February 17, 2018

LJ Series “Redefining RA”: Take the RA Talk Online

In person and via web tools, readers’ advisory is all about how well we talk to patrons

Right now people are talking about books—in coffee shops, at school basketball practices, and in beauty salons. One reader notices another and a conversation begins. Fun, eager, trip-over-each-other-sharing conversations that range from books to movies to music. We do the same thing. As a group, readers’ advisory (RA) librarians are a chatty bunch when it comes to what we are reading. We share on blogs, we gush about novels in the staff room, we suggest titles to each other for displays and book groups, and we keep our friends and family well supplied with suggestions. The adoption of online RA conversation forms is helping to extend these opportunities even further and offers a fascinating testing ground for RA work. It turns out that offering RA online gives us more time to think about suggestions, allows us to collaborate better with our colleagues, and gives us space to grapple with what we need to learn in order to engage with our patrons.

Take it online

One of the first libraries to offer RA service online was the Williamsburg Regional Library system in Virginia. It created a form that parallels actual RA conversations. As Williamsburg’s director of adult services Barry Trott says, it was designed to “guide the reader through thinking about his/her reading.” Many other efforts offer various types of RA e-conversations. They range from Ohio’s Read This Now statewide chat service, which launched in 2004 and pulled in 963 RA questions in 2007, to Seattle Public Library’s (SPL) new Personalized Reading Lists, and more.

These experimenters are creating a brave new world of service. Online RA differs from face-to-face conversation primarily because its asynchronous approach precludes the immediate feedback and response upon which advisors rely. “[It’s] not the same as being able to respond to a person’s body language, facial expressions, and even some hesitance he or she might express when I hand over a book,” says SPL fiction librarian Hannah Jo Parker.

Regardless of this downside, the librarians working with online forms find they offer both advisors and patrons a rich and meaningful opportunity: they attract readers who might otherwise never ask for assistance. Many patrons simply do not have the time or inclination to come to the library and ask for help, and others are reluctant to have an open dialog about their tastes. Online forms “can be a very safe place to be truthful about your likes and dislikes,” notes SPL fiction librarian Linda Johns.

Forms also allow advisors the time to make more thoughtful suggestions. In person, RA conversations have built-in time constraints, and the pressure advisors often feel to provide an answer means that we can fall back on our standbys or what we are reading at the moment.

“Sometimes I think that RA in that hurried face-to-face [manner] ends up being more a matter of suggesting what you can remember rather than making the best suggestions,” Trott says. Many libraries using forms make it clear that responses will take a few days to compile. That time frame lets advisors collaborate, use various RA tools more carefully, and think beyond the well-worn suggestion. “Without the pressure of someone standing there,” says Trott, “the advisor is at liberty to make more thoughtful choices.”

These forms also supply a training opportunity. Creating the form and then using the results to make suggestions help advisors figure out just what information matters when working with readers. There is little as instructive to a new readers’ advisor than sitting down with a form that was poorly filled out and struggling to make a suggestion. The moment when one says, “If only I knew this, I could find some books,” is the moment that all the theory about appeal becomes concrete. This training extends to patrons as well, as the questions on these forms help prompt readers’ thinking. It provides them, as Trott says, with a “vocabulary to use in discussing their reading that most readers don’t automatically have.“

Other benefits include the ability to collect and analyze RA statistics that can help guide and shape future plans for RA departments as well as provide concrete evidence of the value of the service to the community. The data allows staff to identify high-interest authors and topics so that booklists and displays can be more on target and can also inform collection development departments, offering a unique view into the use of the collection.

Online RA service also helps departments collaborate more fully, mining the collective wisdom and knowledge of the entire staff and involving everyone in the RA process. Perhaps the biggest benefit is the promotion of RA services themselves. How many patrons have wandered our collective stacks but have never been approached and offered assistance? Offering online RA forces an active and robust engagement with readers.

The downside to online forms is the time it takes to supply thoughtful responses. We risk that the volume of requests will overtake the hours available to fill them. The debate about whether or not that staff time is worth the effort is ongoing. There is no question that the time taken to craft a response is time not spent doing other RA activities, including serving patrons in person. On the other hand, the general agreement that form-based RA provides wider service, excellent training, and more thoughtful suggestions is an extremely compelling argument for considering their adoption.

What’s ahead?

The move online opens up a world of possibilities for librarians. Once we get used to online conversations, we can begin to explore the seemingly endless technological advances that can help us connect to readers. (See “2.0 for Readers,” LJ 11/1/07, p. 30, for more on online innovations.) Right now patrons can set up our catalogs to alert them when a new book is added that matches a favorite author or subject. One day we will be able to alert them when a new book, DVD, or MP3 comes in that matches their appeal profile. As we push forward the boundaries of RA, that day of almost instant Twitter-like service seems to be on the horizon—shaped as RA always is, by the expert contextual conversations we have everyday with our patrons.

The Conversation 101

The RA conversation is often the most difficult thing advisors do. What is fun with friends over lattes in Starbucks can be scary in the stacks. What should be the best part of our jobs often becomes as awkward as dancing with a bad partner: off rhythm, stepped-on toes, and struggles over who has the lead. No matter how experienced an advisor, almost everyone has a bit of a flutter in his or her stomach when approaching a reader. We take all our insecurities with us into the stacks and forget that readers just like to talk about what they find fascinating and are always eager to hear new suggestions.

