Reading and Libraries

Earlier this month, I attended my state’s annual library conference.

There was a keynote, of course; and it was a good one,  New Librarianship’s New Promise, by R. David Lankes, with great observations, ideas, inspiration, and some laughs. Here is the PowerPoint (and I have to say it’s the type of presentation I like, one that you don’t understand unless you hear the speaker).


As someone who thinks libraries and reading go together like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong, I was disappointed with how reading and reader’s advisory was and was not included in this keynote and vision of a library future. And by reading, I mean the entirety of reading culture, not just literacy. Literacy gives us the tools, yes — but why just give the tools and then back out of the equation?

The slide that troubled me is the sixth one, titled Remediation, and here is the text: “collect books -> books are scare; internet access -> Internet is expensive; reference -> information is hard to find; readers advisory -> people have bad taste.” As you can see, each of those arrows represent a traditional role of libraries and a rationale for why we do it.

More on “collect books” later — oh, heck, I’ll do it now. We may have collected books at some point because books were scarce; more and more, though, I see our role  (and our potential role) as not collecting books but rather connecting people to books. Call it gatekeeping or curating or whatever the trendy word is; books = thousands and thousands, readers = want one, something mediates between the two to lead the reader to the book and in my humble opinion that, connection development (emphasizing the relationship we have with readers rather than the items kept on shelves), is what libraries currently do and something we will continue to do, if we choose.

What really distanced me from the presentation and the promise was that readers advisory is for “people [who] have bad taste.”

No, no they don’t. Readers have a range of tastes and diets; and maybe back in 1950, or in some areas here and there, librarians still believe that people have bad taste and their job is to feed them the classics and literary fiction.

Not my librarian tribe. Not at the readers advisory round-table in my state association. Not among the librarians I meet through YALSA and ALSC and ALA, via Twitter and blogs, online and in person. Readers advisory is connecting people to the books they want and need to read. It’s an art, not a science; and it’s not easy or simple.

Practicing readers advisory means more than being a reader. It’s having a broad reading diet, and knowing about books outside  of one’s own favorite genres; it’s knowing how to ask good questions about people’s reading habits & preferences, being able to detect accurately what kind of reading experience they want NEXT, and knowing how to make good suggestions even OUTSIDE of one’s own reading preferences (romance when you love thrillers, or historical fiction when you love fantasy & so on).

Readers advisory is also about knowing how to do this when the interaction isn’t one on one or face to face: booktalks before large groups, yes, but also displays and booklists, online and in libraries, trying to figure out ways to highlight books that people will like.

Now, if later in the presentation I had heard this more modern explanation of readers advisory outlined and incorporated into the library of the future, I’d have been happy. But honestly? I didn’t hear it.

Then, a second thing happened, and again, being honest, my ears rang and I thought “no way” and then I missed some of what was said after. The speaker used the term “mommy porn” in speaking about readers and books. Mommy porn is a term that has become cute and popular in talking about Fifty Shades of Grey. Short version: yes, this is an offensive term; yes, it’s a joke someone outside the romance/erotica reading community uses; and yes, it’s generally viewed as disrespectful towards both the readers and their books of choice. (I went to my reading tribe on Twitter when this phrase was dropped and yes, they confirmed this general take on this phrase).

Skipping to the end of the slides, in a nutshell, the new promise of librarianship is access; knowledge; environment; motivation. It’s rejecting the “deficit model” (IE, see above for remediation where we are filling a need, that is, a deficit); reject the “consumer model”; and instead have a model of participation.

Reading wasn’t really included in this future. The tools and inspiration are in the speech for me to daydream of future ways; the vibrant book blogging community, and book Twitter community, is already illustrative of how reading and readers advisory can be about participation. Book matchmaking, the link between the book and the reader isn’t a passive process. It includes all that “new librarianship” does. But the only mention I caught that veered towards including readers was that participation means if a person comes in looking for a book, help them create one.

Here’s the thing.

I know some see reading as just passive; as not social; we’re bookworms who like to sit and read. And to an extent that is true — because it’s what we want.

We want to read a book, not write one.

Passivity is not true to the extent that we talk about what we read; we interpret what we read; we share and discuss in person and on blogs, Twitter, Goodreads, etc.

So, yes, I was disappointed. Disappointed that, even briefly, the potential for including reading culture in the promise of tomorrow wasn’t truly addressed. Yes that readers seemed to not be understood.

For those who also attended that, what are your thoughts?

And for those who see a participatory, creative role for libraries, how do you think reading and readers advisory and readers are included in that future, in a way that isn’t “write a book” instead of “read a book”?

9 thoughts on “Reading and Libraries

  1. Huh. Librarians in person never give me one on one reader’s advisories, but I think of blog reading as self-directed equivelent. The blogs I read are trusted sources of recommendations, and, although my own taste dictates what blogs I read and which reviews intrigue me, this leads to a very nice “if you like x, you will like y” gestalt. Or something like that, without my (questionable) taste being directly at issue….The end result, at any rate, is me checking lots more books out of my library!


  2. Um…that doesn’t sound like a good keynote to me. Frankly, I usually skip the keynotes at conferences. The only one I recall ever enjoying was Gordon Korman. Now if they just got children’s authors to be keynotes at all the conferences…

    I can’t count the number of times a patron has come to me and said “I have bad taste. Help me find a good book!” Poor things, desperate to find a classic to redeem them from ignorance! And then there’s all those furtive moms, clutching their illicit porn…


  3. Charlotte, I’m really glad you’re finding what you want to read, with or without help from librarians (though of course I encourage you to seek help from your friendly local librarian, b/c chances are s/he has at least SOME training in the art of reader’s advisory, or knows someone who has).

