tool for the readers' advisor looking for possible book suggestions. It also lists major review sources and award lists for each genre that are helpful sources a librarian can use for collection development.

As a final source, I suggest perusing the syllabus of the Adult Popular Fiction class taught at GSLIS. It includes a number of supplementary readings and covers relevant issues like marketing and audiobooks. The syllabus was originally developed by Dr. Frederick A. Schilpf, current director of the Urbana Free Library (Urbana, IL). It was adapted by the course's current instructor, Mary Wilkes Towner, Adult Services Librarian at the Urbana Free.

In closing, I want to say that an important part of RA is being able to talk about books. Remembering the plot isn't nearly as important as discussing other characteristics, like setting, characterization, and pacing. Your ethusiasm is important, too. What books have you read lately? Or, as a good readers' advisor might ask, "Tell me about a good book you read recently." Feel free to leave a comment, sharing such a book and why you liked it...


1 comment:

Barbara said...

This is something I wish I could do more of - though in academic libraries students tend to have their reading lists already determined by their courses. I have noticed more students coming in to look for fiction just for fun and it's always a joy to talk about what we like to read. Even if we don't like the same things.