Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Talking with Readers

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Talking with Readers

Article excerpt

A Competency Based Approach to Readers' Advisory Service

It is particularly fitting that this new column begins with an article from Duncan Smith. As a conceptualizer, writer, and trainer in the area of readers' advisory services, Smith has become in many ways the leader of the small group of us who refuse to let the LIS profession ignore the fact that libraries are still in the business of serving readers, especially readers of fiction, about whom we know far less than we should. After ten years or so of going around the country training groups of librarians, either in PLA preconference and workshop formats, at the invitation of library systems or regional associations, or in conjunction with NoveList, the readers' advisory electronic product he developed, Smith was finally asked to help develop a specific training manual for readers' advisory librarians, which he discusses here, along with the research that inspired and grounded it.

Of particular interest is the title of the training manual, Talking with Readers, because most experienced RA practitioners feel that the interview format of reference service is less effective in identifying readers' needs than a structured conversation. In an interview, the librarian takes the lead; in a conversation, the reader leads the librarian. Since the time constraints of most busy information desks force librarians to close reference interviews prematurely, the means by which these same people are transformed into "RA conversationalists" is a mystery to most practitioners. There is also confusion over whether "readers' advisory service" can be conceptually subsumed under "reference service" in a comfortable manner. Otherwise, librarians answering questions about fiction would not feel so totally dependent on their own personal reading to answer them.

Duncan Smith has pioneered an interesting research technique to create training materials and opportunities for working librarians. In his workshops, he has exposed librarians to ethnographic videotapes of readers talking about what they like to read to prompt discussion about what to recommend to them. In the process of developing Talking with Readers, he again uses videotape--this time, simulations--to prompt librarians and readers to suggest ways to improve the reader's advisory process. As usual, the process, the group of collaborators in it, and the result take us forward in a determined resistance to the definition of libraries only as places for factual information-seeking.


In a September 2000 issue of Library Journal, May et al. discussed the results of an unobtrusive study of the readers' advisory service provided at the fifty-four public libraries of the Nassau, New York, Library System.(1) Their study involved a visit by one of the authors to each of these New York public libraries. During this visit, the authors asked for assistance in finding a good book to read. This study builds on the unobtrusive studies of reference pioneered by Crowley, Childers, and Durrance.(2) It expands and corroborates the work of Shearer in applying this methodology to readers' advisory service.(3) The study by May et al. indicated that library staff dread patron requests for assistance in finding fiction to read. They also observed that staff frequently do not attempt to elicit information from the reader about the reader's interests, do not consult resources as part of the advising process, and tend to use their personal reading as the basis for suggesting tides, whether or not this reading maps to the patron's interests. The authors concluded their article with the following assessment:

   Our study did not reveal any formal institutionalized RA protocol. Rather,
   our findings underscored that a non-methodical, informal, and serendipitous
   response was the norm to a patron's request for a "good read." This is an
   approach that at times serves patrons brilliantly, but quite often offers
   unprofessional and unsatisfactory service. … 
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