April 24, 2018

Exquisite Informational Immersion: Fusing the Visions of Readers’ Advisory and Technologist Librarians | PLA 2012

PLA has been my favorite library conference since I attended my first in 2010. I relished the show’s focus—the granularity and prescriptiveness of its sessions; the moxie and optimism of its presenters. I bonded with a group of Connecticut librarians I now call friends, and I met a future Multnomah County mover who would become my surrogate mother, all while soaking up the weirdy beardy energizing Zen of Portland, OR, our host city.

This year’s conference in Philadelphia made a vastly different impression. Maybe it was my own fatigue from weighing the ebook question, but I detected a friction among public librarians that wasn’t present out West two years ago. My schedule mixed sessions about readers’ advisory (RA) with digital migraines, and as I moved from one to the next, two camps took shape: those pros and parapros who believe popular books remain public libraries’ leading brand and that the face-to-face, librarian-patron interaction is at the core of library services, and the technologists who argue that survival depends on being able to code—literally—library infrastructure and publish content independent of established houses.

Certainly, I’m not the first person to diagnose this schism, but I think it deserves more documentation at a moment when a semblance of consensus is important. I was fascinated—and a bit terrified—to map the tensions of their point of view.

Begin, to quote LJ’s RA columnist, Neal Wyatt:

My RA immersion began on Thursday with a lively “converstation” called Rx for RA Revisited: A Prescription That Works, led by Karen Vermut, coordinator of adult services at the Queens Library, and Lucy M. Lockley, collection development manager of the St. Charles City-County Library District. At the heart of their message was that libraries don’t need dedicated RA staff to do RA successfully, as the service taps a zeal for reading that many trench workers already possess. Regularly scheduled book discussion groups using resource guides for what Lockley calls “benchmark titles” go a long way toward breaking through aversions to certain genres so participating librarians can field a range of questions.

“When our customers ask for Nora Roberts or James Patterson, I want my librarians to be comfortable recommending non–A list authors in a given genre,” Vermut said.

The value of doing RA was taken for granted by this group of passionate book fiends representing a cross-section of ages and library sizes. Vermut for her part views it as an extension of collection development, and, thus, a means of ensuring librarians are buying what their public wants. Someone in the room commented that RA sparks circulation, a concept I’ve never considered, though I get it—if you connect patrons with books they want, they will likely check them out, and more along the same lines.

A loaded issue from my perspective is “appeal characteristics,” the qualities of a book, like pacing and setting, that create the specific reading experience, be it magic or hell. Vermut cited them as the cornerstones of her book discussion groups but dedicated no time to explaining how exactly to teach librarians to talk about books they don’t necessarily like, or even more difficult, how to assist patrons in articulating their tastes, especially if the interaction must happen online, because it very well could at physical libraries where hours have been reduced or if patrons increasingly prefer semi-anonymity (they can’t be as much on Amazon or Google). Another complication: appeal appears best suited to established genres, not the many mash-ups our popular fiction editor gets in the mail.

Unfortunately, the same dearth of detail dogged the Friday session Readers’ Advisory Toolkit V: RA Training Makes It Happen. RA legend Joyce Saricks—whose seminal The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction Vermut uses as her bible—woke up us sleepy-eyed conference-goers by passing around Hershey’s Kisses and asking what we were reading. I was delighted to talk J.G. Ballard for a few minutes (“a little too spiky for my head these days”), but the core of her presentation—talk, collaborate, list, repeat—struck me as dated, especially in light of web-based fan fiction and self-publishing, two areas I don’t think she takes into account, though they are worth tracking after phenomena like Fifty Shades of Grey.

Saricks also glossed over appeal characteristics and how to decode book reviews for them, never mind what to do when reviews don’t mimic the language of readers or how to devise a mechanism for transferring the whole exercise online. RA, she held, requires “our best reference skills,” but she did not appear well versed even in Goodreads, identified by a few audience members in the Thursday panel as a new basic instrument (illuminating pointers coming soon, I am told, from the Cecil City PL). Neal Wyatt did the best job of updating RA for the 21st century, urging the audience to “saturate the bib record.”

