Readers’ Advisory


You think you know where to find books in the library, when you are a librarian. But my experience proves that every public library is planned differently posing challenges for the reader and readers’ advisory. We moved into a new neighbourhood in Toronto, and I began visiting a different library branch. When I visited this large library, I made my selections by browsing the adult fiction shelves on the main level, always finding something to read as this practise went on for weeks. Then I looked for an older title in a series that I enjoyed, but it wasn’t where I was used to looking as it was located on another floor.

I mentioned my experience to a friend, who told me the main floor was only the browsing collection, as she had had a library tour there. I had wrongly assumed the other floors were subject specific, like business or art collections, never venturing off the main floor. The main floor was planned with adult fiction for a convenient “grab and go” experience along with a children’s section. I didn’t realize that the complete fiction section was available on another floor.

There is some debate about how books are organized in the public library. Old school layouts have adult fiction centrally located in one place. The browsing collection met my needs for a long time until I needed an older title from the catalogue. Dividing the fiction collection means that popular titles can be grouped together and circulate more. But it can also be a source of frustration, if users don’t know there is more than one place to look for books.

I am thinking about all of this as I research the history of readers’ advisory, and where it is going next. On a more general level the book selection process is critical. When readers have a great read by selecting books based on complex factors, such as past experience, the book itself, and recommendations from their friends and family, they have a successful experience and want to read more. And unsatisfactory book selection may also lead to “disappointing choices (that kills) the desire to read.” (Ross, 2000)

Ross, C. (2000). Making choices: What readers say about choosing books to read for pleasure. The Acquisitions Librarian, 13(25), 5. doi:10.1300/J101v13n25_02
I saw this experience repeatedly in a school library as committed readers would try a variety of books or ask for the teacher’s or librarian’s help. Those who were not strong readers and were book shy needed a lot more help or readers’ advisory assistance. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy that ones who thought of themselves as readers were, and those who defined themselves as poor readers continued to struggle.

Before I started my research on readers’ advisory, I thought it was based on developing book lists or finding read alikes in databases like Novelist. Now I think those who specialize in readers’ advisory think beyond genres trying to see selection through the reader’s eyes. When readers’ advisory is practiced as its highest level, then magic happens for the patron and the librarian.

Readers bring their own experience and expectations unknowingly to the selection process. As librarians we try to quantify the experience to provide public service. One method to open the conversation on readers’ advisory is based on the “doorways into the book” as librarian and author Nancy Pearl has explained. The doorways can be categorized as how appealing the character, language, setting and story is to the reader. This sounds like a creative writing exercise to me. While I don’t disagree, I think readers can’t always articulate their preference that way and they end up speaking about genres, authors and things they don’t like in a book.

The practice of readers’ advisory is complex and fascinating likely worthy of a series of blog posts, but I will conclude with a few sources to whet your appetite for further reading.

– Brenda

Readers’ Advisory Services wiki, New South Wales, Australia 

The State of Readers’ Advisory (February 2014) 

Ferri, Anna. “Book Appeal, Literacy, and the Reader: Readers’ advisory in practice and theory”  No. 1, Spring 2015,  The UBC School of Library, Archival and Information Studies Student Journal. Online 12 July 2017.


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