Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On Librarians Who May Or Not Read, and some extra thoughts on RA

This post is sort of a response to the post by Liz B. from A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Cozy entitled "Readers' Advisory?"  The post made me think again of a few things I have been pondering lately about RA and librarians who may or not read.

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When it comes to reading and readers' advisory work, there are two things that can make me cringe.

One is the tendency of a lot of librarians in academia to not read or denigrate those who do. I have been in enough job interviews, on both sides of the table, to see this consistent reaction. It usually goes something like this: a candidate expresses that a reason she went into librarianship is because she likes to read. Those interviewing see the answer as less than substantial. I will grant that, unlike public librarians, academics tend to seek more specific traits in academic librarian candidates (collegiality, specific subject area knowledge for liaison work, teaching ability, ability and/or desire to publish, especially applicable to tenure lines), but somehow, to me at least, looking down on someone because they like to read is not right. The response I usually hear is that anyone saying they like to read is like someone saying they like puppies. I mean, you can't be against puppies, so same idea. The enjoyment of reading is either seen as a simplistic answer or as a stock answer, i.e. the answer you give when you don't have anything more original or substantial to say. I have found that you get a more positive experience if you get a candidate talking about some of the things they like to read, even if you do it during a lunch break or other more informal moment during the interview process (a note for any non-academic readers: interview process for an academic librarian, much like for faculty, can be an all day affair. Having a meal at some point is very common and  often used as an informal way to measure a candidate and viceversa).

The second thing that makes me cringe is librarians who do not read. I cringe even more when they openly admit it, and really shudder if they take pride in it. The excuses for this pretty much run the gamut: I read plenty of stuff online (usually means they can skim a lot, often work-related); I deal with enough books already, so I don't want to read anymore; I am not really a reader, etc. Reading articles is reading; I am not denying that. However, librarians should also be reading books both in and out of their subject or interest areas. You do this to stay informed. You do this to have a sense of what is out there. You do it to be prepared for the moment a patron asks "can  you recommend something good to read?" so you can suggest something other than what you can scrape up via Amazon. You read because it makes you a better librarian. It makes you more well-rounded as a librarian and a person. I will admit here: I think less of any librarian who, when asked what are you reading, say nothing or that they don't have time to read. I am not looking for any specific type of reading. You enjoy fluffy regency romances? Cool. You like reading books on your favorite e-reader? Wonderful. Just read. For a librarian, I don't think there is a valid excuse not to be reading something. If you are a librarian, you should be reading.

Now in academia, we librarians do not do as much RA as our public library brethren. Yet we do get students now and then asking for things to read that are fun. They are looking for something recreational. We should be prepared for this possibility given that academia is not only to get a degree but to nurture lifelong learning and well-rounded individuals. That includes the enjoyment of reading. The literature is addressing the need of RA in academic libraries (see also here). Here at my library we now have a Bestseller Collection (a browsing collection of popular books) available on the main floor to nurture and encourage recreational reading for the academic community. So far, it is getting some use.

To end, I will address some of the questions that Liz B asks at the end of her post:

  • "If you’re a librarian, what type of formal training did you have?" I took two courses in readers' advisory in library school. One for Adult RA and the other in Children and YA. I did that to prepare for a possible career path in public librarianship. Hey, the market back then was tight too, so I was hedging my bets. But I also took the classes because I was interested in the RA work, and I saw them as a chance to read some books I would not read otherwise during library school. Library school is not exactly a place that encourages much recreational reading unless you are either a reader, or you take an RA class. 
  •  "What resources have you used to learn about RA and work on your skills?" In addition to my coursework, I read a lot related to RA, and I try to keep up. Some books on the topic I have read after library school include this one, this other one, and this one over here. Also, since The Gypsy Librarian reads a lot of the LIS literature so you don't have to, that includes articles on RA such as this one on RA in small public libraries, one on interactive RA, and this one on RA and going beyond bestsellers. In addition, I do scan various RA related and book related sites, and I read various book blogs via my feed reader. Plus I read a lot of books. Areas of interest include, but are not limited to, science fiction, education and pedagogy, graphic novels, microhistories (you know, those books that do a really good history of just one thing, like this one), and some current affairs/events.
  • "Is it something you think is important?" Yes. I think it is important both professionally and personally. 
  • "And if you use libraries, what has been your experience in asking staff about what to read next?" Interesting question. I have never really had to ask a library staff member at a library I use (I am referring here to my local public library) for reading suggestions. I think this is mostly because I keep so many personal book lists and use so many other resources that I do not see a need. It is not a negative reflection on the staff. As a side note, however, I do ask and share suggestions with some of the paraprofessional staff at my library. They tend to be readers. At least one of them is a friend of mine over on GoodReads, the social site I use to keep track of my books. They ask me for ideas, and I often ask them as well. It has been an observation of mine that often the paraprofessionals tend to be more avid readers than many librarians. With a bit more training, many of them could likely be good readers' advisors. Liz B. writes that RA is "a skill set, it’s a knowledge base, and it takes work and dedication." Librarians should definitely be cultivating, building upon, and expanding said skill set and knowledge base. However, I think we can also take advantage of staff who read and are knowledgeable, especially in genres (and certainly in cases where the librarians are dropping the ball).
  • "Are the displays and booklists helpful?" Yes. Depending on the display, I often get an idea or two of what to read. If it is an open display, and the books can be checked out, I do pick something if it interests me. 
  • "Do you know if these things are done by librarians, staff, or volunteers?" In my library, I do all the book displays; it is part of my work in outreach. At the local public library, I am not sure who does it. Other libraries I have visited, it is usually someone who volunteers. 


Lawral the Librarian said...

I actually had a guest lecturer in one of my classes in library school go around the room and ask us why we all wanted to be librarians (it was a very intro class). We were not allowed to answer that we liked books or liked to read, as that is "a misconception about librarianship and a cop-out." I was so glad she was just a guest lecturer.

I, too, work in an academic library, and I find when I get to do any RA it is with the college staff rather than the students. We have a small bestseller collection, and we'll keep any book that continues to circulation once it's off the bestseller lists, so we have a good amount of popular literature to recommend. While a lot of the library staff, professional and paraprofessional, reads from this collection, there is a real resistance to actually doing RA. Our staff will recommend books to patrons they know personally or professionally, but make a recommendation based only on what a patron says she likes to read? Impossible.

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Lawral: That is something I find often: the reaction that if you reply "because you like to read" (or the variant, "like books"), then it is a "cop out."

Our bestseller collection is on a McNaughton plan (leased) that we got via a grant, but we do try to buy some for the permanent collection (with varying results. Budget here is very tight). We still need and could use a lot more popular literature. I find that the paraprofessionals read a bit more. Asking the other librarians if they are reading something (other than some LIS article, if you are lucky) at the moment is often a futile exercise.

Thanks for stopping by. Best, and keep on blogging.