Anna Call, the winner of this year’s #rauncon travel stipend, wrote about her day last week! She reports:
I had never attended an Uncon before Friday, so I wasn’t sure what to expect at the Readers Advisory Unconference. The concept is reminiscent of crowdsourcing: topics are suggested, voted upon, and collaboratively discussed by attendees, mostly on the spot.
Sessions were decided by post-it vote. I decided to focus on three weak areas in my RA resume: convincing people I’m an expert, recommending books I haven’t read, and recommending books I don’t like.
Marketing Librarians as Experts
This is a perennial problem for me. Between my boyish face and my affinity for comic books, I’m almost never mistaken for an “expert.” (Actually, most of the time, I count myself lucky to be mistaken for a librarian.)
One of the biggest problems we discussed at this session was “reaching” patrons. We agreed that librarians still struggle to make patrons understand that they are approachable while at the same time not opening up too much personal information. Several librarians discussed personal strategies, including electronic aliases, getting patrons to recommend, and developing an RA presence outside of the library. Everyone agreed that developing relationships with patrons was key.
This was also the first session I attended where the Awesome Box was mentioned. It came up in every single other session I attended thereafter.
Recommending Books You Haven’t Read
I haven’t read most books. This is a continual and constant problem. Luckily, I’m far from alone in my suffering, and plenty of people attended this session. As we talked, it became a little bit of a best practices discussion, with plenty of good advice coming from the most experienced members of the group. In fact, I really wish that some of the people who spoke up would write down their thoughts for the benefit of younger librarians.
Among many significant points made, what stood out to me strongest was the concept of leaning on staff for book expertise. Darien Library itself does this through its “You Are What You Read” feature. Knowing which staff members are well-read in which genres can strengthen RA systemically, which seems like a better idea than relying on one general RA expert.
There was literally enough material flying around this session to write an entire book, but these were some other points I took away:
-Use “suggest”, which is neutral; instead of “recommend”. Recommending titles gives you the responsibility for the reader’s enjoyment of the book, and if they hate it, watch out!
-Our job is not to tell the reader whether *we* liked the book, but whether *they* will like the book.
-Instead of trying to read everything, have a few “sure bets” in your back pocket for an on-the-spot advisory session. I’d even go a little further and suggest having familiarity with the books that majorly affected their genres, such as Lord of the Rings.
Recommending Books You’re Not Comfortable With
There are entire subcategories of books that make me wince. This is usually because of personal problems with the message contained within the book. One example: recently, a patron asked me for good books about how vaccines cause autism. She didn’t want to know *whether* vaccines cause autism - she was already there. She just needed to know more about the process so she could convince a family member not to vaccinate their children.
Yes, I gave her a book. No, I don’t remember which one. (I was busy keeping my opinions to myself.) But hey, successful advisory!
Many librarians at this session agreed that less is often more. It’s critical to know your boundaries with patrons because they aren’t there for your opinion about their reading habits. After all, this may be life itself to the librarian, but it’s a brief visit for them. Most of the patron’s relationship with the book will take place outside of the library. We’re just the middlemen.
Several librarians had stories at least as colorful as the one I related above, many of which involved everyone’s favorite breakout bondage fanfiction piece, Fifty Shades of Grey. A few librarians mentioned that patrons often judge themselves for their own reading tastes, and that looking for correlations on Goodreads and in the checkout lists of bolder patrons might be more useful than trying to pump skittish patrons for information. Displays, book lists, and other tools were mentioned as good ways to amplify RA under these circumstances.
The generally incredible organization and the highly engaged and welcoming staff of Darien Library were both huge factors in the success of this uncon. But the heavy use of Twitter really helped to make RAUncon a constructive event. Watching other sessions happen through the notes of other librarians, I really felt like I had more than a 100% experience. Personally receiving brand-new RA material from up-and-coming author Emily St. John Mandel was the perfect way to kick it all off.
I look forward to next year. If you weren’t able to make this fantastic event on Friday, then don’t miss the next one.