Wednesday, June 28, 2006

So You Want to Be a Reviewer? RUSA CODES Materials Reviewing Committee Program

With great and obvious interest in the reviewing of books and media, I started my first day at the American Library Association Conference in New Orleans by attending So You Want to Be a Reviewer?, which was presented by the Reference and User Services Association’s Codes division. Kathleen Sullivan of the Phoenix Public Library, the host for the program, greeted me as she made her way around the room before the meeting welcoming everyone. (She’s a nice lady!) Perhaps everyone who came deserved some recognition for finding a room that was not on the conference hotel diagrams. As I looked around the room, I saw a mix of younger and older librarians. When asked if they wanted to become reviewers, most said “yes.” (It is encouraging that librarians of all ages are looking for new challenges.)

Sullivan was the first speaker. She gave the history of the RUSA Materials Reviewing Committee. In true ALA fashion, it took the committee about five years to develop Elements for Basic Reviews: A Guide for Writers and Readers of Reviews of Works in All Mediums and Genres, 2006. While that may seem like a long, long time to debate and hammer out guidelines, it is an extensive document (45 pages) with advice for many types of reviews. Learning about the guide may be the greatest benefit of my attending this meeting. (There are good ideas for reviewers in the document, but it never says “entertain your readers” or “make people want to read.”)

Sullivan went on to explain that librarian-written reviews are important 1) to librarians purchasing books and other media, 2) to authors and publishers looking for feedback, and 3) to librarians helping readers find books. She said that only 10 percent of books published are reviewed anywhere. Not counting time reading, it takes her three or four hours to write a 250 word review.

Danise Hoover of Hunter College Library followed with her thoughts about tailoring reviews to audiences. Though she is an academic librarian, she often writes for general audiences, for whom expert opinion is less important than entertainment or utility. She said she works hard to be fair, sometimes giving good reviews to books that she personally dislikes if she believes others would enjoy them.

Barbara Bibel of the Oakland Public Library said that she began writing book reviews to return the favor for all the helpful reviews that she had read. She was surprised how reviewing made her a better librarian. She was forced to think about the elements of books, the arrangement of content, and the publishing experience. She had to look for similar books for comparisons and improved her knowledge of her collection. Reviewing is not a sacrifice without rewards. She also enjoys getting free copies of the books to add to her library.

Bibel characterized the pre-publication reviews of Kirkus Reviews as the most entertaining because they are sometimes “snide.” She writes for Library Journal and other more specialized publications; LJ reviews may be positive or negative. Booklist reviews are limited to recommended books.

Brad Hooper from Booklist and Barbara Hoffert from Library Journal told about what they look for in reviews and reviewers. They agreed on several points. 1) Reviewers have to stick to word counts, usually 175 words. 2) Deadlines must be met. Most jobs are limited to two or three weeks, depending on the type of book. 3) Reviewers have to be fair and not assert a superior attitude. It is okay to be critical but not self-promoting. It is also okay to express admiration for a book. 4) Reviewers should compare the new work with other books on a topic. 5) Reviewers should not write to be quoted.

Library Journal reviews are mostly written by volunteers. To volunteer, send an email to Volunteers should send samples of reviews limited to 175 words. The journal particularly needs reviews for political and current affairs books. Booklist reviews are mostly written by staff. Working on ALA book awards committees seems to be a good way to get noticed by Booklist.

In the question period, I asked about the formats of galleys and the process for submitting reviews. It appears that not much has really changed since I wrote consumer health book reviews for Library Journal twenty-five years ago, except that submission is usually by email and that email has allowed more communication between reviewers and editors.

After the program I looked at the description in the conference program guide again. As is often the case with conference programs, there seem to be unstated assumptions. In this case it was that the book reviews in question were short pre-publication reviews written under strict guidelines. It would be interesting in the future to have a program about the broader world of book reviewing. Libraries are trying to use staff-written book reviews in their newsletters and on their web sites to promote reading. Readers are posting reviews on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Open WorldCat web sites. Bloggers write book reviews. Some even aspire to write for literary reviews. These writers would also like to hear reviewing advice.


Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks for such a thorough review of the book reviewing session at ALA for those of us who couldn't attend! I couldn't agree more that librarians should get busy...and not just in the library world. I think it's time to let lit circles know that we read, too.

Olgy Gary said...

Thank you, Rick, for your excellent write up and especially for the link to the PDF "Elements for Basic Reviews." Good insights on both. I'll be changing the manner in which I review titles to the site based on what I learned from you!

Olgy Gary said...

We've posted a link to your blog from the CCF site. We'd like to post your picture along with the article. Is that alright with you? Let us know. Thanks!