You let a READER recommend a book??!!

“You let a reader recommend a book to another reader!?” asks the manager of a branch that provides RA services.

If you’re a readers’ advisor, have you ever caught yourself doubting the ability of an untrained RA to recommend a book or perform RA work? What, exactly, is the standard for being an RA? A high school degree? A master’s degree? Someone who enjoys reading?

I’ve overheard conversations where managers and other RAs were shocked, yes, SHOCKED, that anyone without at least a 4 year degree and formal RA training would be allowed to suggest books to readers and perform readers’ services tasks.

I’m asking this question today because many, if not most, cataloguing staff in public libraries are NOT considered RAs. I’m also asking this question in view of the fact that our new, next generation catalogues are inviting users to generate and share content. Naturally, this includes sharing reading ideas and collaborating within the social framework of our catalogues on what interests most users of the library – our collection. While this may not be limited to reading, but also recommending or commenting on movies and music, for the sake of this post (and in an attempt to keep it relatively short), I’m focusing specifically on reading and books because of the RA framework.

So, if the catalogue is or can be used by readers as a readers’ advisory tool but cataloguers aren’t considered or trained as RAs and patrons are supposed to collaborate and share reading ideas but aren’t trained RAs either, we’ve come up against a wall. A very big wall that, unfortunately, has been created by the traditional view that it is only librarians and certain “higher level” staff that have the knowledge in the library to tell (“suggest” or “tell”?) readers what they want. But is that the true spirit of readers’ services? Or, is it about putting the tools out their for everyone to use and examining how we can make all of our resources even better by expanding readers’ services in ways that we have not traditionally considered?

Wouldn’t it be exciting if, rather than just having author readings recorded and available on our websites, we provided recorded patron book discussions as well? Perhaps recordings of book club discussions and linked them to the books in the catalogue? What if these discussions were led by a trained readers’ advisor? Would that spark a great conversation within the catalogue around books and lead to further recommendations and suggestions by other avid readers? Would it make our readers stop and think about what, perhaps, attracted them to their last great read? Perhaps they’d realize it isn’t the mystery genre, but the descriptive language or the “tingly”, uncomfortable feeling they experienced anticipating yet another confrontation among the characters.

What about inviting book clubs outside of the library to comment on their latest reading choices or reading lists? Or, putting out a general invitation to our avid genre readers to create reviews for our catalogues? By taking advantage of these avid readers’ interests, we are inviting reader content within our catalogue in a community sense, rather than just from a select group of readers’ advisors who work within the library.

This should not be viewed as a way to undermine the knowledge and expertise of our existing RAs, but is a necessary progression of our services when we view the statistics regarding physical library visits and RA conversations versus our online and catalogue traffic, where users seek out their own “next good read”, without the benefit of remote RA tools. Remote access far exceeds the physical visits to our libraries.

Cataloguers, too, play a role in the future of readers’ services. With the growing use of our online presence as compared to our physical one, we need to explore how those users of the catalogue can also benefit from our readers’ advisory services. Because cataloguers are the primary creators of our catalogue content, it is important to teach them what readers’ services is and how readers look at the description of books and describe the experience of reading as a way to find books, rather than just a simply relying on author recognition or subject headings. Understanding the benefits of adding local additional content to bibliographic records to having cataloguers support the integration of RA tools within the catalogue (Chilifresh, NoveList, LibraryThing) can lead to strong allies and collaborative projects among staff and result in an even stronger readers’ advisory services library.

The first step that needs to be taken in leading RA services out of the physical branch and into the catalogue starts with our existing RAs’ mindsets. Rather than exclaim in shock that a fellow staff member (but not an RA) or a patron were suggesting books, look at these conversations as opportunities to grow our readers’ services. Book discussions are happening everywhere – and most happen without a trained readers’ advisor. Understanding that the few of us trained as RAs don’t own this expertise will help us to embrace the conversations and opportunities all around us – and to look for ways to grow readers’ services and go where the readers’ are. And, right now, they are in our library catalogues and on our websites.



Filed under The Cataloguer, The Library Catalogue

7 responses to “You let a READER recommend a book??!!

  1. Barry

    I think that the goal for any library would be to have a broad culture of reading and readers’ advisory so that all staff from the director on down were passionate about talking with readers about books. We really do ourselves, the profession, and our users a disservice when we isolate RA work into one department or set of librarians or staff. We should aim for an organization-wide culture of RA, and the folks in cataloging, circulation, etc. need to be part of that.

  2. Laurel Tarulli

    Barry – Thank you! I agree completely. Your library is an excellent example of how we should be embracing the culture of reading and RA work throughout all levels of staff – and exploring the many possibilities available to expand readers’ services outside the physical branch.

