Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Rethinking the Book: New Theories for Readers' Advisory

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Rethinking the Book: New Theories for Readers' Advisory

Article excerpt

As we near the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, interest in the practice of readers' advisory (RA) continues to be strong, as evidenced by the range of RA programs offered at conferences, resources created in both print and electronic formats, and the expanding number of readers' advisors. As the value of readers' advisory is increasingly accepted across the library community, practitioners are looking at new directions to take RA services. Here, David Beard and Kate Vo Thi-Beard examine the possibilities that a stronger understanding of reading theory offer for readers' advisors. The authors call for a closer tie between research into reading behavior and the practice of readers' advisory in the library. David Beard is Assistant Professor of Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he researches interdisciplinary approaches to rhetoric and literacy. Kate Vo Thi-Beard is a doctoral student in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her areas of interest include visual and popular media (including graphic novels and magazines), multiculturalism, and LIS education.--Editor

Readers' Advisory is experiencing a renaissance in library practice and critical reflection. As a result, we better understand the tools of readers' advisory (RA), the uses of those tools (especially online tools), and the pressures that falling budgets and increasingly varied library collections place upon traditional RA work.

But there is a limitation inherent in RA derived from its emphasis on the the book rather than the practice of reading. The bulk of literature on RA and the bulk of its tools focus on the book as an object. There is a strange faith that, if we find better ways to describe the object, we can more easily connect the object to patron. Such efforts are important; being able to describe a novel in terms of its genre, setting, characters, and plots is an important first step in RA. But research in literacy challenges the idea that readers select a book based on its features.

A simple example of current practice makes clear our position. If a young person liked Harry Potter, give them a book with a wizard; it has the same features, after all. If you enjoy the Anita Blake vampire stories, try Anne Rice--her books have vampires, too. Why do we presume that this approach makes for effective RA?

This essay makes three moves. First, it makes clear the state of the art in RA practice and RA tools. Then, it places that practice and those tools in productive tension with the current research in reading behavior. Finding that the current models for RA are out of step with research on why people read, we can then probe the question, what would RA look like if it were inflected by current research in literacy practices?


RA is akin to reference because it's an interaction between patron and library staff with the general aim to connect the patron to resources--whether fictional, informational, or both. (Jessica Moyer talks about "the theory of 'incidental information acquisition.'" (1) For instance, by reading a contemporary romance novel set in Italy, readers may feel that they learn about the country's features.) RA is an organic extension of the array of reference services already offered in the library.

Maybe equally important for the library as a social institution, RA establishes a connection between patron and library According to the RA Committee of the Reference and User Services Association's Collection Development and Evaluation Section,

   at its core, the reader/librarian interaction is a discussion
   about books.... The goal of the readers' advisory
   transaction is to make the reader feel that the library is
   a welcoming place to come and talk about the stories
   that are important to them. (2)

The RA interaction is what distinguishes a library from a stack of books at the checkout lane at the grocery story. …

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