What is readers' advisory and why is it so important?

When I started as Head of Readers’ Advisory at Darien Library, many non-librarians and even some librarians asked me just what the hell that meant. I still get that question a fair amount, and I find there are certain things I mention over and over, so I’m putting them all in one place. If you're already up on the basics of RA, skip to the next section for the academic stuff.

What is readers' advisory?

There are a lot of things you can read to learn what RA is and how it is practiced in public libraries. If you want to learn more about how to practice it, skip to the next section.

Readers’ Advisory Service in the Public Library by Joyce G. Saricks, now in its third edition, is the best overall and action-oriented guide to RA out there.

Readers’ Advisory Service in North American Public Libraries, 1870-2005: A History and Critical Analysis, by Juris Dilevko and Candice F. C. McGowan. This is a book with a very clear point of view, and it’s not entirely positive. Dilevko and McGowan have some harsh words for contemporary RA, which I think are good to hear, because it’s rare for someone to criticize it. Even better, though, this is the best comprehensive history of readers’ advisory out there. The history of readers’ advisory, like library history in general, is slightly checkered, and it’s important to know it.

This book includes a description of a job that fascinates me, that of the library hostess. It was established in St. Louis Public Library in 1894, and Laura Speck was the first, and they outline her job on page 79:

We have a functionary that I do not recall having seen in any other public library, whose duties may be summed up in the title ‘official hostess.’ Her desk, bearing a large sign, ‘Information Desk,” is in the middle of the delivery room. Most of the time, however, she is about the room, greeting diffident newcomers, anticipating inquiries, explaining the card catalogue or pointing out the finding lists, and, in general, trying to do for the public what a gracious hostess does for her guests. The present occupant of this position is a woman of exceptional tact and savoir faire.

A shorter history of RA can be found in “Rediscovering the History of Readers Advisory Service,” by Bill Crowley, published in Public Libraries in 2005. (You will need to ILL it if you're not a subscriber.) For those looking for a more academic approach, and who are intrigued by the assertion that “readers’ advisory service was a product of social forces operating in the context of early twentieth century capitalism,“ I recommend ILLing "Regulating Readers: The Social Origins of the Readers’ Advisor in the United States,” by Brendan Luyt and published by The Library Quarterly in 2001.

My favorite discovery in all my research has been the patron saint of readers’ advisory, Jennie Maas Flexner. She invented a lot of classic RA practice at the NYPL and was ahead of her time in many ways: “Flexner believed that the library should go beyond its physical borders to bring it closer to the people,” says Brody. It is hard to track down a lot of her original writing, which is a bummer, because the scraps I’ve been able to find are stellar. In 1938, she wrote in Library Journal:

“As the Readers’ Adviser, I am especially interested in assisting those readers who voluntarily and for the joy of achievement wish to go ahead with constructive reading as a basis for further education. People come to a realization of gaps in their education, [and] … they are aware that they can go farther both in life and in work, if they know more. Some are those who have not had rich opportunities in formal education. Others have had college education or special training, but find themselves at a loss when they wish to read about unfamiliar subjects.”

She also wrote a crucial study of her work at NYPL in 1941. I am trying to get my hands on a physical copy of her 1943 book Making Books Work. I look forward to writing a novel about her some day.

In February 2014, Library Journal released the results of a survey of public librarians about the state of readers’ advisory. Good news—all surveyed offer RA services. From there, though, experiences differ. Great stats and analysis at this link.

Resources for readers' advisory practioners

To fill my MLIS graduation requirement, I undertook an independent study of readers’ advisory education, specifically focusing on the US and public libraries. You can read 800 words summarizing it in this recent Library Journal Backtalk piece, if you don't want to read the rest of this section. Or! I've separated some of the most helpful work I found into two sets of resources that may be of interest to RA practitioners.

Good resources for self-directed RA training

The first set is good resources for self-directed or practitioner-led RA education. I share them here because it seems like people are always on the hunt for them. Though a 2013 LJ study found that all surveyed libraries offered some form of RA, almost 40% of librarians had no RA training, nor any access to it. And at best, 50% of MLIS programs offer any opportunity to study RA. So most of us who care about adult readers’ advisory and its incredible potential to positively affect our communities are adrift and need to self-teach. Here are a few resources I’d recommend, listed in academic format, as you may need to ILL some of them.

Orr, C. (2015). Crash course in readers’ advisory. Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited.

For my money, this is the best text on RA out there, and the one you should buy or borrow. It’s well-written, goes beyond standard appeal-based education, and will be enlightening to those new and seasoned.