  3. Lynn

    I have yet to find any reference department at a public library that has been able to offer me good RA service – largely because I don’t read fiction and the non-fiction I read is highly specialized. I have, however, gotten lots of good recommendations from other staff and patrons. I hardly think I’m unique….

  4. Laurel Tarulli

    Thanks for sharing! Your story is a common one, I think. I’ve spoken to many people who rather go to a friend or even Amazon before approaching an RA/Ref desk staff member for a book suggestion. Sometimes it’s because a reader isn’t confident they’ll receive any good suggestions and many times it’s from previous (bad) experiences. Or, they just don’t want to physically go to the library. If we offer RA services in a variety of ways – by using patrons and staff and deliver it in new packages like the catalogue, we’re tapping into new resources that expand our services for all readers. I really believe in Barry’s comment about embracing an organization-wide culture of RA.

  5. Sara

    One of the most satisfying things for me is seeing two customers, who don’t know each other, engage with each other over what they are reading, the conversation often ending with title and author suggestions. I’ve seen this happen at the library many times.

    Secondly, why aren’t cataloguers trained as RAs? That seems to me to be a simple remedy if there are perceptions out there that they shouldn’t be involved in RA work. And, during the hiring process, is RA a competency that is asked of cataloguers?

    Finally, on the flip side, what if the title of your post was “You let an RA catalogue a book??!!”? We would probably be having a similar conversation, acknowledging that public services staff have an area of knowledge and expertise, not to mention daily conversations with the public, that could compliment the catalogue. And, I know this is happening!

    You make some good points. Clearly the lines of how to best serve customers are a bit more blurry and are moving away from our traditional routine. This is a good thing!

  6. Laurel Tarulli

    Hi Sara,
    Thanks for commenting!

    Like you, Barry and many other active and notable RAs in the field, they welcome and encourage an environment of readers and active discussions about books through all level of staff – and patrons. It’s rewarding to observe and participate in that type of environment. But in reality, many libraries still hold to the “we own the knowledge” mindset, seeing RA work as expertise to be shared with only degreed staff and librarians. Unfortunately, with the undervaluing of cataloguing in some libraries and the criteria set for the hiring of cataloguers being lowered (example: many libraries do not require you to have a bachelor’s degree or even a technical degree), these cataloguers are “shut out” from being trained as RAs – where the criteria for training an RA is holding a bachelor’s degree. So, it isn’t as simple as it seems.

    Also, the traditional role of the cataloguer is challenged when we seek to train them as readers’ advisors. It requires looking at the catalogue and cataloguing staff in new ways – active, collaborative ways that have not been widely accepted by or even introduced to frontline staff and cataloguers.

    You’re suggestion of a new title “You let an RA catalogue a book” is, in actual fact, what this posts suggests we need; cataloguers as RAs. At NoveList, their cataloguers are expert readers’ advisors as well as trained cataloguers. However, perhaps you’re suggesting that a frontline RA staff member catalogue a book. In that regard, it has to be noted that to make your case for the new title, much more expertise and training needs to go into making an RA into a cataloguer than to promote the discussion and suggestion of books throughout our staff and patron community. Discussions about books happen everywhere – discussions on cataloguing, not so common. Even RA training, if one is interested in books, comes naturally to those who are interested and keen on actively growing those skills. In cataloguers, the creation and application of appeal factors is likely more familiar, given their expertise in describing items.

    Let’s get back to the renaming of the post, though. Suggesting another title takes away from the meaning of this post. “You let an Acquisitions member run the reference desk!” or “You let a children’s librarian design our website!” are examples of various plays on this title that result in distracting from real issues. In this case, the need for readers’ services to expand and take advantage of the many opportunities and advantages that various levels of staff and patron knowledge have to strengthen our reading community beyond the walls of the library or a handful of trained individuals throughout each branch.

  7. One of the comments posed the query “Why aren’t cataloguers trained as RAs?” I feel I have to respond by saying that as a holder of a Library Technician Diploma, we DID have course work in Reader’s Advisory work. Also, I had the opportunity to partake in Reader’s Advisory training through the library staff training program. I think that any cataloguer with a genuine interest in their profession could acquire RA training independently as there are many Internet presentations on the subject as well.
    With many library patrons these days using the library catalogue from home, many do not get the one-on-one exchange with reader’s advisors. To that end, cataloguers can use their RA skills to create cataloguing records aimed to help with reader’s advisory.
    I agree that the divide between public service staff and collections management staff is still too wide, but feel that the possibility of closing the gap is within our reach if a real desire to do so exists.

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