Trying to write down the steps of the RA conversation is like trying to write down the moves of the tango. Still, the most important step is to start. Sitting behind the desk waiting to be asked is not the way to offer RA service. “I have better luck when I roam the stacks and strike up a conversation with a reader,” says Misha Stone, a fiction librarian at the Seattle Public Library (SPL). “Otherwise, I find that patrons don’t always know that we are here to help them find something good to read.”

Once you have taken the plunge, focus on what the reader wants, that thing for which they are in the mood. No other factor matters more when suggesting titles to consider. How do you figure it out? Ask. If it is still unclear, offer some choices: a sexy, fun, relationship story? A fast, edge-of-your-seat bloody crime novel? A book and movie combination?

While no one wants to play 20 questions in the stacks, you do need to identify a few other essential elements in order to make suggestions. Ask the patron what she has recently enjoyed and get her to tell you about it. Listen for appeal factors so you can account for pacing, character, and story. These factors are the driving matrix underpinning RA work and are critical in making suggestions (see “An RA Big Think,” LJ 7/07, p. 40–43, for more on appeal). Advisors listen to readers, pick up on appeal elements, and use them to identify other titles using what David Wright, a fiction librarian at SPL, calls the process of creating “little mental Venn diagrams” of possibilities. It is also helpful to investigate what the reader wants the book to do for her. Is he looking for entertainment on a trip, in need of a pick-me-up, or on a jag and working her way through a body of work?

This is not a test

How do you offer suggestions when you don’t know, for example, any sexy, fun, relationship books? Do your homework. There is not an RA librarian in the world who walks into the stacks and magically knows three books, two films, and one audiobook to suggest to every reader he encounters. RA work takes advanced preparation, and you should have a mental stockpile of material to suggest. If Nora Roberts and James Patterson are in high demand at your library, then identify read-alikes for them and commit them to memory. When a new author breaks on the scene, develop a short list of similar authors to suggest. If lyrical novels do well with a handful of patrons you see every week, then keep an eye out for new titles and make a running list so you have it when needed.

Finally, and commit this to memory: it is okay not to have a suggestion right way. You are engaging in a conversation, not taking a test. You don’t have to know everything ever written to talk with fellow readers. RA is not reference. Booklists are not pathfinders. Advising readers is serendipitous and open-ended. Readers asking for RA help do not expect to leave the library with four sources for their term paper or the recipe from last week’s newspaper that they were after. If they leave with just one suggestion that intrigues them, you have done a good job. If they come back and talk with you about it and ask for more, you have excelled. If you focus on the conversation, the suggestions will follow.

Context is critical

One way to make conversations easier is to consider the whole collection. What was once an exchange centered firmly on fiction is now a multiformat, fiction, and nonfiction free-for-all. Adding a range of nonfiction and other formats into your suggestion base is not difficult because appeal can take advisors pretty far in making whole collection suggestions. For example, fans of the movie P.S. I Love You can not only be shown Cecelia Ahern’s book upon which the movie was based but a range of other suggestions such as the movie Truly Madly Deeply or melancholy chick lit such as Jennifer Weiner’s Good in Bed.

However, practicing whole collection RA introduces a few additional aspects to the mix. Appeal still underpins the process, but suggesting nonfiction and AV requires that we pay attention to what has captured the reader beyond appeal, teasing out factors relating to context and connections as well.

When talking with a reader about a book she has recently read and enjoyed, ask about her favorite parts and what sparked her interest. These are two key questions for whole collection RA, as they highlight theme-based connections. If the reader tells you about her fascination with a locale, historical figure, time period, or some other facet of the book, then introducing nonfiction that supports and expands those interests can be welcome. For example, fans of Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road might be pleased with Jean-Christophe Rufin’s The Abyssinian and The Siege of Isfahan or Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s Captain Alatriste, three more swashbuckling literary historical novels, but they might also enjoy Susan Whitfield’s Life Along the Silk Road, a nonfiction book that uses biographical vignettes to illuminate the many adventures of those who traveled along the famous byway, and Kevin Alan Brook’s The Jews of Khazaria, which lends some context to Chabon’s history.

With increasing changes in reading formats, whole collection RA helps us to link experiences for readers as well. This new aspect of RA can lead advisors and readers into fascinating chats inspired by, and inspiring, a 360° view of a topic. For example, fans of Frank Miller’s 300 can be pointed to Zack Snyder’s movie of the same name, Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae, Paul Cartledge’s The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece, and the History Channel’s DVD Last Stand of the 300: The Legendary Battle at Thermopylae—and that is on top of suggestions based on the graphic novel’s appeal.

No matter what you use to talk with patrons, be it online forms or multimedia hooks, the point is to engage in the conversation. Readers are an insatiable bunch and they want to talk with us. So, when you start your shift tomorrow morning, don’t begin by checking your email. Instead, take a last sip of your latte and go wander the stacks in search of a tête-à-tête.

LJ‘s ongoing “Redefining RA” series explores the transformations taking place in readers’ advisory owing to philosophical shifts in RA—including Neal Wyatt’s introduction of the concept of “Whole Collection” RA—as well as the tech innovations that enable them. Recent articles in the series examine how libraries use 2.0 technologies to enhance RA (“2.0 for Readers,” LJ 11/1/07) and the current radical reconsideration of the concept of appeal (“An RA Big Think,” LJ 7/07). Look for future articles in the series in 2008.


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