Moyer, J. E. and Stover, K. M, eds. (2010).  The readers’ advisory handbook. Chicago: ALA Editions.

An excellent guide for those already familiar with RA and looking to broaden their skill set.

Maatta, S. L. (2010). A few good books: Using contemporary readers’ advisory strategies to connect readers with books. New York: Neal-Schuman.

A good introduction to a broader skill set, for those who are already comfortable with RA 101.

The league of extraordinary librarians, courtesy of Tulsa City-County Library.

Such a great example of stellar in-house RA training!

Thought-provoking academic work on readers' advisory

The second set is interesting research into readers’ advisory. Though relatively few MLIS academics give a shit about RA, the ones who do are doing some interesting work. I share the list here because though several of these articles are a few years old, they have made relatively little impact in RA as it is practiced; they are almost all published in academic journals that the average RA practitioner cannot access. I was only able to grab them when I was an MLIS student. If you’re a public librarian, you will probably need to ILL most of these, and it is worth it. I’m providing this list as citations to make that easier.

Beard, D. and Thi-Beard, K. V. (2008). Rethinking the book: New theories for readers’ advisory. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 47(4), 331-335.

Beard and Thi-Beard challenge the current wisdom that genre-based and appeal-based thinking is the best way to do RA, and draw on research about why adults read and how it affects their identity to suggest other models of RA, like understanding where a reader reads and what their social context for reading is (instead of just asking what they’ve read recently). Some of them are intriguing and I would love to see a few libraries experiment with them to see if there are best practices we could develop.

Begum, S. (2011). Readers’ advisory and underestimated roles of escapist reading. Library Review, 60(9), 738-747.

Of all the papers I read during my independent study, this is probably the one I bring up in conversation most frequently. I honestly wish I could require everybody in the book industry to read this, but will settle for everybody working with adult readers in libraries. Anything to bring an end to the endless eyerolling about romance novels and James Patterson. Escapist reading is far more complex than professionals will acknowledge, and can in fact be transformative. And everybody should stop being judgmental assholes about it. (Perhaps this last is my own thought.)

Dali, K. (2010). Readers’ advisory interactions with immigrant readers. New Library World, 111(5/6), 213-222.
Dali, K. (2013). Hearing stories, not keywords: Teach contextual readers’ advisory. Reference Services Review, 41(3), 474-502.
Dali, K. (2014). From book appeal to reading appeal: Redefining the concept of appeal in readers’ advisory. The Library Quarterly, 84(1), 22-48.

Dali, K. (2015). “How we missed the boat: Reading scholarship and the field of LIS.” New Library World, 116(9/10), 477.
Dali, K. (2015). “Readers’ advisory: Can we take it to the next level?” Library Review, 64(4/5), 372-92.

Keren Dali is the RA writer and researcher I most admire. I would recommend that you read anything you can by her. Her work in the past five years has encompassed how librarians can use RA skills to improve service to immigrant patrons, inventing a new potential way to do RA called SQUIN, rethinking appeal, and pushing the profession towards a greater acceptance of RA as a core public library skill. I don’t blame her for the frustration in the two articles published last year, as it seems increasingly difficult to get both academics and library administrators to take adult RA seriously, and consider it a challenge to those of us new to the field to make it happen.

Moyer, J. E. (2007). Learning from leisure reading: A study of adult public library patrons. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 46(4), 66-79.

Moyer found that readers value some sort of education in theie leisure reading, even if they don’t seek it out, and draws some interesting conclusions on how readers’ advisors can use this knowledge to improve recommendations. This is the sort of research that the field needs badly—and a lot of it.

Naik, Y. (2012). Finding good reads on Goodreads: Readers take RA into their own hands. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 51(4), 319-323.

Another example of research we need in greater quantity. There’s more amateur readers’ advisory than ever in the world, and libraries are just ignoring. I also love this article for inventing the term “repel term,” which I think about a lot when I’m doing RA.

Ross, C. S. (2009). Reader on top: Public libraries, pleasure reading, and models of reading. Library Trends, 57(4), 632-656.

Few people have done as much in defense of popular fiction as Catherine Sheldrick Ross. In this article, she examines several competing models of reading and it is fascinating. Really, anybody working with readers should understand this; it puts into words some of the fundamental disagreements we are still regularly having about books. We could all probably save a lot of passive-aggressive tweets if we had a better shared vocabulary around reading models. If you find this interesting, you might also like the 2006 book the Ross co-authored along with McKechnie and Rothbauer, Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries, and Community.