Still, I sensed the crowd craved more takeaways on rearing this delicate unicorn of an art and science in the time-pressed, cash-strapped now and future. Could librarians, for instance, put Wyatt’s ingenious Reading Maps online and collaborate with patrons to chart the exploding realm of e-romances? (Book Country, Penguin’s online writing community, employs RA-centric Genre Maps, for instance.) The unspoken looming question seemed to be, “How can we possibly place our bets on a service that is so dependent on the moods of human beings?”

Mary K. Chelton, a professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at Queens College, voiced this frustration in part with her wish during the Q&A to “outlaw” RA librarians from dodging questions about a genre of book they’ve never ingested: “A reference librarian would never say to a patron looking for breast cancer resources, ‘I’ve never had breast cancer.’”

When I consider both RA panels from a few days’ distance, the modus operandi of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) makes sense: provide equitable access to information for all, as soon as possible, because fewer and fewer trade publishers are licensing ebooks to libraries. RA librarians, after all, can’t recommend ebooks they can’t purchase (well, they could, but…). And yet the DPLA, in order to live up to its name, must contain those popular materials that RA staff aspires to disseminate, or the American public’s support seems uncertain.

John Palfrey, vice dean for library and information resources at Harvard Law School, offered more context about this massive project in a panel on Thursday than I heard in October 2011 during a philosophical waxing by Harvard University library director Robert Darnton. Try as they did, however, Palfrey and his co-presenters failed to frame the conundrum and explain the game plan. IMLS director Susan Hildreth dismissed too lightly the hefty trade ebook drama, commenting that “the DPLA has a longer arc.”

In the absence of what Palfrey termed “mothers or fathers” and in an attempt to define “what the It [of the DPLA] should be,” he talked about its basic components: code (“open source, free for all”), metadata, content, and tools and services. To that end, Palfrey envisioned a grassroots movement to scan local historical and, I would assume, public domain content by roves of supporters driving Winnebagos around the country. Anyone who wants to fill in metadata gaps from those digitizations would congregate in Lollapalooza-style meetings, he said.

Michael Colford, director of library services at the Boston Public Library, added a touch of much-needed concrete strategy to the presentation, pointing to a grant his institution got to use zip cars as “mobile digitization labs.” How smaller libraries with no trained tech staffs or the benefit of government assistance will conduct scanning—a fair point raised by an audience member—was not tackled, other than Hildreth’s mention of volunteer trainers.

Clearly, as Colford himself attested, more education about scanning and what to scan is needed. My questions, which I think were shared by many in attendance: What’s inside Hildreth’s “longer arc”? What do the data-seeking hounds in the Winnebagos want to sniff out, and will the general public use it? P.S. Show us the money that will fund this.

Which brings me back to content, point three of the DPLA, though maybe it should be the first. The repository of Palfrey & Co.’s dreams would re-create in the cloud the “evocativeness and warmth” of a physical library so future generations can achieve the highest quality of life possible. As much as I want that to happen, like many public librarians I spoke with off the record, I don’t understand how to achieve it without the books that rank as the most popular in terms of circulation. I am referring, of course, to genre fiction, the stuff that hard-core RA and taxpayer support are made of.

Read: I’m in no way concluding that two discernible public librarian types are diametrically opposed and destined to undermine one another and the profession. Rather, both of their conceptions of the public library deserve to thrive and should merge to offer an exquisite informational immersion. I just wonder at the logistics of it all. This should’ve been a panel at PLA 2012, though I know I’m too late.

[For more on PLA 2012, search #pla12 on Twitter. My colleagues and I live-tweeted many important sessions under our respective handles: @HuisceBeatha (me), @WillyWaldo (Wilda Williams), @Hadro (Josh Hadro), @Magsthebookie (Margaret Heilbrun), Etta Thornton-Verma (ettathornton), and @mollutido (Molly McArdle).]

Heather McCormack About Heather McCormack

About Heather McCormackHeather McCormack (hmccormack@mediasourceinc.com, HuisceBeatha on Twitter) was formerly Editor, Book Review for Library Journal.

