April 22, 2018

LJ Series “Redefining Readers’ Advisory”: Kissing Cousins

At the 2009 LJ Day of Dialog, during the Q and A session after a panel on how libraries are reinventing themselves in challenging times, a woman stood up and talked about how difficult it was for her as a reference librarian to make the switch to offering readers’ advisory (RA) services as well. She was not complaining, just seeking a way to cross uncertain ground. Her concerns were neither unique nor particularly new. A decade ago, in “A Look at Reader’s Advisory Services” (LJ 9/15/00), Elizabeth Olesh and others reported that several reference librarians said that the question, “Can you help me find a good book?” was “the query that the reference desk dreads.”

Rooted in a similar approach

In the library world, there seems to be a fundamental conflict between reference and RA. But in fact, the two are similar in approach, an insight that goes back to James Wyer’s 1930 Reference Work: A Textbook for Students of Library Work and Librarians. It defined the reference librarian as a mediator of information, answering questions that involve three factors: an inquirer (or reader), a librarian, and a source of materials. That’s exactly how RA works as well, at the intersection of reader, librarian, and the collection. What’s more, our foundational history shows that our foremothers and -fathers were thinking about the best way to train librarians and offer services; they weren’t focused on distinctions of service that we worry about now. This is not to say that our current anxiety is not real. Indeed, with the growth of the Internet, as patrons look to librarians to answer different kinds of questions, public libraries nationwide are reconsidering the role of public service librarians. Often the result is a change of duties and responsibilities that places staff in unfamiliar and unsettling territory. This is a fundamental shift, but it’s not from reference to RA. In reality, we’re seeing an integration of the two that strengthens both.

Seeds of distrust

If you went to library school prior to the early 1990s, odds are you were not trained in RA. It is more likely that you either never heard the term readers’ advisory while in school, or you learned about it as a short unit within a larger public services course, the way most of us learned about SuDocs classification, as a ten-minute lecture in between the intricacies of subfield $h and corporate authors. Readers’ advisory, having crested in its heyday of the early decades of the 20th century, suffered a long period where it was not a function of public service—at least not in any formal way. The current RA renaissance is fairly new and grew out of a cultural shift toward books as popular entertainment and the application of marketing strategies to the entire publishing cycle—from authors as celebrities to bookstores as the reinvented coffee house. The heart of the lingering concern over RA, where there is a division between reference and RA, is not in the basis of our service but a philosophy of worth. In a 1981 speech, preserved in John J. Boll’s Reader Services in Libraries: A Day in Honor of Margaret E. Monroe, Monroe painted the rise of adult services as something pretty upsetting to at least some library administrators in the Twenties and Thirties. “For those stern public library administrators who rejected color, motion, maypoles, flowers and enthusiasm,” she said, “‘adult education’ was not the promising chrysalis about to become a glorious ‘adult services’ creature that would capture the world for public library use, but rather an all-consuming worm to be extirpated before it ate great holes in the bibliographic tapestry and filled the bibliothecal halls with wings, nests, and crawling creatures.” The problem with reading As historical grounding for Monroe’s vivid castigation, Loriene Roy, a professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas, Austin, and a past-president of the American Library Association, suggests that some of the tension lies in the perception problem. For some time, librarians have insisted that the work of our profession is not reading books. Actually, it is a pretty good bet that most librarians have been in a room, post-interview, and said or heard something like, “She lost me when she said she loved to read and that is why she wants to work in the library.” RA reinforces the stereotype we have fought for years. It is about reading. It is about creating a culture of reading within the library and within the community. It does tend to center the focus of the profession, if only through its single lens, on recreational pleasures and not “serious” work (where serious is read as informational). This focus can clash with the profession’s emphasis on the work of information, which Roy points out has drawn attention away from readers for decades. Finally, there might be an unconscious bias against fiction—for its frivolity—going all the way back to the era when books, particularly novels, could be called “injurious” for their socially rebellious content.

Tensions in practice

The focus on the popular (no one gets many RA requests for read-alikes for Voltaire) also contributes to the tensions. “I think that reference work sometimes has an academic feel to it—something that is done by professionals,” says Barry Trott, adult services director at Williamsburg Regional Library, VA. “Perhaps this is because for a long time in many libraries it was only done by degreed librarians (though this has never always been the case and is less true now than it once was). RA work perhaps is seen by some as a lesser service.” Indeed, when then library director Kathleen Balcom, Downers Grove Public Library, IL, now retired, was working with Joyce Saricks to start one of the first RA desks, Saricks recounts, Balcom had to make the case firmly that librarians had to be assigned to the desk, given that there was some question if fiction really needed degreed staff. Beyond these deep-seated notions of library service is the reality that not everyone wants to practice RA or feels comfortable with it. RA service models hold that librarians should approach the patron in the stacks and ask if they can be of help (as, indeed, do some reference models). That is not something everyone wants to do or even feels it is proper to do. “I don’t like being bothered in stores, and I am not going to bother people here,” is a refrain heard in RA training when this strategy is raised. RA service is also often based on a continuing relationship between a particular reader and a particular librarian. This personalization of service runs against notions of both patron privacy and, says Roy, “a uniformity of expertise.” Finally, RA service challenges the expressed and hidden hierarchies in our profession—a page who is a voracious reader, after some good training, can be a better RA “librarian” than a 20-year veteran of the reference desk who disdains popular culture and today’s literature, be it fiction or nonfiction.