    Jennifer, in a lot of ways, it *was* a great keynote: I loved Lankes’ positivity and emphasis on librarians as engagers, builders, & sustainers of community, and I was very happy to hear someone of his caliber shoot down the word “customer” when used in reference to library users. Not that I love “users”, either, but “customer”, to me, is corrosive to the very idea of what public & school libraries are. I am on board with customer service, but when I go to my library, I am not a customer. I am a community member making use of a community resource. Lankes prefers “member”. I like that, and I also like “neighbor”, which is a term used at a small library in my neck of the woods.

    Anyway, my point is that there was a lot more to this keynote than Lankes’ troubling comments about RA & reading culture, and his keynote & work overall are very much worth seeking out. I wonder, in fact, if he was being deliberately provocative. Meaning, maybe HE doesn’t think that RA exists because “people have bad taste” — it’s possible that he said that because he was framing that slide to mirror what he thinks of as old, outdated assumptions about libraries and what we do.

    Regardless, good Reader’s Advisory is a skill built up over years of practice, and it’s a skill that is essential to the community engagement, building & sustaining that Lankes frames as librarianship’s new promise. When I was a children’s & YA librarian in a busy public library, RA was the primary leitmotif of my day, woven through everything I did — as I shelved books, created displays, answered reference questions (in fact, the bulk of our department’s reference questions were RA), selected new items for our collection, put together long-term loan orders from local schools, led programs — and when I was a librarian at a huge public high school, RA was the #1 most successful strategy I employed in building relationships with my 1100+ students and their teachers. Being good at RA gave me credibility with students — I remembered things about THEM and THEIR interests and what THEY cared about, and used that information when recommending books, I sent books they wanted to them in homeroom c/o their teachers, and then later, when I needed to teach them about research, guess what? They took me seriously b/c they knew, as John Green would say, that I saw them complexly, as individuals, not as some faceless group of students. My being a really great reader’s advisor was central to my students’ success as learners.

    TL;DR version: Reader’s advisory is a really important skill, one we Librarians of the Future can & should use to our & our communities’ advantage as we move forward as partners with our members in engaging, building & sustaining the communities we work & live in. Let’s not chuck it out because reading is “old-fashioned”.


  4. What really distanced me from the presentation and the promise was that readers advisory is for “people [who] have bad taste.”

    Not at all shocked that this was said, but very, very sad.

    And I realize libraries are moving towards different models of behavior but to completely forget or shove to the side a large portion of a library’s audience, the reader, seems so flawed. Now I’m just sad.


  5. “Meaning, maybe HE doesn’t think that RA exists because “people have bad taste” — it’s possible that he said that because he was framing that slide to mirror what he thinks of as old, outdated assumptions about libraries and what we do.”

    Yup. I’m afraid I tried to get too cute with that slide. I see readers advisory as important. However, as you said in your great post, it should NOT be about fixing people’s taste. I was trying to point out the dangers of deficiency thinking and I fear that example misfired. I am sorry, I should have done a better job on that.

    Not to say we’ll all agree on everything, but here is a post I did on fiction and reading that at least does a better job on explaining where I am coming from:


  6. Charlotte, I think libraries could learn a lot from blogs about creating a community feel online. The state library conference session on blogging 101 for libraries had a lot of interest from librarians, looking to blog. And there have been some great partnerships with blogs out there; PAYA of course!

    Jennifer, it was a good keynote — its just this area (being a pet area of mine) gets my attention in how its treated or included, so I focused on that in the post, not the 80 percent other part of the keynote.

    Sophie, poor Sophie had to sit next to me during the keynote! And how can I add to that passionate explanation / defense of RA?

    Sarah, thanks for understanding my reaction.

    David, thank you for stopping by & for also for clarifying. And what fun would it be if we all agreed on everything? As long as we can talk with respect (which I think we all did here!) And thanks for the link, also! As you can see the keynote worked in getting me fired up about how RA and reading culture will look in the future!


  7. Speaking of participatory – The Gloucester County Cultural and Heritage Commission 2013 Grant Award information session held at the local community college finished up an hour ago. The group was a mix of libraries and other non-profits from a group providing teen outreach services to a community choir. Organizational representatives shared background experience and designs for where we were headed in the future. It was fun to see a newly formed organization representative accompany a choirmaster out into an ajacent hall to brainstorm grant programming on the spot. It was encouraging to hear the large attendance numbers for local festivals funded during the previous grant period. One representative piped up with “we are not here for ourselves,” which I found very interesting.

    During the grant planning and development phase of the meeting, I shared how the West Deptford Free Public Library use of social media has evolved from YouTube to also include reader’s advisory on Facebook and Pinterest. West Deptford Free Public Library’s American Civil War Pinterest board was not as well received as ideas for stretching library knowledge outreach through Facebook, dedicated web pages and YouTube. Opt-in email list development also was rated highly by the group as a good means of expanding community knowledge. After a long day, I thought it best to share that Tuesday’s NJLA2012 keynote speaker did make some valid points and I thank you, Liz, once again for helping me to remember the details.


  8. Carolyn, I love the way that Pinterest — something visual — is part of readers advisory about books! It so illustrates that reading culture is more than words on a page; and that RA is more than “this book is good so read it”. I very much agree that there are valid points in the keynote, and thanks for sharing some of the real-life community involvement by libraries.


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