Thursday, March 10, 2016

Readers' Advisory

Hearing of Harper Lee's passing made me think about all things To Kill A Mockingbird, including a conundrum posed to students in readers' advisory classes in library school.

For those of you who aren't sure what that is, readers' advisory is what librarians (and sometimes other library staff) do to discover the kinds of books patrons (that would be you) like to read, so they can pair a person with a book that will entertain him or her.

We don't get as many readers' advisory questions as some of us would like, because it seems like avid readers have so many other resources at their disposal these days. If browsing the shelves doesn't find you a book that interests you, there are the friends with whom you share the same likes and dislikes, who recommend books they have read. There are the other members of your book club. There are reviews in the Sunday papers. There are reviews on Amazon. You can join Goodreads and be inundated with reading recommendations. So librarians are sometimes the last resort for people who like to read. For people who don't particularly like to read, on the other hand, librarians who are adept at readers' advisory can be a valuable resource.

The simplest kind of readers' advisory is to ask someone "What do you like to read?" But this isn't always a sure-fire way to discover what they want to read next, particularly with children and teens, whose answer is likely to be a mumbled "I dunno." Nor is it necessarily a good practice to say something like, "Do you like science fiction?" First of all, it's a yes-or-no question, so it doesn't get you much information. But also, someone's answer to that question isn't necessarily accurate! I have personally asked that question of someone, gotten a "no" answer, and then the person told me that they loved Ender's Game.

"So you DO like science fiction!" I replied.

"Nope. I just liked Ender's Game."

So I found him a book that someone who liked Ender's Game might also enjoy, without dwelling on whether or not it was from a particular genre. One mark of good readers' advisory is not to get hung up on divisions like genres--romance, western, sci fi, etc. Someone might say she doesn't like mystery, when what she means is that she doesn't like cozy mysteries featuring clever sleuths; but if she enjoys literary fiction, she just might like a piece of literary fiction containing a mystery, such as a book by Irish author Tana French.

A good way to go, and the one that usually meets with success, is to ask "What was the last book you read that you liked?" and then, once you know the answer, you can suggest something similar. If the person liked a book by a prolific writer (such as Nora Roberts, or Stephen King), it's easy to suggest reading another of that author's books. Also, the kind of book might give you a clue about other authors and titles to suggest. (People who read Nora Roberts, for instance, might not like Stephen King, and vice versa!)

But what happens if (and here comes the conundrum) the person answers, "My favorite book is To Kill A Mockingbird"? Previous to the release of Go Set A Watchman last year, Harper Lee was a one-book author, so you couldn't say, Read something else by that author! And even though you might think you know something about this reader because he or she liked TKAM, you might be wrong!


The real skill of readers' advisory is not only to find out what a person likes to read, but why. For instance: If the thing the reader liked about TKAM was the drama of the trial with all its racial overtones, then a good suggestion for a follow-up might be A Time to Kill, by John Grisham, in which a black man is on trial for killing the white men who raped his daughter. On the other hand, if the person enjoyed TKAM because of the coming-of-age narration of Scout, then A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, would be a better choice, since it is also a first-person narration about a young girl growing up at a particular place and time. And if the reader liked TKAM because of its depiction of small-town Southern life, you could recommend Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, by Fannie Flagg, in which the setting is almost as important to the story as the characters. Those are three very different books, but they could all please a reader who liked To Kill A Mockingbird, depending on his or her focus.

One tool that has recently become available to Burbank Public Library patrons, as well as to its librarians, is the addition of NoveList recommendations to our library catalog. So for instance, when you search our catalog for a specific book, below the item information on the first page you will see something that says "You might also like these..." with book covers displayed, and little roll-over information boxes that tell you "why this match?" You also receive a list of "why this title appeals to readers," and some additional tools like "recommended" lists and articles from NoveList, plus a link to Goodreads so you can read reviews of the book by other readers. Try clicking on the links of one of the books I mentioned in the previous paragraph, then scroll down and see the other recommendations offered by NoveList.

Sometimes, though, all you want is to have a conversation with someone who is a reader, like you, with whom you can trade the "Did you read?" and "Did you like?" questions. Next time you want some book-talking, try the librarians at the reference desk. You might find a new source for good reads!

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