The library service called “Readers’ Advisory”* has roots in the 19th Century although, partly fueled by the Great Depression, it flourished most in the decades of the 1920s through the 1940s. After some decline during the second half of the 20th Century, it has experienced a kind of renaissance since the 1980s and ‘90s. And even though more and more readers can use the internet and other technologies on their own, there is still the need for knowledgeable and non-judgmental librarians to help readers choose books.
In its original form, readers’ advisory services included both fiction and non-fiction, although this later changed, with the term "readers’ advisory” used exclusively for adult fiction recommendations, and “reference” for non-fiction. Only recently has this begun to change back, with non-fiction readers’ advisory becoming “the hottest topic in the R.A. world.” (Saricks. 2006). And “even though there are differences in the way we handle reference and readers’ advisory questions, it’s helpful to remember they both open the door to a particular kind of pleasure: the exhilaration of the hunt.”(Saricks, 2006)
A great proponent of modern readers’ advisory services is the librarian and author Joyce Saricks, who quotes Robert Ellis Lee, in his ''Continuing Education for Adults through the American Public Library, 1833-1964'', as describing “three phases in the development of reader guidance, or readers’ advisory, between 1922 and 1940.” In its first phase (1922-26), readers’ advisory services began with highly structured formal interviews between librarian and patron, and the goal seemed to be one of education rather than leisure reading. The years 1927-1935 saw a formal advance in this service, with the first “Adult Education Roundtable” meeting at the ALA Annual Conference. This brought about “Reading with a Purpose” courses and the first R.A. annotated lists of books on special topics.
By 1935, the number of libraries offering the service had grown from seven, mostly in the Midwest, to 44 libraries all around the country, and formal interviews were often followed up by a mailed reading list. Part of this service growth may have been due to the Great Depression, which increased both leisure time for reading and the need for free materials. By 1940, however, it was recognized that a didactic emphasis on reading for education and self-improvement was backfiring, and that more attention should be paid to readers’ desires in finding “the right book” for pleasurable reading. The service now strove to create systematic ways to link book selections with a reader’s own interests, habits and reading abilities.
Far from relying on their own tastes, “successful readers’ advisors must also have a willingness to read anything.” (Kruser, 2006.) However, a good readers’ advisory service pays attention not just to different types of literature but also to the mood of the reader. And many librarians feel this service should no longer apply to just adults or just non-fiction, since young readers often need systematic guidance, and many adult readers choose non-fiction for their leisure reading.
Although libraries can develop their own R.A. techniques, they nonetheless should have a formalized system for annotation and to keep track of staff readings and recommendations. Mere title/author/subject lists are not enough: more useful are annotated “read-alike lists,” which can help librarians respond to WHY a reader likes a certain author – is it their style, their plot, their characters…? “To recommend a good book, librarians must know more about why and how patrons read (Ross & Chelton, 2001). And because all readers are different, there is no standard answer to the question “can you recommend a good book?” The librarian has to assess what that term means to each particular patron.
In her many writings in this field, Saricks describes the need to “strive for a balanced grouping of authors,” mixing current popular authors with classics in a field, and to include different aspects of a genre” (“mystery” does not just mean police procedurals). (Saricks, 2005). Her suggested groupings in popular fiction include: Action/Adventure; Crime/Caper; Fantasy; Gentle Reads (“feel goods” with no sex or violence); Historical; Horror; Literary Fiction; Mysteries; Romance; Romantic Suspense; Science Fiction; Suspense; psychological Suspense; Thrillers; Women’s Lives & Relationships.
Her non-fiction groups include: Adventure/Survival/Exploration/Disaster; Animals/Ntaure/Natural History/Contemporary Issues; Crime and Criminals; History and Microhistory; Humor; Memoirs and Biography; Popular Culture/Sociology/Lifestyles/Entertainment; Popular Science; Self-Help/Inspirational;Sociology; Sports; Travelogues.
Beyond mere genre, however, Saricks and others point out the necessity of the librarian paying attention to a patron’s “mood” in seeking out literature. Saricks’ “Vocabulary of Appeal” includes: pacing (including breakneck, densely written, leisurely), characterization (detailed, quirky, recognizable…), story line (action oriented, domestic, romp…), frame and tone (bleak, bittersweet, heartwarming...), style (austere, poetic, unaffected…).
A librarian's questions will clarify what reading experience the patrons want: are they seeking familiarity or novelty? Safety or risk? An easy read or something challenging? Upbeat and positive or hard-hitting, ironic or critical? Does the reader want to be reassured or stimulated, amazed, even frightened? And finally, do they want to confirm their own beliefs and values or to challenge them? (Ross & Chelton, 2001).
A book’s length is also a consideration; Chelton and Ross suggest that more than just choosing books by genre, descriptions like “fat reads,” “vegging out” or “long, sad stories” might be categories unto themselves. Some readers specifically seek out prizewinners while others avoid them at all costs. Also helpful for the librarian is a short list of “Sure Bets” – books that cross genre lines to appeal to a wide range of readers, such as some well-written travel books (Saricks, 2005).
Despite a growing interest in providing readers’ advisory services to library patrons, most schools of library and information science currently provide very little instruction in this field, and librarians must increasingly look for such instruction outside the university setting, through continuing education programs or their own independent reading. Fewer than 40% of library schools provide coursework in this area, even though 90% of graduates find work in libraries (Moyer & Weech, 2005). Training programs can be genre oriented or questionnaire/exercise oriented. In either case, the goal is to help the staff be comfortable and non-judgmental in ascertaining a reader’s need and skilled in helping them find the “right books” for them.
*Also known in England as Reader Development
Duda, A. (2005). A Content Analysis of Book Reviews from a Readers’ Advisory Perspective. A Master’s Paper for the M.S. in L.S. degree. April, 2005. 46 pages. Advisor: Claudia Gollop.
Kruser, B. (2006). Readers’ Advisory 101, ARRT (The Adult Reading Round Table). Retrieved November 17, 2006 from http://www.arrtreads.org/newsletter.htp
Moyer, J.E. & Weech, T.L. (2005). The education of public librarians to serve leisure readers in the United States, Canada and Europe. New Library World, Vol. 106(1208/1209),67-79.
Ross, C.S. & Chelton, M.K. (2001) Reader’s Advisory: Matching Mood and Material. Library Journal, 126(2), 52-55.
Saricks, J.G. (2006). At Leisure with Joyce Saricks, Taking the Plunge. ALA Booklist, January 1 & 15, 2006. p. 56.
Saricks, J. G. (2005). Readers’ Advisory Service in the Public Library. (Third Edition). Chicago: American Library Association.
Smith, D. (2001) Reinventing reader’s advisory, in Shearer, K. and Burgin, R. (Eds), The Readers’ Advisor’s Companion. Libraries Unlimited, Englewood, CO, pp.59-75.
The ALA Readers’ Advisory Series (7 titles) Chicago: American Library Association
Herald, D. (2006). Genreflecting: A Guide to Reading Interests in Genre Fiction (several titles, for different genres). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
Shearer, K., Ed. 1996). Guiding the Reader to the Next Book. New York: Neal-Schulman Publishers, Inc.
Ann M. Glass