April 15, 2014

The State of Readers’ Advisory

Does your library offer a readers’ advisory (RA) service? If so, you’re in good company—and a lot of it! All of the public librarians who answered a survey recently developed by LJ with NoveList and the RUSA/CODES Readers’ Advisory Research and Trends Committee said that they conducted personal RA in-house. Methods varied, however.

Four points of service emerged: in-person RA takes place 85% of the time at the reference desk and 59% at the circulation desk. Self-directed RA is also highly popular, with 94% of libraries creating book displays, for example, and 75% offering book lists. Book-oriented programs are widespread, too: the survey shows that book clubs (89%) and author visits (86%) are held at most libraries. The fourth point of service was digital: 79% of libraries provide read-alikes or other such tips on their websites, and a little less than half, recommendations via social media.

The future of RA

Despite competition from automated recommendation engines, the importance of RA is not declining. In fact, more than half of respondents say RA increased in importance in the last three years, and 54% say RA will be even more important three years from now. Some 84% of respondents say RA is important or very important to the library’s mission already.

“Twenty-five years after the second RA renaissance, it is clear that the creativity, dedication, and drive of thousands of librarians—as well as the interest and desire of millions of readers—have made RA a mission-critical service in libraries,” Neal Wyatt, LJ columnist and cochair of the RUSA/CODES committee, says.

More than half of respondents plan to expand or add digitally based RA services. About 40% also want to expand self-directed RA (42%), programming with an RA bent (41%), and one-on-one RA provided in-house (38%). Of those expanding in-house, the reference desk is the home of choice, followed by roving librarians. Online, the library’s website is the most popular location, then social media.

Rec what you know?

Since RA is seen as mission-critical and an area of growth, libraries may need to identify and remove or reduce obstacles to the best service. Among the impediments are lack of resources and lack of confidence.

The biggest cause of RA angst is keeping up with books and genres, a problem cited by 21% of the librarians. Almost as many, at 17%, noted discomfort with unfamiliar genres. Says one respondent, “making recommendations for types of reading none of the staff has personal familiarity with” gives staff members pause. The volume of materials being published can be overwhelming, too; librarians comment that “there are just too many books to know about.” In addition, while 72% of respondents are confident or very confident in their adult RA work, when it comes to advising children and young adults, only 58% and 51% of respondents who advise those groups, respectively, feel that their abilities are up to par.

Many librarians perceive that changes in the makeup of library staff are harming RA service. Many librarians now are not readers, their colleagues say, or at least don’t read widely enough to become expert readers’ advisors. In hiring new librarians, says one respondent, “the focus has been on emerging technologies for the past several years, and we need to continue to hire staff who have expertise in reading and knowing material collections.” And even personnel who do read may not be equipped to recommend: one librarian notes that “staff who don’t read widely or have trouble articulating appeal factors feel uncomfortable with RA and need online tools and lists or to be enabled to transfer a request to a colleague.”

ljx140201ra1b The State of Readers’ AdvisoryHowever, another respondent challenges the idea that “only voracious readers can provide effective RA service.” Instead, “We stress that they don’t have to have read everything, that there are tools and resources for them.”

One commenter points out a disconnect between the “narrow reading preferences of the library staff and the broader tastes of the general public,” but others feel the problem is not liking different things but thinking it matters. One notes, “You don’t have to like a book…you just need to make it ­appealing to the right user.” Another sees a difficulty in “putting personal preferences ahead of what the patron really wants.”

Training and time

Lack of training came up many times as an impediment to solid RA service. Librarians are “being asked to provide RA with no training or in genres they know nothing about,” says one. A full 23% of librarians say that their library provides no training or support for RA. That’s on top of the 42% of respondents who say that they had no RA class in library school. Among those who did, 40% recall that RA was only covered in one portion of a larger course. Some 34% of those who have had training have participated in on-site group lessons, usually provided by internal staff, while the majority took it into their own hands: 62% of those who have had training report that it was self-directed.

Having paraprofessionals perform RA brings up its own issues, according to respondents who say, for example, that there can be “confusion with regard to which employees can provide RA, based on job class or assumptions” and that such staff “do not get comprehensive training and have very big general workloads. They have little time to read reviews.”

Time was cited in general as a problem in preparing for and offering effective RA service. A lack of “time to train in RA/read” was the third most commonly mentioned obstacle, at 14%. As one librarian says, “Finding time to help patrons with RA at a busy reference desk is hard enough, but keeping on top of genres, researching new releases, gathering other staff/patron recommendations, etc., is nearly impossible.” Others note the immediacy of the work, with one librarian saying that a sticking point is “remembering titles when people ask us at the desk” and others lamenting “being expected to make spur of the moment book suggestions to in-person customers.” The problem is, explains another librarian, “patrons want immediate answers and quickly lose interest if it takes more than a couple of minutes.”

Says Wyatt, “In spite of its importance in and to libraries, RA is inadequately supported in terms of formal ILS education and on-the-job training. The necessary time to do RA well is also lacking, as advisors are pulled in multiple directions and are further separated from their collections.”

Other factors that sometimes get in the way of a satisfactory RA interaction include the patron’s level of preexisting knowledge. Patrons unfamiliar with the service may feel that the librarian is getting “too personal,” one respondent notes, when asking about reading habits and preferences. But patrons who are already very knowledgeable about using self-directed RA present their own challenges. One commenter explains that “readers are much more sophisticated in their reading preferences with blogs, Amazon, etc., that enable them to keep abreast of upcoming titles, hot authors, online publishing, etc., that librarians must keep ahead of these trends.”

Another obstacle cited by several respondents is the constraints of the collection. Centralized collection development means branch librarians don’t know which titles they’ll get until it’s too late to seek out advance copies or reviews; others bemoan coming up with a perfect but unavailable title.

Turning to tools

RA tools and resources used by librarians are varied. The survey counts 15 types of sources that librarians use for RA assistance. These include print sources such as professional journals and newspapers, subscription database recommendation services such as NoveList, and less formal methods of information gathering, such as Goodreads, blogs, and word of mouth. Librarians use recommendation databases most frequently, they say, with the next most-used items being professional journals in print and online, social networking sites for readers, word of mouth, online booksellers, and the library’s catalog (see stat below).

Raising the bar

In addition to providing continued access to tools and more training, assessment may be a growth area for libraries looking to improve RA service. Though the majority of respondents feel their libraries are providing RA services either very effectively (10%) or effectively (44%), there is little data available to quantify that impression. Some 41% of respondents don’t track any measures that bear on RA service. And while 38% track usage of RA e-resources and nearly a quarter track the number of RA questions received, measures that indicate customer satisfaction (such as the amount of return business or the quality of the recommendations) are tracked by less than 10% of respondents.

“In the decades ahead we must concentrate on ensuring that librarians obtain the full complement of resources and skills necessary to conduct RA with confidence,” concludes Wyatt. “Readers deserve nothing less. And neither do the librarians who work with them.”

For more survey data, visit this page.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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