April 2016 | Volume XXXIV, Issue 2 »

Talk Among Yourselves: Jump Starting Your Readers’ Advisory

March 21, 2016
Becky Spratford, Author and Readers’ Advisor

Talking about and suggesting leisure reading to patrons brings every library worker back to the reasons they first considered working in a library in the first place—a love of books. A stereotype, but one firmly based in fact. Every library worker, no matter his place on the organizational chart or her current job duties, has an origin story that can be traced back to a specific book [or books] that produced pure joy. I prey on this inherent love of reading and the desire to share the books we love when I train library workers to improve their RA skills and service.

Under the surface, every library worker has it in them to be able to help leisure readers. Those feelings of euphoria, the ones we all felt deeply enough at some point to dedicate our working lives to libraries, need to be brought to the surface. This is the magic that will inspire staff to help match patrons with a great read. There is true power in this simple act—power for the library worker, who has a moment to remember why they got into this whole library business in the first place; power to administrators; and power in the satisfaction patrons feel when they are given something they didn’t even know they would love without our help. That is an experience those happy patrons will pass on to their friends, who will pass it on to their friends, and soon, you have a community which treasures and loves its library. Fairy tale library? Read on.

MAKE SPACE FOR CONVERSATION

Thankfully this is the type of space that can be carved out for free; no need for architects or building plans here. Rather what you do is create an atmosphere where booktalking—all over the library—is encouraged, promoted, and celebrated. But this is easier said than done. I all too frequently come across libraries that do not encourage staff to talk to each other about what they are reading and watching while at the desk. These libraries argue that it is a waste of time and not appropriate. Well, it is time for that attitude to be adjusted, and I am here to tell you why and how.

If you want your staff to be proactive in matching patrons with leisure reading/viewing items, you need to let them practice so that their skills and confidence can grow. Allow staff to chat at their desks. Better yet, encourage them to walk over to other service desks throughout the library and start talking about the last good movie they watched or book they read. Yes, that’s right, let your staff wander the building to talk with each other about what they are enjoying in their free time. Sound radical?

Here is how it works in practice. One of the most difficult rules for new practitioners of RA is to learn that you cannot simply suggest your personal favorites to the patrons in front of you. Rather, you need to use what they like and enjoy as a springboard to find them a book that is suited for them. Making this leap—from recommending books you like to suggesting ones you may not have even read but are fairly confident that the patron in front of you would enjoy—is hard. And you cannot get there without having the chance to practice talking about books in the first place.

FIGURING IT OUT

Talk to each other about what you are reading or watching. What did you like most about it? Or, if it wasn’t so good, that’s okay too. Talk about why you did not enjoy it; there is just as much value in this conversation. Then start talking about what other books, movies, or TV shows it reminded you of—focus on the “WHY.” All of this is both fun and educational. You are conversing with co-workers about things you did in your free time, but each conversation builds your RA skills. You become more comfortable articulating the appeal of what you like, or think someone else may like.

Getting up and moving between service desks to booktalk also ensures that all this chatting does not get stale. Switch up who you are talking to, learn their likes and dislikes, and gather a larger variety of perspectives in order to build your skills. It also serves as an inexpensive but very effective team-building exercise. Staff will be building connections across departments as they seek each other out to share their last good read. You now have a library culture where talking about leisure reading and watching is encouraged, and staff have been exposed to more titles because they have heard someone share their love for it passionately. One day that title one staff member shared with another could be passed on to an appreciative patron.

MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE (OR EAR)

The magic starts to happen because not only is the staff building their skills, but patrons are hearing them actively and passionately sharing their leisure reading and watching choices. This serves as an advertisement for your staff’s expertise and willingness to match patrons with similar items. Despite the fact that we carry and circulate thousands of books and DVDs that patrons are reading and watching for fun, these same patrons do not think we want to or can help them find more things they may enjoy. They don’t think a leisure request is “important” enough. Well, when they hear staff chat at the desk, you are making it clear that it is important. Patrons begin to join the conversation, which leads to more RA conversations, and wasn’t that our goal at the start of this article? I have even been lucky enough to be a part of a library where this atmosphere of book sharing was so pervasive that during RA transactions at the service desk, another patron would interrupt the patron I was helping in order to offer her own suggestions.

FAIRY TALES DO COME TRUE

I can train staff on the mechanics behind matching a patron with the right book for them. I can introduce them to my Ten Rules of Basic RA Service (raforall.blogspot.com/p/beckys-ten-rules-of-basic-ra-service.html). I can walk them through specific exercises to improve their skills, but if the staff isn’t allowed to practice by talking with each other at the service desks—both to improve their skills and to advertise their willingness to engage in these conversations in general—all the good gained by any training will be lost.

Talking about books with each other is the first step. Matching items with patrons comes next. When the staff is engaged in the process and inspired by their own joy over the books they love, they will seek out connections with patrons. As they have more positive experiences and feel the rush from a great RA conversation, they will begin to seek out more information and more training, which again leads to helping more patrons.

It all begins with space to talk. By encouraging staff to talk about books, you help them gain the confidence they need to succeed, and now you have a library where the staff are constantly striving to improve their RA skills. I have seen this happen. It is not a dream. Fairy tale library, here you come.

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