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The PLA Blog | Official Blog of the Public Library Association

As an appetizer to tomorrows “Book Buzz” program, I am happy to share some of what Nancy Pearl had to say today during the Preconference Program—Opening Doors, Opening Books: Providing Effective Readers’ Advisory Service.

Nancy Pearl told the audience that readers advisory is simply about putting people together with books they will enjoy reading.

In doing so there are a few bedrock beliefs that she feels librarians need to have. The first is that we need to publicize our ability to provide readers advisory. Many people wouldn’t even consider asking a Librarian what book to read. Nothing cements a Library in a community like providing the connections that service gives. Librarians also need to provide holistic readers advisory. Don’t be afraid to recommend a book on CD or a video on a subject someone might like. Librarians should help readers discover they can have the same reading experience by taking books from different parts of the Library not just the same area they always visit.

Everyone can do a good job of readers advisory because there isn’t one right answer. The point of readers advisory is to give the reader a range of books to choose from. We should “suggest” books, not “recommend” them; and we should do so with the invitation to come back and discuss the book with the Librarian. We should always ask the patron to tell us about books they liked reading. Don’t ask what they like, but what they liked about it.

Sometimes the Library itself gets in the way of effective readers advisory. The segregation of fiction and nonfiction makes an artificial barrier. We need to do what we can to narrow the boundary. After all, much of the Non Fiction is actually fiction (think of the Fairy Tales and Literature call number ranges).

Readers Advisory isn’t like a reference interview. In a reference interview the Capital of Peru will always be Lima. But they books we might suggest depend on the mood of the reader and on us. We also might feel like we can only suggest books we have read. We can’t do that, it is impossible to remember all the books we have read and to remember all the plot details. We need to remember the readers advisory is not about us. The reader should never know our opinion about a book unless they ask us for it.

In an effort to be effective we need to make an effort to read books in areas we wouldn’t normally read. If it is a subject matter you hate, read the keystone book in that area (for True Crime which she dislikes, Nancy read Truman Capotes’ “In Cold Blood” for example). We also need to read more widely, something she called “reading promiscuously.” We need to be willing to read anything. Even if we don’t like it we only need to read it long enough to answer the question “what kind of reader would like this book?”

Remember, we are not recommending, we are suggesting. This is a key idea. When we recommend something we are hoping people will have the same experience as us. We recommend restaurants or service people. But in reading a book, not everyone has the same experience. It is impossible because everyone reads a book in their own way.

She told the story about going shoe shopping and the clerk brining out three pairs of shoes. One was the exact shoes she had on, the other was a close match and the third was not at all like the others, it was a reach. The clerk had heard her talk about needing shoes for work and so he thought these would be good for her. We should do the same in readers advisory, provide three suggestions. The first two should be close to what the reader wants and the third should be that “reach”, the book you think that they might enjoy because of some other aspect it shares with the other two.

When we read a book we enter the story through the doorways the author has written. There are four doorways in books: story, character, setting and language. Every book has all four of these, but the difference is the size of each of these doorways.

We need to recognize these doorways and how they relate to what people read. When a patron tells us why they like a book we need to know which of these doorways is the largest so we can suggest books that also focus on that doorway.

Nancy told the story of a Librarian who helped a man who said he loved the novels Patrick O’Brien wrote. After talking to him for a while she remarked that she enjoyed the love story that developed between the two characters. The man was a little shocked because that wasn’t the reason he read the book, he read them simply for the naval aspect of it. In this case the man liked the setting and read it for that, but the Librarian liked it for the character aspect. We cannot assume why a person liked a book which is why we need to ask.

Just because we know which doorway a person enjoys doesn’t mean we can always suggest books they will enjoy. Mood and motivation come into play. Sometimes people just aren’t in the mood for the kind of book we suggest. We have to help them find what they are feeling like reading. And sometimes if a book is assigned and they have no desire to read it the suggestions we give wont sound good anyway. But we have to try and build that personal connection not just for us, but for the patron to connect to the library.

If we keep these factors in mind we can provide readers advisory. It is easy and anyone can do it if they know what to look for.

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