“The renaissance of readers’ advisory services in public libraries is spilling over to narrative nonfiction,” according the Robert Burgin, Professor at North Carolina University's School of Library and Information Sciences and editor of Nonfiction Readers’ Advisory. Burgin spoke to an overflow crowd of librarians on Sunday morning at the RUSA program Taking the Guesswork Out of Nonfiction Readers’ Advisory.
Burgin presented twelve reasons to do nonfiction readers’ advisory in libraries.
1. Many people read nonfiction books. On average one third of adult library circulation of books is nonfiction. Best seller lists on the Amazon website always include many nonfiction titles. Look right now and you will see 1776, Freakonomics, The World is Flat, and You: The Owner’s Manual at the top of the list.
2. People read nonfiction for pleasure. Burgin read Into Thin Air with no intention of climbing mountains. Many narrative nonfiction books have exciting, compelling stories. A reader’s interest in a subject, say Japan or the Civil War, can be more important than whether a book is fiction or nonfiction.
3. The distinction between fiction and nonfiction can be blurry. Some fiction includes much factual material, while some nonfiction authors have speculated on truth in their books. Some nonfiction authors change personal names, story locations, and incident facts to protect people involved in the story.
4. Nonfiction has genres and subgenres, just like fiction. Later in the program the audience was divided into discussion groups to identify many of these.
5. There are fiction and nonfiction read-a-likes. Readers who enjoy Western novels might also like books about the West. Someone who enjoyed the baseball history Eight Men Out might enjoy the novel Shoeless Joe.
6. Historically most readers’ advisory was recommending nonfiction. In the early twentieth century libraries were central to the self-improvement movement and found books on nonfiction topics for readers.
7. Some readers like to read what others read. It does not matter whether the books were fiction or nonfiction.
8. The readers’ advisory transaction is the same for nonfiction as fiction. Librarians ask what books readers enjoy and try to recommend other books. If people enjoy Bill Bryson’s travel stories, they might also enjoy Tim Cahill’s books.
9. Nonfiction books have all the appealing qualities readers enjoy in fiction: good storylines, interesting characters, unfamiliar places, drama, and mystery. Even dictionaries and cookbooks can appeal factors.
10. The lessons we learn in nonfiction readers’ advisory can be applied back to fiction readers’ advisory.
11. Improving our nonfiction readers’ advisory skills improves our reference skills.
12. Providing nonfiction readers’ advisory gives us insights for improving our reference tools.
After Burgin’s presentation, the audience (already sitting at round banquet tables) discussed nonfiction genres. My table discussed the sports story genre. Other tables covered spiritual memoirs, narrative science, political stories, historical narratives, humor, biography, immigration stories, true adventure, cooking, travel, and memoirs. In the table reports, “vicarious experience” was often reported as a reason readers like nonfiction.
The results of the discussions will be posted at the RUSA/CODES website.
After the discussions and reports, Neal Wyatt of Chesterfield County Public Library, Virginia, who writes for Library Journal and Booklist, presented practical tips for nonfiction readers’ advisory. She insisted that we have to read nonfiction to advise well. She recommended writing annotations of everything we read, listening to book programs on radio and television, and looking for appeal terms in the book reviews that we read. She said that a good way to start making nonfiction genre lists is to take award book lists and divide them into categories. She also recommended making book displays that mix fiction and nonfiction. Finally, she described creating reading maps that show how books in many fields connect.
Burgin, Robert, ed. Nonfiction Readers’ Advisory. Libraries Unlimited, 2004. ISBN 159158115X