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Secrets of Readers’ Advisory — Part Two

by on May 9, 2017

Readers’ Advisory Expert Becky Spratford gave us some great advice last month. The conversation continues here.

Public Libraries Online: RA for genre readers seems as if it could be a minefield. How do I know if the reader who loves Zane Grey will like William Johnstone if I’ve never read a Western?

Becky Spratford: I am not going to lie, this is not an intuitive skill. I call this type of question RA 201. To help genre readers you need to take the time to learn about the conventions of each genre. How the writers write and what readers are looking for. I spend a lot of time training library workers both how to learn the basics and then “stay in genre shape,” so that you know the trends and changes to every genre. It’s not that hard once you make a work out plan to stay in shape. But these are things you would have had to have done before you got this question.

In this specific case, you would need to understand more about why the reader in front of you loves Zane Grey and in your mind, compare that to what you DO KNOW about the genre he writes in. Get them to talk about why they enjoy his books every time. You will probably hear something about the setting, the fast pace, and the sympathetic yet loner heroes. If you have done your work to know about Westerns and their tropes as a genre, you will be able to fill in some of blanks that the reader is not specifically mentioning.

To see if this reader would also like William Johnstone [or another Western author in your collection], you have to learn more about Johnstone. You already know enough about Grey. That is also an important point to make. You don’t need to look up much more about Grey because everything you need to know about Grey in relation to this reader was just told to you.

To learn more about Johnstone quickly I suggest looking on NoveList or in the 5 star and 1 star reviews on Goodreads [the lovers and the haters as I like to call them] for his books. This search will quickly reveal why people love or hate Johnstone. Do those love reasons match what your reader said about Grey? Or is it the 1 star people for Johnstone who sound more like your Grey fan?

You also will quickly learn that Johnstone has a lot more violence than Grey and while Grey’s depictions of The West are nostalgic and idealized, Johnstone’s are a lot more gritty and realistic. Those observations could make or break whether or not the reader in front of you would enjoy Johnstone. But don’t decide for the reader. Instead, I would let readers know this information and let them decide for themselves whether to give Johnstone a try. If they want to, great, if not, we have to try another author. And maybe you don’t want to only offer Western choices. But that is RA 301.

The point is that you are allowed to use resources to answer RA questions just like you would for a reference question. Let the patron know you are unfamiliar with the authors but that you are both committed to helping him find his next good read AND that you know where the two of you can look for more information…together. The RA conversation is a team sport. You need to work together. Don’t be afraid to admit that you haven’t read something, but be confident that you know how to help any reader.

PL: Librarians looking to improve at RA should definitely stop by your blog and take advantage of the meaty posts and the extensive tagging/archive. What other advice do you have for someone wanting to up his/her game?

BS: Just like anything the answer is—- PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.

I’ve already mentioned ways staff can practice book talking with each other at their service desks, but there are also easy ways to practice making suggestions without having a the pressure of a patron standing impatiently in front of you.

Here are two examples:

Book Riot’s free Get Booked podcast is your perfect RA practice tool. Get Booked is a weekly show of customized book recommendations. People write in, tell the hosts what kind of books they like and/or what they are looking to read next, and then the hosts suggest titles.

Listening to Get Booked is a great way to see the rage of reading tastes that are out there, and simply passively listening to the hosts come up with suggestions and hear their “why” statements is useful. But you can also use Get Booked as an active training tool.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Play the podcast and listen to the first query.
  2. Write down what the reader is looking for.
  3. Hit pause BEFORE the hosts give suggestions.
  4. Use your favorite RA tools to identify some suggestions and include notes as to why you chose the titles you did,
  5. Listen to what the hosts suggested.
  6. Compare not only the titles, but the “whys.”
  7. Repeat for the rest of the episode

In this active practice mode, you are not only providing RA in a simulated real time atmosphere, but you are also able to compare your ideas and suggestion with 2 other people, immediately.  Yes, this practice technique does not provide a way for you to speak to the “patron” after the fact to find out if your suggestions were okay, but it does simulate the “ask and answer” time frame that you would experience at the service desk and provides you with two other perspectives to compare your notes with.

