My 32 years as a Readers’ Advisory Librarian

Where did 32 years of being a Readers’ Advisory Librarian go? I know exactly where they went. They took refuge in that beautiful, solitary place we call Book-Land. Because it’s almost always a solitary pursuit at first, reading. It’s the sharing part that takes us into unpredictable territory. Will this customer like my suggestions?  Or will they stand there looking bored, saying: “Read it…Read it…Read it” and leave me hanging, mouth agape, fresh out of scintillating suggestions?

Once a Readers’ Advisory librarian, always a Readers’ Advisory Librarian. Call us what you will. Give us promotions and new job titles. We are still, at our core, Readers’ Advisory librarians. (You can tell the reverence I have for them by the CAPS.)

Starting my career as a Children’s Librarian was a good entrée into Readers’ Advisory. Kids don’t always know it, but their questions – “I want a funny book” or “I want a scary book” – usually direct librarians to a specific author, or at least give us a clue about what they like and don’t like. Fast forward 10 or 20 years and that same customer is now asking for humorous fiction or suspense thrillers. The tricky part is figuring out exactly what it is about those authors or genres that draws them in. Then finding the perfect book for them.

Enter Google, stage left. Or stage right, depending on your political leanings. Here is one inescapable observation I know to be true: readers have, for several years now, turned to Google, not librarians, for their Readers’ Advisory questions. I rarely get a customer now who thinks I or my colleagues know more than Google when it comes to giving advice about books.

Spoiler Alert: Librarians definitely know more. Sure, Google works in a pinch, like when you’ve never read a particular author for whom your customer wants a read-alike. Or when you’re having a ‘senior moment’, like I do these days. Often.

Say what you will about the Internet. Nothing beats the feel-good experience of having a Readers’ Advisory librarian lead you to the display walls or the stacks and start picking out books she/he thinks you’ll like, based on your tastes. And then giving you short little synopses – your own personal book talk. There’s a bit of chat happening, a bit of casual investigation, and a LOT of relationship-building going on. Next thing you know, the customer’s searching you out week after week asking for reading suggestions. And bringing you home-made carrot cake. And that’s how it’s done.

I learned something valuable years ago: almost everything in life can be reduced to the five Ws and the H of a press release – Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. Apply that formula to Readers’ Advisory and you get this:

  • Who is your customer?
  • What are they really asking for?
  • When is it the right time to offer reading suggestions?
  • Where is the best place to find what they want?
  • Why do they like certain authors/genres and not others?
  • How can I get a customer excited about a new book?

Back in the dark ages, when Richmond Public Library had a big, beautiful dedicated Readers’ Advisory desk, I was in my glory. Sure, I would also have to answer plebeian questions like where‘s the bathroom and what time is Storytime. But mainly, customers came to me and my colleagues with a certainty that we could lead them to the perfect book. Each and every time. Funny thing was, even when we couldn’t find exactly the right book for them, we managed to make it a meaningful connection anyway.

Working right across the plaza from a Seniors’ Centre, Richmond Public Library served a lot of elderly customers. And more often than not, for that 80-year-old man or woman who came to the RA desk this was their only social interaction of the week. And they were mighty grateful.

During those good old days I became a “codger magnet”. Or so my colleagues dubbed me. Apparently a 37-year-old librarian who wears leopard print dresses was considered a hot young thing by men over 75. And they were mighty grateful. For the RA help, that is.

Actually, I think those old guys sometimes used to make up random RA questions just so they could talk to me. Now I know that sounds boastful, but…well…I have the stories to prove it. I remember a couple of my favourite old guys would bring me gifts. Regularly. One brought me the New Yorker magazine every week because I once told him I love reading it but I’m too cheap to buy it. Another one used to bring me paintings he’d done. Then there was the shy, highly educated old guy who saw me wearing a hot pink turtleneck one day. I’ll never forget this. He said to me, in a hushed tone: “Nobody should be allowed to wear pink but you.”

I think that was the most romantic thing a man has ever said to me. Ever.

And all that because of a little Readers’ Advisory.

by Shelley Civkin, Communications Officer by name, Readers’ Advisory Librarian at heart

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