Thursday, October 10, 2013

Readers advisory

Not being a fully licensed and tattooed librarian I nevertheless find myself doing a good deal of traditional, straight up reference work. I do not shirk this now quite common duty. In the first place, I am for the most part good at it. In the second place, sending people to the appropriate desk, due to the vagaries of lines and the notable distance between the service desks at my Library, generally falls under the category of patron torture. I only very, very rarely believe in patron torture. Lastly, I like this reference work, so I do it.

The vast majority of the reference work I do is direct, verifiable, and easy to be confident of. But there is one aspect of reference that I find murky, smoky, and open for a lot of interpretation. That is readers advisory. Not only is suggesting books a profoundly inexact science, but so often, when I am asked for suggestions, I am far removed from many of my best tools. I am usually asked for reading suggestions while shelving, distantly removed from computers and other people, and thus reliant purely on what I can happen to dredge up on the spot.

The first thing I do when I am asked for a suggestion is try to find out what the person asking has liked in the past. One has to have at least a general idea of the type of things people like in order to steer them to something they might, when face to face with it, actually want to read. If someone is a hardcore blood and guts fantasy reader, then In Watermelon Sugar might be a brilliant and twisted suggestion for them, but only if they'll read it, which I don't think they're going to do. Unfortunately, when I do ask what these people like, they invariably come back with a list of authors I don't like. This is where I get thrown off. Somehow it makes me get all librariany and official. They like Sandford and William Kent Krueger? Well, I have heard tell that people who like them also like Harlan Coben and Lee Child. I don't know what I'm talking about and I don't care because I don't care about those authors. The fact is that I don't care what the large system of recommendations says, and what I have realized is that those recommendation lists have never worked for me anyway. Any version of any "If you liked this try that" website or listing or program I always end up either hating or completely uninspired by. I believe my distaste for these things stems from their being powered by groupings and numbers and aggregations. You like the Beatles? You might like the Rolling Stones, so obvious as to be banal, but never powered by feverish passion. I don't want those lame and joyless recommendations. I want "You like Dick Francis? Well, sorry, there is nothing really like Dick Francis. We must accept it. Try the Horatio Hornblower books." I want insouciance and inspiration and adventure!

So here is what I resolve. I have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books, spanning every genre, age range, general subject, and level of literary respectability, that I would recommend with overwhelming fanaticism. That's it. That's my list. I will find, request, shelve, and seek to acquire for people whatever they want, but I will no longer recommend anything not on my list. When someone asks what fantasy I recommend I will not take it to mean that they want to know what books in that genre are popular. No, I will pick the closest thing on my list of odd, acclaimed, and unacclaimed masterpieces to what the patron is asking for. They didn't ask me for some dead list. I will give them my recommendation. And I will be excited at the very thought of them reading it. They are in for a treat.


  1. Wow, this is allowed where you work? I am totally supposed to refer patrons to the Reference desk. Which is probably just as well.

    1. I try to remain vaguely confused as to what is allowed while trying to be as clear as possible about what is needed. So far that has played all right here.


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