Second, practice on a colleague. Ask interested staff to submit a list of their three favorite books (recent or all time) and a sentence or two as to why they love these titles. They should also include any books or genres that they definitely don’t like. Take all of the lists and mix them up, randomly assigning them to other staff members. Give the participants some time to work on their “reader” and come back to him or her with 3 suggestions. Everyone read one of the suggestions and get back to their suggester with comments on how it was.

This exercise not only gives the person providing RA a chance to practice finding suggestions, but also, ensures that the suggester will get feedback from the reader, something that does not always happen when we work with patrons. This exercise also allows all participants to experience both sides of the RA Service interaction. And everyone gets a personalized list of reading recommendations as their prize for participating!

PL: Traveling and presenting widely on RA must give you a broad perspective on how libraries provide this service. What trends do you see happening?

BS: Libraries are starting to realize that their staff is their best resource and are working hard to merchandize them for their expertise. This trend first began as libraries started to make Staff Recommendation displays but is now moving into services like Multnomah County [OR]’s My Librarian or Lawrence [KS] Public Library’s Book Squad. These campaigns put the staff member behind the picks in the forefront. It lets the patrons know the face and even a bit of the personality that is behind their services. This creates a closer connection between the staff and the patrons, battles the very real specter of library anxiety that some patrons feel, and allows all staff to feel more appreciated for their hard work.

A trend in reading is that with the ease and proliferation of e-books people are now reading more than they did 17 years ago when I first started doing this. More books and a mastery of another format to get their stories means patrons are less format specific. When readers ask for a book, many are willing to read it however you can get it to them fastest, be it e-book, print, or even audio. Audiobooks is actually the fastest growing segments of the “book” market right now. So buy popular titles in lots of formats, but also, don’t assume your e-book person only wants an e-book or your print person will only read print. Make sure you let them know all of the formats you have their story in.

A surprise trend of 2017 is the resurgence of interest in being in a library book club. About 10 years ago many libraries saw a decline in the number of patrons interested in being in library hosted book clubs. At the same time the home based book club was really taking off.  However, the trend has come full circle as at home book clubs are feeling like they are losing direction and are turning to their local libraries for help. I have gone from being asked to help library book clubs stay alive to being hired to help train even more book club leaders in just the last few years.

PL: It seems cruel to talk to an avid reader and not ask you to recommend a book or two, so what’s something you’ve read recently that you loved and what made it such a great read?

BS: Here are a few:

Travelers Rest by Keith Lee Morris: “A family– husband, wife, 10 year old son, and recovering alcoholic uncle are traveling East from Washington back to South Carolina over the Christmas break when a snow storm forces them to stop for the night in Good Night, Idaho at the historic “Travelers Rest” hotel, a seemingly small decision that forever changes all of their lives. With its slow burn pacing, readers are swept up into a time bending, haunted house story that is terrifying without any blood, but features a menace that is definitely not of this world. It is a story about familial love, memory, and identity that will make you think, but it is the creepy tone that will continue to haunt you after the final page. Think Twilight Zone meets The Shining and you know what your stay at Travelers Rest will entail.”

American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis: These are stories of modern women, from right now, not the 1950s, who are extremely flawed [even bordering on unreliable at times], have pent up rage, and are not afraid to extract revenge. They do not hold back, but they also get their revenge with a smile on their face– a pasted on, fake smile, but a smile nonetheless. And the result is hysterical. I listened to this one and the audio is especially good.

Children of the Dark by Jonathan Janz was my second favorite horror read of 2016. Second only to Joe Hill’s The Fireman.  From the first line of the novel Will, a fifteen year old kid from rural Indiana, lets us know that he has a story to tell, a horrific story of the summer when he watched seventeen people die. Talk about anxiety. It is this intense tension that drives the narrative, but with the addition of a serial killer with a surprisingly connection to Will, a recently awoken ancient evil, fast paced, bloody action sequences, and a cast of well-developed characters you get an original story with a classic horror feel. This is a perfect read for patrons who miss old school Stephen King.

Each title has a much longer review available on RA for All. Just put the title into the search bar.


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