Reading Wildly

Posted Monday, March 31, 2014 - 09:50
One library staff's journey toward excellent readers’ advisory
Abby Johnson

Can you provide excellent readers’ advisory without reading widely yourself? This question, posed to my Twitter followers (whose replies shared a refrain of “No way”), led me to rethink the way I train my staff on readers’ advisory. 

Of course there are ways to become familiar with books without actually reading entire works—reviews, first chapters, reliance on best-of lists and book awards. But reading widely in a variety of genres is a great way for library gatekeepers to provide enthusiastic and authoritative readers’ advisory. Nowhere is this more important than in readers’ advisory for youth.

With so many constraints on children’s time, readers’ advisory is critical when youngsters visit the library. They are building a wealth of knowledge about the world, including learning which kinds of books they enjoy most. Every readers’ advisory transaction is an opportunity to create a lifelong reader—an essential skill that needs to be honed in every person working at your children’s reference desk.

For staff members who are naturally wide readers, this may be no problem. But what about for those who aren’t? A targeted readers’ advisory training program will give library workers the tools they need to complete these important transactions.

In January 2013, I developed the Reading Wildly program to inspire my staff to read different genres and improve their readers’ advisory skills. Each month we discuss a genre or subject, based on patron demand, and each staff member is required to read one book in that genre and book-talk it to the group at our meeting. They may use work time to read only if date-sensitive projects are completed. We meet once a month, separate from our monthly department meeting, to share these books with one another. (You can find our book review form and monthly reading lists on my website.)

The outcome of Reading Wildly is that my staff now reads more than ever before, and their readalike selections and book talks have noticeably improved. They seem to enjoy these meetings and regularly report that our program is helping them in their jobs. We keep lists of the books we’ve discussed, and staffers use them as a starting point for readers’ advisory transactions. Using lists they are familiar with allows them to have a quick connection with the material and gives them confidence when recommending materials.

As our program continues, I tweak it to fit staff needs. I originally required them to add books to a shared Goodreads account but found that none of them were actually using that compilation during interactions with patrons. Although I believe it’s useful for library workers to be familiar with Goodreads, I lifted the requirement and instead assign brief articles related to our monthly topic as a way of sparking discussion before we start our book talks.

For the second year of our program, I turned to staff to pick our monthly genres. I asked them to think about weak spots in their own reading and readers’ advisory questions that have been difficult for them, and we came up with this year’s Reading Wildly genres together.

This is certainly not the only way to improve your staff’s readers’ advisory skills. Consider including other library materials, holding a book chat without genre restrictions, or posting a list of classic and/or top-rated books and asking staff to initial what they’ve read. If it’s strategically difficult to discuss books in monthly face-to-face meetings, explore virtual options like discussion lists, Goodreads groups, or online chats. Practice readers’ advisory transactions on one another.

Whatever approach you take, you owe it to your patrons to ensure your staff is equipped to answer readers’ advisory questions.

ABBY JOHNSON is children’s services/outreach manager at New Albany–Floyd County (Ind.) Public Library. Find her at abbythelibrarian.com.

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