Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Readers' Advisory 2.0: The Next Dimension

"Readers advisory is not ready reference." Barry Trott, Portland, Oregon, 2010

I don't know if Barry Trott of the Williamsburg (Va.) Regional Library has said this before, and I don't know if he borrowed it from someone else. He said it almost as an aside part way through his half of Tuesday's presentation Readers' Advisory 2.0: The Next Dimension. Still, it sticks with me. I think it explains the whole need for the service. Readers' advisory is work - worthwhile work - and librarians are only going to be successful if they practice and prepare. He and Jane Jorgenson of the Madison (Wis.) Public Library, both managers of online library RA services, addressed how librarians can adapt the tools of Web 2.0 to provide "proactive and reactive" readers' services. "Proactive and reactive" are Jorgenson's terms for taking readers' services to readers (via reviews, lists, displays) as well as dealing with readers' individual requests for books and media.

The Williamsburg and Madison models have similarities. Both have staff from many departments writing reviews that are posted on WordPress-based blogs. They each gather these articles in advance to assure there is a steady stream of content on their sites. Both have personalized readers' services based on surveying a reader for her interests and producing an individual annotated titles list. The two libraries are also connecting these efforts to their Facebook and Twitter pages.

Barry likes the letter "F" while Jane like "C" to describe the elements of successful library RA blogs.

Barry's list:

  • Focus - a review blog should not have extraneous posts
  • Frequency - regular so readers will know there will be new content
  • Fortitude - strength to keep to the focus and frequency
  • Flavor - good writing with personality
  • Flexibility - staff cover for each other, ability to review new formats, etc.

Jane's list:

  • Content - thoughtful reviews for books and media
  • Contributors - numerous reviewers allowed their own voice
  • Commitment - reviews published on a recognized schedule
  • Comments - listen to and share what readers have to say

Barry explained the Williamsburg Looking for a Good Book reading suggestion service. Individual readers may fill out a four-page questionnaire to identify readings tastes, and staff at his library then generate personalized annotated lists identifying ten suggested titles. The library averages about 100 of these each year, having done about 700 total so far. Various staff members prepare them, taking about one-week on average to complete the process. The library asks the clients for permission to retain the original questionnaires. The clients are urged to provide feedback, and there is a shortened form for a second requested list. The users of the service have been about 85 percent women, averaging about 36 years of age with a range of 8 to 88.

Barry knows this is a lot of work for both the client answering a long form and the library. He believes the process has brought his staff closer and taught them a lot about RA. He warns other libraries to do only as much as they can sustain. He recommends having librarians who write well without biases.

Barry spoke about what makes a good review for a library RA blog, such as Blogging for a Good Book. The reviewer should never gush, spoil the ending, or sound corporate (like a functionary of the library). Reviewers should tell what is appealing about the book, movie, or music while being personal, letting his or her individuality shine through. Jane lets her reviewers write negative reviews but only for bestselling, very popular items. Their primary mission is to promote and not expose faults with items, but a few negative reviews gives them some added credibility.

Jane told how Madison services have developed. First, they subscribed to BookLetters; not content to just let the vendor send out its monthly genre lists, Madison reworks each list and creates many more of its own. Second, the library started the MADReads blog, which is turning four years old in April. Third, Madison started a Book-alikes database to keep track of their annotations and use them in individual lists. Fourth, the library has taken the content to Facebook and Twitter. Fifth, the library is looking to produce podcasts and vodcasts (video podcasts that could be distributed through a YouTube channel).

Sadly, Jessamyn West was unable to present her portion of the program due to an unfortunate strike of lightning disabling the plane that was to fly her out of Vermont on Monday. Barry and Jane tried to address some of the issues that would have been Jessamyn's. Her presentation outline with links can be seen at

As the program ended, Jane spoke about "The Big Silence" that libraries may encounter after starting their RA blogs. She and Barry have stats and incidental evidence that once well promoted, the reviews are read. Comments are slow coming mostly because the review readers have not read the books or seen the movies yet and have nothing to say. RA blogs may never get many comments. Future research could be done to see if titles reviewed show signs of increased circulation.


Jessamyn said...

Thanks for this -- since I don't do RA at a real library it's cool to see what longtime practitioners are up to.

Barry said...

Hi, Rick. Nice summation. I think that the RA is not ready reference thought is mine, but I think that it is also something that lots of folks have said in other ways. That is, that RA work is a serious and important piece of what libraries and librarians have to offer, and not something that can be done quickly. Like an in-depth reference question, RA involves a lot of thought and work on the part of both the user and the advisor. That's what makes it interesting (and fun).

Jessamyn, I was sorry not to have the chance to meet you and hear your thoughts on the 2.0 piece. I hope we have the chance to talk sometime in the future.