Reader’s Advisory: Secrets Hurt

Last week, when SWON’s Readers’ Advisory special interest group met, I got to join them. The group was doing a run-down of their favorite books from 2011, and I did my best to live-tweet the meeting. That is, I wrote up book titles and author names and abbreviated comments. You can read these mini-write-ups at the SWONtech Twitter page.

In the two hours that the meeting lasted I wrote up over 40 books, and I missed a couple that flew by too quickly. The books ranged from young adult to sci-fi to non-fiction to mysteries and literary fiction. They covered a lot of ground, and I walked out of the room with a list of books I wanted to read. What happens to all these great recommendations? What happens to all this great information?

The 5(?!) librarians in the room aren’t keeping it a secret. They talk to patrons and to each other. That’s what this special interest group is about. And I’m sure that their in-person recommendations are way more helpful than the 12-word description I was able to type up. They get to ask questions and have a conversation. A one-on-one chat seems like the best way to give readers’ advisory advice. But I think the next best way is Every Other Way.

I’ll admit that I like to think about top-down approaches. I like to think about ways tech can help people find books to read. SWON’s Teen Reading Challenge is doing this. We’re challenging librarians to read as many young adult titles as they can between February 1 and April 30. Read the most pages and earn bragging rights among your peers and, more importantly, collect a lot of first-hand knowledge of YA titles.

The way participants show that they’ve read a book is to submit a “Reading Report.” This includes basic stats about a book but also collects the reader’s impressions of the book: what they liked and disliked about it, matching genres and audiences, and read-alike titles. I’d like to put this into a database they could easily search and use after the Challenge is over. Year over year, this could turn into a pretty hefty resource. But I can’t turn this into a GoodReads- or LibraryThing-scale project.

We’re a small team, and we have to think on a small scale. So the plan, at the moment at least, is to make the Reading Reports available in whatever ways we can. We don’t have the resources or visibility of a site like GoodReads. But if we’re willing to share information with lots of people, in lots of formats, we can still reach a broad audience by word of mouth or word of tweet or however the word spreads.

But being willing to share information isn’t enough. We may not want our recommendations to be kept secret, but if we only give them to people who walk up and ask us, that’s pretty close to a secret. People who walk into the library looking for a book who walk out empty-handed? That hurts. It hurts the case libraries are always making for their relevance and utility. This may not be the kind of hurt the cues slow-motion videos of teary-eyed children, but it still smarts.

I’m not giving up on the idea of a searchable database for our Reading Reports. In the meantime, I’m going to try to say yes to sharing that information in every other way. Make a flyer of books that received lots of positive reviews? Sure thing. Send out an email of boys-interest books? Yep. Blog about it, tweet about it, talk about it? All-three-yes. Let’s see what it’s like to say yes and invite people to use our information in their own inventive ways.