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  1. I like your take on all this, Heather. The whole “appeal” thing I think gets very easily mistaken or dogmatized into something it is not – which is a classification system. I think the real benefit of that school of thought has been to help people understand (and very many still need help understanding this) that there are all kinds of factors involved in what draws people to the stories they like, almost none of which are present in our classification systems. So I can’t really make sense of the idea that “appeal appears best suited to established genres” – this seems to me a mis-use of the whole idea of appeal (vs. classification), which applies to all kinds of books, and movies, and music, and food, and… All it means is figuring out the reasons someone likes something, and then working from those reasons to other things. Which is the heart of readers’ advisory – vs, say, book promotion – a different creature, equally magnificent. (I only say that because I still see the distinction confusing so many people in my own RA classes).

    The unsolvable problem with the use of appeal factors – in discussion or as bits in some logarithm designed to work from appeal (which none of them in my experience do quite as well as a person, still, although there are some pretty good ones out there, especially in music) is that they are terms, and as such are subjective and slippery. Still, to have so much more finer-grained qualitative data surrounding books – whether it be while searching something like NoveList or Goodreads or – better yet – in our catalogs – is certainly helpful in serving those wayward moods.

    I think the way Readers’ Advisory boosts circulation and/or library usage has less to do with the numeric benefit of putting titles in people’s hands, than of helping to establish the library as a place where the reader can expect excellent, responsive customer service, and where they can talk about books with people who love to talk about books, and don’t judge them, and might even help them find something to read. Providing that – in person and online – is where RA is key for our sustenance.

    • PS – I was, I confess, perplexed about the selection of programs (and program spaces) for this year’s PLA, where essential and attractive programs on millennials and non-users huddled in tiny overfull converstation spaces, as vast halls were peppered with the desultory attendees to eGov panels, etc. (And no, this is not just sour grapes that my own program proposal – entirely dedicated to Readers – who they are, how they behave, what they want – was turned down – though it would have been a barn burner, let me tell you). Thanks for mentioning self-publishing here, among the trends highlighted in the Top 5 of the Top 5 program at too-early-o’clock, Thursday. The program selection dates for PLA are waaaay too far in advance, imo, pushing the most timely programs into closet space.

    • Heather McCormack says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, David. I’ve spoken to a few RA types since PLA, and it seems that in most cases, they assume, the presenters of the panels I talked about did not discuss appeal or appeal factors in any depth because it’s so old hat. My point, which I confess I did not make clear because it would’ve meant too much of a Thesis, is that appeal has so much more room to be explained and explored, because, as you pointed out, it shouldn’t be forced into being a system of classification.

      At its best, in my non-librarian opinion, appeal is an attempt to explain the personality of the book, and that means trying to translate readers’ feelings, maybe even drawing them out if the readers are shy talking about books in the first place. There’s an element of the writer’s workshop to it (I have an MFA in fiction from The New School)—the angst of having to assume the role of an authority on text; of being judged for what you say if it doesn’t sound “smart.” So I was flummoxed that no one attempted to break down such a difficult exercise, for both librarians and reader, and how we could possibly move it online, NoveList & Co. aside. There’s such a literal in-your-face-ness about appeal and RA that I wonder if it’s possible to do it any justice with an algorithm.

      If I had to pick one of the camps I talked about, I would probably place myself on Team RA, but it makes no sense to call the interests of RA librarians and DPLA techheads conflicting. Whether the DPLA people get it or not, it IS about content, how to fill that virtual space so people want to use it over and over again; otherwise, what’s the point? RA librarians are spiritually obsessed with the heart and guts of content. What if they played together?

    • Sorry – helluva week. Yes, as you say, appeal is an attempt to describe the personality of the book, and I think there have been some interesting attempts to do this using fairly specific appeal terms in a search-engline context (e.g. I’d like a “heartwarming” yet “complex” novel about “coming-of-age” – searching for those either as controlled vocabulary, or as plucked from the text of 2 or 3 trade reviews, which is less reliable but can yield some very good results) – though these still tend to result in coming up with a long list, that a reader or librarian then narrows down through other methods. Because appeal terms presuppose a “general reader” for whom “bleak” = bleak and “hilarious” = hilarious, when in truth one person’s “bleak” is another person’s “objective,” and one person’s “hilarious” is another person’s “disgusting.”

