Readers’ Advisory to the Rescue!
By Rebecca Howard
Tulsa City-County Library
If you are a reader, someone whose identity was shaped by and is inseparable from the act of reading, you know how valuable it is to have a person whose author and title suggestions you can trust. Some of us are lucky enough to have a friend or coworker whose reading tastes line up beautifully with our own. Far too many others are left to wander in a wilderness of new book displays, trying to judge books by their covers or the blurbs on the back.
How do you identify what you’ll read next?
Beyond bestseller lists and suggested purchases based on algorithms, there’s an often-untapped source for book suggestions, and it’s your local librarian. In library-speak, connecting readers to books they might enjoy is known as Readers’ Advisory. In some libraries, there are even dedicated Readers’ Advisory librarians whose focus is developing resources, programs, and merchandising designed to lead readers to their next favorite read.
Now, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. Don’t people just know what type of book they want to read, go to the [library, bookstore, online retailer], search for something like that, and start reading? Perhaps. But I suspect this linear path to selecting books is the equivalent of frog kissing. We’ve all picked up a book under duress for any number of reasons and found it to be thoroughly disappointing. What good booksellers and librarians know is how to ask the right questions to help you fully articulate what you’d like to experience when you read.
To introduce a little more library jargon (and you’re just getting this for free, folks), we call the elements that cause you to gravitate toward a certain type of books “appeal factors.” These include things like pacing, writing style, point of view, mood, and setting. Understanding why you enjoy reading is just as important as discovering what you enjoy reading. Do you read to get lost in a time and place, for the appreciation of language, to learn something new, or for escape and entertainment?
What algorithms miss are the complexities of our preferences. If you loved State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to read more books set in the South American jungle featuring a pharmaceutical researcher. You may have enjoyed Patchett’s lyrical style or the menacing, dream-like tone, but don’t necessarily want to have another literary encounter with an anaconda.
Readers’ Advisory is a conversation. It is a mediated search for whatever your definition of a good book might be. And because humans are messy, it’s often a process of trial and error. I always tell readers that it is often just as useful for me to understand why you disliked a particular book as it is to understand why you loved another.
I’d love to start the R.A. conversation with some of you. This month in Imprint, we have a very abbreviated Readers’ Advisory survey that we’re inviting you to submit. Your questionnaire along with some personalized reading suggestions may be featured in an upcoming Imprint. In the meantime, make the day of your local indie bookseller or librarian for some reading suggestions. Just be sure you have a little time for the ensuing enthusiastic conversation.