Reflection on readers’ advisory

Monday, March 17th, 2014

It is bizarre, and a little shocking, to think that a month and a half has passed by as quickly as it has. When I started my Readers’ Advisory posts in February, March seemed so far away, and yet here we are. The series of posts was for an assignment in Public Libraries. The details of the assignment are difficult to get into, but suffice to say, ‘use a blog for readers’ advisory’ was one of the options given, and me being eager to use this blog more, that was the option I went with. I don’t regret it – if anything, I find it interesting, and it was good to familiarize myself with some of the tools available to me.

I’ve found the process of readers’ advisory fun and challenging – mostly challenging. There’s no better way to say it: readers’ advisory is hard when you’re not dealing with an actual person! Broadcasting general ideas into the internet ether is somehow more challenging than working with a person face-to-face to find something that they would like to read.

I like to think this is because readers’ advisory is such a personal process: everyone is going to want something different, and everyone is going to have different preferences. To try and do something like that through an impersonal computer screen felt almost impossible. I often asked myself, ‘How can I do readers advisory when I don’t know who I’m advising?’ To solve this, I eventually came up with a format, where I would pick one novel, briefly summarize it, and then recommend other novels related to it. This, in my head, answered the question, ‘I like x, can you recommend something like it?’ It is not the only way to do readers’ advisory, but it is the method I went with. Whether or not it was a good method remains to be seen.


In all of my reviews, you’ll see either Novelist or Goodreads (usually both) listed as a source. I found these two invaluable, primarily because while I was familiar with some of the books on the list, I had never read others (for example, I’m normally not a big YA reader, so when I included some YA novels in the list, I was completely out of my depth.) Both sites provided basic summaries and links to related books, which made the process easier.

But, of course, there are drawbacks too. Novelist in particular suffered from this: it broke down novels into categories, as well as having ‘book appeal terms’ that essentially watered down the book into a few dominant keywords. When it came time to look for related books, the system would just break down and fail to provide a reasonable response: “These books share: the genre x, and the subjects y, z, and a,” is one; “These books are [appeal term], and they share: the genre x, and the subjects y, z, and a.” That’s hardly enough to actually make a meaningful recommendation.

This is not to say that all of the entries were like that – many of the top entries did just fine, and appeared to have been written by real people, that drew concise parallels in plot, character, or genre. I found myself trusting those more, primarily because they gave me more information, but they felt real. I could see why people recommended them to fans of book x. I think this correlates nicely with my idea that readers’ advisory is very personal, so I found myself distrusting the obviously machine-generated recommendations.

But, in some cases, I would also turn to Goodreads, usually because they provided a fuller plot summary than Novelist. Goodreads has the advantage of actually having user reviews as well – obviously reviews are intensely personal, and what one person reviles, another might like. But I found them useful for gauging the overall tone of the book.

That did bring me to another problem: what to do if the reviews for the book were near universally low? That happened a couple of times, where it appeared the reviewers were less than satisfied. I chose to include the book anyway, precisely because what one person dislikes, someone else might like. The Novelist review highlighted a great deal of similarities, so it was worth placing it on the list. Little choices like these are necessary, especially since I was trying to aim for a general audience.

And even though both services have their shortcomings, I’ll admit they are very useful. Novelist provides a list of 10 novels to pick from, and since I was doing short lists, that gave me freedom to pick and choose what I liked. Goodreads gives you a better sense of what the book is about. It feels a bit like cheating to rely to heavily on services like these, particularly when I haven’t read the book, but I tell myself this is necessary. I can’t read every book out there, and (more to the point) I probably wouldn’t like every book out there, while recognizing that other people do. Having services like these makes sense, and is relatively efficient. This isn’t a bad thing. These tools are there to help me, after all.


I did notice that my advisory was largely skewed towards a) people who read voraciously, and b) people who liked fiction. Not having concrete numbers in front of me, I won’t say anything about statistics, but I’m positive that not all RA services involve works of fiction. I felt like focusing on it would be a good idea, because there is a wide variety of fiction out there, but I won’t pretend it’s the entirety of RA.

I did try and rectify that, to some degree, with the last post on reluctant readers. Truth be told, I found that very difficult, because I was never a reluctant reader. If anything, I began reading at a very early age. I found it very hard to relate, and actually having to stop and think about whether or not this would be overwhelming for someone who wasn’t like me was very sobering. I found myself examining Novelist’s reading percentile statistic, the page count, even something as mundane as how grounded in reality it was (or whether or not it was all out fantasy) – statistics I’d usually glossed over before to focus on the list of related novels it offered.

Is this short-sighted of me? Yes, absolutely! I find that people who like books and reading tend to gravitate naturally towards the MLIS program, so I’m surrounded by people who probably were similar to me as a child. Forcing myself to go beyond my comfort zone was really educational. I struggled to understand how someone could not like reading, but I began to see a little bit why as I delved into the issue some more. For some, it has to do with their reading level being lower than their grade level; others just associate reading with school, and as such find very little pleasure in it. Some are self-conscious (there are programs where children read to dogs to soothe their anxieties, and apparently it’s had great success!)

I couldn’t relate, but I tried to. I found that educational by itself.

So while readers’ advisory was a challenge, I found I learned a lot from the activity on its’ own, even if it had its issues. I can’t expect to cover everything over the course of a month and a half, but this was an exciting first attempt!


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