From Serials to Serial: Integrated Readers’ Advisory
August 1, 2015
Nanette Donohue, Champaign Public Library
Readers’ advisory, or RA, has been a library service since the late nineteenth century. Early versions focused on meeting the needs of adults for continuing education rather than entertainment, but starting in the 1980s, the focus shifted to leisure reading—which, for most readers, means fiction. Nonfiction RA is becoming more prevalent, but why stop with books? Our collections are rich with media in a variety of formats and genres. Whole-collection advisory, also known as integrated advisory, takes all of this variety into account, helping patrons make connections between library collections, regardless of format.
In her book Integrated Advisory Service, RA expert Dr. Jessica Moyer defines integrated advisory as “a way of providing advisory services to library users that includes all different formats and media while staying focused around a genre.” Moyer is careful to state that introducing integrated advisory in our libraries does not detract from our important role as readers’ advisors; rather, it’s a function of serving our patrons by connecting them with the materials that best meet their needs. Moyer’s argument is that we should be able to assist a patron interested in finding a good film or podcast with the same expertise with which we assist a reader interested in finding their next great read.
Whole-collection advisory can seem intimidating and overwhelming at first. Keeping up with our print collections is difficult enough—this just adds to the burden! But consider libraries’ print collections. Have we read all of the books in our collections? Of course not—but we are familiar enough with the basics to make appropriate suggestions when our patrons are looking for something new to read. We don’t need to watch or listen to everything—we simply need enough familiarity with what’s out there to be able to make those all-important connections between materials.
Appeal Across Formats
In readers’ advisory training, we learn about appeal factors, such as plot, pacing, and character. Determining why the patron enjoyed a book is crucial to suggesting the right match. Consider a popular best seller like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. There are a number of reasons that a reader could enjoy this book—the fast-paced twists and turns, the unreliable narrator, or the suspenseful whodunit. Once the appeal factors for that particular reader have been identified, appropriate suggestions can be made.
The same is true for whole-collection advisory, with the added layer of format. Asking the patron what types of items are of interest opens up a number of additional questions. Perhaps she recently listened to an audiobook of Gone Girl and she really liked the narrator. Perhaps he saw the movie and is looking for similar thrillers. Perhaps the patron is open to pretty much anything, regardless of format, as long as there’s an element of surprise.
Most library staff members who assist with readers’ advisory are familiar with review journals such as Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal. As much as some of us would like to, we can’t read everything. Reviews, combined with techniques such as Jessica Moyer’s “How to Read a Book in 10 Minutes” (www.alaeditions.org/blog/62/how-read-book-10-minutes) help readers’ advisors gain an understanding of the appeal factors of a variety of titles without having to read the actual book.
Professional reading for whole-collection advisory is much broader and could include traditional print magazines, such as Entertainment Weekly and People, as well as online sites, such as A.V. Club (www.avclub.com/), the Hollywood Prospectus section of Grantland (grantland.com/hollywood-prospectus/), or Salon’s Entertainment category (www.salon.com/category/entertainment/), which provide a broad overview of what’s hot, trendy, and acclaimed in range of media. Reviews give us ample information about plot, tone, and character—the basics of appeal. But just as readers’ advisors should read widely, whole collection advisors should read, listen, and watch widely—even if it’s just a movie trailer, a single episode of a television show or podcast, or a song or two from an album.
Expanding the Interview
When a patron comes to you and asks for a suggestion for something good to read, how do you respond? Chances are, you ask them what they’ve read and enjoyed lately, then follow up by asking what they liked about that book. What happens if the patron says that they haven’t read anything lately, but would like to do some leisure reading? You’d probably ask them about movies or television shows that they like in an attempt to get at the types of stories they enjoy, then you’d take that information and use it to match the patron with a suitable book. A whole-collection advisory interview operates the same way—it involves gathering information about what the patron enjoys, why they enjoyed it, and what types of suggestions they’re looking for. Asking questions that get at these key points is crucial to making the right connection.
If a patron says they really enjoyed the podcast Serial and would like to find books, movies, and TV shows that are similar, what’s the best approach? Start by asking what they enjoyed about Serial. Was it the true crime aspect? Was it the careful analysis of the events of the crime? Was it the episodic nature of the show, where the story became clearer over time? Was it the unreliability of the people involved? Then make a few suggestions: “Have you watched the TV show Broadchurch? It features a similar type of story—a criminal investigation where peoples’ stories keep shifting, with a detective trying to get to the bottom of the case. Or are you looking for something that’s a true story instead?” The interaction follows a basic pattern of ask – listen – suggest – clarify.
Your first suggestion may not be the right one, so be prepared to make multiple suggestions. Unlike a factual reference question, whole-collection advisory questions typically have multiple answers, and readers, viewers, and listeners don’t always respond to the same appeal factors. The blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey is a classic example—some readers are drawn to the billionaire alpha male hero, some like the power dynamic between the lead couple, some like the steamy love scenes, and some are just reading it because it’s a best seller and they want to be part of the cultural conversation. A patron who likes billionaire alpha males is going to have different interests than a patron who just wants to read whatever’s hot right now. You’d make different suggestions for each, and it may take more than one try to get to the heart of the patrons’ needs.
Making the Match
There are numerous ways to promote whole-collection advisory services to the public. Being in the stacks where our patrons are is a powerful technique. Approaching patrons by asking open-ended questions, such as “What can I help you find today?” can serve as an effective conversation starter. Form-based readers’ advisory, where patrons enter information about the types of materials that interest them on a web-based form and receive a response with a variety of suggestions, can easily be modified to include library materials beyond books. The Champaign Public Library, where I work, has three separate services—BookMatch, MovieMatch, and MusicMatch—intended to connect library patrons with the materials that best meet their needs. Library displays and readalike lists, both physical and virtual, can include materials beyond books as a means of promoting the collections.
In a changing information landscape, the personal connections library staff provide are a way to maintain our relevance and promote our services. Whole-collection advisory helps us meet our patrons where they are, promotes all aspects of our collections, and connects patrons with the materials that best suit their leisure entertainment needs.