The discomfort of change

The result of both the uncertainty of our times and the shifting focus on what services we offer can collide to create strong feelings of displacement. It is perhaps commonplace to say that none of us entered this profession for the money, but it is worth remembering that a great many of us entered it with a purpose: to serve, to change and improve our communities, and to practice a particular area of library service—one we trained specifically to do. When our jobs shift it is hard not to see our life’s work and our reasons for the work as shifting, too—and often the change is seen as an undoing. Currently, RA is driving that shift, but the move to balance RA as well as reference is not the first or only factor influencing a sea change in public service. As Roy says, “when we first got printers we worried about our jobs becoming just replacing printer ribbon, but that did not happen. Now we worry about our jobs just being something else. RA is part of the triad of public service, along with reference and instruction. It is in the mix.”

“That’s not what I went to school for”

Despite that big picture perspective, many librarians now find themselves in a daily workspace they were not trained for, and, most important, one that is culturally different from their experience of the libraries of their childhoods and the libraries where they started work. Many of us can remember approaching a reference librarian for help when we were young and feeling that here was an expert in everything, someone who could make sense of the materials and help us find our answer. In library school, that feeling was reinforced, and we were trained in a duty of service and information. The profession demanded that we learn a complicated set of resources, and we were taught to be both deft and dogged in searching and finding the answer. The reference question was a puzzle that dedicated and sharp librarians would always solve. The questions we receive, however, have changed over time, as have our collections. A patron who may have asked us if we could show her a picture of what chicken pox looks like will often now turn to Google first. Likewise, the student who might have asked us about global warming will turn to Wikipedia instead of starting at the reference desk. These bread-and-butter questions are preempted by what Sarah Lawton, teen librarian at the Wilkinson Public Library, Telluride, CO, describes as “the trend toward self-service information retrieval.”

Calling on the whole collection

While reference librarians in public libraries are certainly still asked complicated questions for which Google is not a sufficient source, they must cope with answering them without the same resources they once had—and in many libraries without the same level of collections. As Catherine Johnston, information services librarian at the Clarence Regional Library, Grafton, New South Wales, puts it, “Stats are showing that whilst the loan of fiction is increasing, the loan of nonfiction is decreasing. Reference collections are showing little use, and management is being forced to consider weeding these collections quite harshly and looking at online resources to provide the bulk of nonfiction and reference resource needs to patrons—reallocating this reference/nonfiction collection space to an expanded fiction space.” Online sources can be easier to use, but not every source can be replaced by an electronic equivalent, nor are online sources always safe from budget cuts. As costs grow exponentially, some libraries face having to recut the reference budget, leaving both print and online holes in the collection. The shift away from ready-reference has inspired a more layered approach. Visitors, Roy says, “need the library for different seeking behaviors. Maybe they need to gather information in more than one way and, instead of being told a factual answer, want us to help them find something to read, something to watch, something to listen to, in order to build up an answer, so reference service becomes an information buffet.” This approach is what RA librarians would call whole collection (see “Reading Maps Remake RA,” LJ 11/1/06, p. 38–42). It involves, for example, providing factual information on depression but also suggesting reading William Styron’s Darkness Visible and listening to Barrett Whitener’s award-winning narration of Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon.

A blended approach at work

Figuring out the best way to create this information buffet demands a multifaceted approach to serving our community. It also helps to remind us all that despite the perceived current focus on RA, reference and RA almost never existed in total isolation from each other. It is hard to imagine a public library service desk in any era where someone is not asking for help finding information and talking about something they have read and enjoyed as well. Reference and RA also have more in common than not and, in the vast majority of libraries, are practiced by the same staff from the same desk. In the end, the goal of public service, despite the terminology, is to help patrons find what meets their needs. Today the formal blending of reference and RA services is fairly common, and workable, in many libraries. Williamsburg Regional Library, for instance, hires what could be considered dual staff—reference and RA experts in one—and maintains a single service desk. Trott says that while they still get “some of the big, research-focused types of reference questions, we also get a lot of questions about locating materials. I encourage my staff to turn these sorts of questions into reference or RA questions. Go beyond the basics of taking a person to the collection to help them find a book and engage them in a discussion of what they are looking for and make some additional suggestions.” Such blended service is common even when service desks are split. Jen Baker, fiction librarian at Seattle Public Library, works a dedicated fiction desk but often finds herself answering non-RA questions. “Even walking the stacks looking for people to help with RA I am answering RA-only questions about 15 percent of the time,” she says. “The types of reference questions we are getting are the ones our patrons can’t find the answers to on their own—the really tough questions that take a lot of digging. In fiction, of course, the questions are usually story identification or quotations.” One of her reference desk colleagues in the history, travel and maps department reports that she answers RA questions (solely in nonfiction) a bit under five percent of the time.