      I can think of few better ways to get a sense of a book’s personality (short of actually reading it) than reading a handful of professional reviews – and it always has to be a handful, to both account for the reviewers’ tastes and predilections, and to help “triangulate,” as it were, the book, placing it into higher relief. (And nowadays the strategy of reading a mass of reader reviews can serve the same function, although there is rather a higher percentage of dreck – of “This book is boring” with no explanation why, kind of thing.) And what these strategies do is actually place the book in the context of its readers – a little group of them who actually get to expand a bit and attempt to offer reasoning or description of a book’s stronger and weaker points, as well as some apt comparisons. That is meat to me, as a readers’ advisor, for which I know no real substitute.

      Just as we define books in the context of their readers, we also define readers in the context of their books, and with a similar process. Let me make one up: Think about when a reader tells you some things about what they like to read – they might say “I just loved The Hunger Games,” from which you can derive almost no information (except maybe “okay, not a total snob”) without further titles: big huge mega-hits are so impacted by the social factor, plus they tend to have loads of appeal for a wide range of readers (though “Twilight” clearly hit the wall with quite a few folks, as being rather too gloopy for a true crowd-pleaser – unlike w/ other mega hits I seem to see a lot of readers who read it, and didn’t see what the fuss was about). Next they say “oh, and I love Jodi Picoult!” At which point I still don’t have a lot of info, but I do know they are not interested in fantasy merely, and that pathos is clearly something they tune into, and a good solid heartrending conflict, but they could still be a relative novice reader, right? Then they say “One of my all time favorite books is ‘Lolita.'” Wow – okay – that’s a lot more information, kind of a bombshell, really – so much so that I might even be inclined to draw their thinking out a bit on this, but even without doing that… – clearly they have a taste for a.) a fairly literary/sophisticated voice b.) problematic/unreliable/repellant narrators c.) books that don’t resolve simply d.) moral complexity. That isn’t something I’d have necessarily gotten from their first two titles. Is there a common denominator between these three, such different works? YES: Seriously Pathetic Messed Up Dramatic Personal Situations. I’d be inclined to ask if they read memoirs, and would not be at all surprised to hear that they do, and loved Glass Castle or something like that… and next, they really hated “Dune.” Okay – so the attraction of Hunger Games was probably not so much the world it is set in, but the heroine’s story… blah blah – I don’t know why I’m blathering on like this trying to recreate what goes on in my head when I’m talking with a patron or reading a form they’ve submitted to us – except to convey this notion that we can derive certain things – qualities, commonalities, appeals – from looking at the books a patron has read, has liked, hasn’t liked – which means GoodReads and the like are terrific tools in service of reader’s advisory.

      And I know I have a bias here, but I think fully automated things will always play a support role to that kind of high level readers’ advisory, rather than something that can replace it. Our patrons seem to agree. okay, lordy, I do go on – I must be avoiding some other thing I’ve got to do. Yep – that’s it.

    • Heather McCormack says:

      Wowza, David! That was really fun to read. I feel like a got a tour of a librarian’s head during an RA interview. InnerRA, as it were. Thanks for that, and thank you for your input. I look forward to talking about this, well, face to face in the future. Perhaps you’ll be at ALA.

    • Sadly, no ALA (& no Twilight Zone Tower of Terror: ride it a few time for me, willya?), but I WILL be at BEA… (just not on the 4th). Anyone wants me to blather in public, I’m happy to oblige. Catch you later.

  2. Another problem – which perhaps PLA can’t do much about – is that many librarians who would and could present great programs don’t know until a few months ahead of time if they will be able to attend PLA. These librarians are often public service people and now they are extremely valuable b/c of short staffing. So those who are consultants, or managers, or what have you, are able to submit proposals with some certainty of attending.

    • Heather McCormack says:

      Good to know, Sarah. I did note the consultants on a lot of programs. I don’t think I attended any of their programs, however. Nice to hear about your push. Good luck!

  3. Heather McCormack says:


    I don’t quite get your drift since the people I saw present are mostly working librarians, of the trench variety.

    • Well yes Heather, there were a lot of working librarians – especially at the RA programs, because that is of great importance and usefulness to them. But a lot of presenters were not working public librarians with significant desk schedules and shifts. We need to encourage a lot more of the trench variety to push for attendance. I’m doing my bit – will be proposing programs for 2014.