Every day in libraries all over the world, library staff hear the same thing, over and over, “I don’t know what to read next. Can you recommend something?” After all, that is what library staff are there for, to help their customers to find new, interesting reading material. I wonder how many have stopped to consider what this activity is called. It does have a name – the Readers’ Advisory Service.
In short, as the name suggests, libraries provide a service to their customers to advise them of relevant reading material and literature, generally for leisure. It is also known as Readers’ Guidance, as library staff are able to guide their customers towards reading material that is interesting and relevant to a customers’ needs.
This is often a good opportunity for customers to try out authors or genres that they may not have previously considered. This creates a win/win situation as it enables customers to broaden their literary horizons, while libraries can ensure that their collection is being better utilised. It is also a great public relations exercise as customers have the opportunity to chat about their likes and dislikes, while the library staff can seize the chance to promote a new author or title. The Readers’ Advisory Service should not, however, be confused with the functions of the Reference Desk, which is there to provide guidance and assistance to researchers.
It is very important that library staff do not allow their own reading tastes to colour their recommendations when determining suitable books for their customers, unless, of course, those tastes align to that of their customers. To determine the reading tastes, likes and dislikes of their customer, staff should conduct an informal interview by asking some of the following questions:
- What have you read recently that you found enjoyable?
- Do you have a favourite author?
- Do you have a favourite genre? Least favourite genre?
- Do you have a preference with print size, book size or format?
- Do you like reading thick books with lots of descriptive text or thin quick reads?
- Is there something you particularly dislike in your stories?
- Have you read something recently that you didn’t enjoy? Why?
- Do you prefer to read books written in the first or third person? (Books written in the second person are difficult to come by.)
By asking these questions, we begin to build up a picture of the customer’s reading habits. This is when a broad general knowledge comes in handy. Knowing a little bit about a lot of different subjects will help to steer the customer in the right direction. The simple act of reshelving books in all parts of the library will make staff aware of what titles are most popular. It will also help to see what other titles are available by the same author.
HOW TO FIND SUITABLE TITLES
There are a number of tools that can help to determine which titles might be suitable. The obvious one is the library’s catalogue. By looking at some of the titles that the customer has previously enjoyed, it is possible to see subject headings with links. These links will connect to other titles of a similar vein. For example, an elderly customer has read every book in the collection written by Maeve Binchy and now wants to find something similar. Her eyesight has deteriorated and she can only read Large Print editions. If we go to the catalogue and bring up the record for “The Copper Beech”, our customer’s favourite book, we find that one of the Subject Headings is “Country life – Ireland – Fiction”. Clicking on this link may reveal books by Molly Keane, Kate Thompson or Alice Taylor. By reading the summary in the bibliographic record of each of these results to our customer, we allow her to decide which book she might like to read, thus introducing her to a new author.
If time permits, using the Nove List website can be very useful. We will use the same example as a comparison. A search for “The Copper Beech” reveals information that describes what the book is like to read, not just what the book is about. There is a list of “Appeal Terms” that give us a feel for the story: genre, storyline, pace, tone and Lexile (which is a rating of the reading difficulty). At the bottom of the page is a nifty search box. By clicking the relevant terms we are able to generate a list of titles by nine other authors, who write in a similar style to Maeve Binchy. How useful is that? The page also provides us with a review, as well as star ratings of popularity and a link to the Goodreads website for further reader-reviews.
Social media provides a wide range of platforms to help you to find information about literature. GoodReads and Library Thing are both excellent websites for finding readers’ reviews of all kinds of books, genres and authors. GoodReads has 357 reviews and a 3.86 star rating for “The Copper Beech”, while LibraryThing has 16 reviews and a 3.58 star rating so opinions seem to be very similar on this particular title. LibraryThing recommends readers should try Rosamunde Pilcher or Anne Rivers Siddons if they want to read a similar author-style. GoodReads lists similar genres including “Cultural > Ireland” and “European Literature > Irish Literature”.
Shelfari is a similar website but it is powered by Amazon.com so you may consider this a conflict of interest. It operates a bit like a wiki in that it can be edited by anyone. “The Copper Beech” has fifty reviews on Shelfari. Information about the book includes a star rating, a description, a list of characters, a list of settings and locations, a tag cloud and even a Dewey classification, as well as other interesting information. There is even an option on this website to hide any spoilers. It is possible to view information about the author by clicking on her name link.
Libraries Alive! is a brilliant yet simple website for information on readers’ advisory resources. This is a brief overview of their resource links:
- Free resources online
- Subscription resources
- Numerous links to information about Australian and New Zealand authors and their books
- An example of useful bookshop links
- Readers’ advisory websites
- Examples of e-list, wikis and blogs.
Your library probably only uses around a dozen spine labels to define the genre of your fiction collection. So you may be surprised at how many different genres there are – and the list is growing daily. The word “genre” comes from the French and means “kind” or “sort” so we understand it to refer to the types of fiction stories. Wikipedia has a list of twenty one literary genre alone, and these are further divided into subdivision. Take a look at these two websites and be amazed:
There is a really useful book called “Who else writes like –? : a readers’ guide to fiction authors” edited by Ian Baillie. It contains lists of authors who write alike and are grouped together. There are also a number of website for people looking for read-alikes:
The State Library of NSW conducted a survey of public libraries throughout NSW to find out about the extent and quality of readers advisory services being offered. The following graphic is an interesting dissection of the tools used by library staff to provide this service.
It shows that the best tool we have is word of mouth; talking about books with customers; getting feedback from them on what they have read; talking to fellow staff about their reading experiences.
So here are some useful tips to maximise the Readers’ Advisory Service in your library:
- Read! Read widely. Read often. If this is too challenging, then specialise in a number of key areas or genres.
- Identify the favourite authors and genres of fellow staff members so that you can draw on their expertise.
- Pay particular attention to any new titles or authors that come into your library.
- Make up free bookmarks with list of authors who write under specific genres and colour code them.
- Expand your knowledge of literature by reading magazines like “Magpies” or “Good Reading Magazine”, which provides reviews of books.
- Talk to your customers and find out what they like to read.
- Use NoveList to help you find read-alikes.
- Keep a copy of the book “Who else writes like…?” handy or visit the websites.
- Engage in discussion forums, join e-lists and read blogs to get a broad opinion of literature.
- Practice your search techniques with your library’s catalogue, literature databases, publishers’ newsletters and informative websites.
- Use social media to engage with other libraries or organisations, like GoodReads, LibraryThing, The Reading Room, The Lipstick Librarian!, or various Book Reviews pages.
Most of all, enjoy the challenge of broadening your knowledge of literature! What better excuse could you have to read, read, read!
By Helen Ladewig
Specialist in archaeological fiction and science fiction, especially time travel.