Wilkinson PL’s Lawton explains that her library shifted from a strong focus on reference to a wider focus that places reference within a group of public services. “[This has meant] “a reorganization of how we provide service,” says Lawton. “Our traditional circulation and reference departments have evolved to materials management and service specialists. Everyone who staffs a service desk in the library is expected to be familiar with the rudiments of readers’ advisory. This transition could have been unnerving as it resulted in the term reference becoming obsolete, but we have managed to integrate reference with readers’ advisory and public service more generally.” “RA is just another kind of reference as far as my colleagues and I are concerned,” says Barbara Bibel, reference librarian/consumer health information specialist at Oakland Public Library and the incoming chair of CODES, the home of RA within the American Library Association’s Reference and User Services Association. “We just take the questions as they come. I enjoy it when a patron wants suggestions.” As these examples illustrate, the title on our business cards seems less important than our ability to respond to the questions we receive. “We can be both reference and RA librarians at the same time,” says Trott. “There is no need to make a distinction in my mind, and there probably is no distinction in users’ minds either. They just know that they have a need that we can help with.”

The downside of dual duty

For librarians who come out of library school with the skills and mind-set to work in this blended environment (or who have access to the training needed to retool and the desire to do so), dual duty is simply the new norm. However, for librarians without these blended skills or mixed interests, the new norm is not always a happy place. Reference and RA may share many of the same functionalities, but they do not share the same joys for everyone. There is a fundamental difference between helping patrons find a great book to read or movie to watch and helping patrons find what they need to start a new business. Interest and inclination have a role to play, and the cultural collision between reference and RA in this regard is very real. Beyond our own inclinations, there are also practical negatives to blending. RA requires a great deal of personal reading on nonwork time. Librarians not willing to do this will never be as comfortable or effective as those who are. Reference requires different deep background skills that cannot just be picked up when a particular question arises. To the extent that we try to do RA and reference, one wonders about the level of service actually possible. Are we working toward a state where we haphazardly offer both services, shortchanging each? Of course, we hope not (and we have some pretty good models to show that we are not), but until we manage our way past our current state, we need to reach out to each other and advocate for the service we expect to provide.

Finding our way

It is inevitable that from time to time some of the anxieties of our profession spill over into concerns about roles and values of service. Twenty years ago it was the fledgling reemergence of RA that had librarians wondering how they would find a path toward relevance. Today, many reference librarians feel like their work in public libraries is changing past all recognition. This should teach us that no time is stable. Libraries, as reflections of the communities they serve, are always in a state of renewal. Reference is already (and always) reinventing itself, expanding in intriguing ways that will again reshape the profession. We cannot even begin to predict where reference innovations such as Bill Pardue’s “Slam the Boards” project (a concerted effort for reference librarians to answer questions posted to boards such as WikiAnswers) will lead to, and it will not be the only such exploration into the future of reference. Reference is a dynamic service, especially when as a group its professionals embrace change and find ways to work with new tools. RA, perhaps because it has so long functioned as the ugly stepsister, has had to innovate early and continuously. Now both RA and reference share a similar fate: to innovate, respond, and follow our inquirers/readers to their needs. These spurts of creativity will not only change what we do but lead to more cross-fertilization.

The hard questions

The issues surfaced during these times of change, while they feel new to us, are not really new. They will be questioned again, and felt again, years from now. Our profession has never really been about the easy questions. Right now, as in the past and as assuredly in the future, we are asking ourselves the hard questions of who we are and what we do. We need to remember, however, that while the “what” and the “how” of our profession is in constant flux, the “why” never is. As Trott says, “We are here to assist users in getting what they are seeking—be it a piece of information, a reading/viewing/listening suggestion, or instruction on how to do something.” Ten years from now, when we see what needs to be added to that list, we will be here to do it, too. LJ’s “Redifining RA” series, launched in 2006, explores the transformations taking place in readers’ advisory owing to philosophical shifts as well as the tech innovations that enable them. Previous articles in the series include “The Ideal Tool” (LJ 10/15/2009, p. 39), “Keeping Up with Genres” (LJ 11/1/08, p. 30), and “An RA Big Think” (LJ 7/15/07, p. 40). Neal Wyatt, author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction, writes LJ’s Wyatt’s World and RA Crossroads, and edits LJ’s The Reader’s Shelf column. She lives in Richmond and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Media, Art, and Text at Virginia Commonwealth University

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