Listen, be curious, and be patient: Advice for Readers’ Advisory

How often do you see friends’  plaintive calls for book recommendations on  Facebook? The responses are usually numerous but completely scattershot, unfocused on the particular reader and what they are wanting at the moment. Do people know that they can come to libraries to better answer these questions?

Many of us know the term readers advisory – we may even comfortably refer to it as RA. But how much are we being formally educated about it? These days, it seems, the answer is, “Not much.” However, there’s lots to know, and, luckily, many ways to learn. Because, we need to make sure our RA work actually does  provide  better value than a  Facebook post with 25 crowdsourced  responses.

RA in the classroom

In my recent MLIS experience,  formal RA education was scanty. There were no courses available that dealt with RA for adults, at least not in my department; there had once been a course, but it hadn’t been offered in several years. When we briefly studied the reference interview in a class on information behaviour, I think the implication was  that this kind of process could be roughly applied to RA.

It came up in some youth-oriented courses, although even there I found it wasn’t explored in much depth. We learned how to do things that would help introduce readers to new books, but not much on the process of finding what books might be right for what readers, or why  this matters as a service.  We didn’t seem to talk much about what reading is (particularly amongst adults, for pleasure), what affects  it  or  why it matters.

Of course, I can only speak from my experiences and the courses I took. And this is not meant to disparage the program or faculty at UBC, either. They were very open to  my questions  about RA and permitted me to do an independent study on the topic, which was highly rewarding. As I learned through that independent study, RA has gone through a series of ups and downs throughout the history of the library profession. I definitely sense that RA is underemphasized right now, particularly after the  iSchool movement and the shift towards “information” as the focus of the LIS degree; reading, particularly pleasure reading, doesn’t fit that paradigm and therefore sits uneasily in MLIS curricula.

RA outside the classroom 

As a library practitioner, both before and after my degree, I have seen  most RA education  happening through informal means: library workers  talk  to each other, take  webinars and self-guided courses, join  professional interest groups, follow  social media accounts and read professional literature. It all takes time,  dedication,  and often your own money  to keep learning. Here some ways continuing RA education is happening now.

  • Use tools like NoveList, as well as Goodreads,,, even Amazon – just remember these are starting points, not an instant fix.
  • Listen all the time to learn what people are saying about their reading lives and how they are seeking help with them.
  • Set up a news feed for yourself, with a tool like  Feedly, from review publications to keep on top of what’s going on in the book world.
  • Get to know your local booksellers.  See if you can set up a regular book circle with your colleagues so you can share what you’ve all been reading lately – we do this at my library and  it’s  great.
  • Actively  keep reading for pleasure alive in your own life, and be curious about the way you yourself evolve as a reader.

As is the  case doing  reference  work, you’ll never really be 100% confident. The nature of the work means you are often surprised, and always learning something new and having to improvise. You just have to also accept that you’ll never know it all. But what you can do is become a very good listener, be curious, and be patient. For a good example of how to do RA well, check out Anne Bogel’s What Should I Read Next podcast. She asks a guest in each episode for three books they loved, one book they hated,  what they are reading now and what they would like to change about their reading life. It’s a remarkably effective format for an RA interview.

RA education in the future

RA is a  skill that you continuously learn and relearn, in a variety of ways and using new tools as they emerge. But I think it  absolutely  must be part of academic programs, and not only in its practical  sense of, “How do I handle it when someone comes to the desk and asks what they should read?” It should be broader  than that. Our education needs to incorporate  Reading and Literacy Studies – an interdisciplinary  field incorporating literature, psychology, sociology, education, cultural studies, and more . This  is not just because it’s fascinating, but also because library practitioners need to become better advocates for the work that we do.

If you are getting an MLIS these days,  chances are you will end up working behind the scenes in a library, not  on a desk; you will spend your time and energy trying to persuade people that a library is an idea worth funding, defending, and reimagining. This is hard, but fundamentally important  work. No  matter how many wonderful makerspaces and  collaborative  meeting rooms and recording studios we add to our libraries – all of which I love, by the way – we have to remember that a huge part of why libraries exist is to help people with their reading lives.

Every time I see an article about libraries with a headline that is a variation on “Not Just Books Anymore!” I flinch. It reinforces the message  that “just books” equals  boring, pointless, obsolete. We’re not getting rid of our books, I know, but it’s up to us to ask  ourselves : do we really understand why we still have them? Do we care whether people over the age of 14 continue to read for pleasure? If so, do we understand  why, actively foster it, and  do  a good job of communicating the reasons  to our funders and other stakeholders? We need to be very honest and focused  about these questions and I think that starts with how we are trained. That training  will  also motivate us to keep learning  as we move through our careers, keeping in mind the bigger ideas that underlie the practical RA work that we do.

Kaya Fraser is the Digital Access Librarian, West Vancouver Memorial Library, where her job is to help integrate people’s physical and digital library experiences, fostering digital literacy, creativity and access. She’s worked in public libraries for more than 12 year, receiving her MLIS degree from UBC in 2017. She has a passion for RA and loves findings ways to show people that technology can enrich their reading lives.