October 25, 2018
Note: This post is a version of the remarks Danielle recently delivered at the 2018 LibraryReads Unconference.
At a recent Next Library conference David Lankes gave the keynote in which he called for librarians to take a more active role in the world:
"Librarians must play a crucial role in their communities not as neutral providers of access to materials, but as advocates for the towns, universities, and communities we serve."
He finished with this:
"It is time for librarians to leave the safety of our stacks and hit the streets. On the streets with our books and our wireless hubs, we must educate the masses, and energize them into a dialog, and action to advocate for better decisions."
I love that image of “hitting the streets,” although I imagine that many librarians (myself included) find it a slightly terrifying prospect. But here's why I think we must embrace this idea: because just providing access to books is not enough. For books to make an impact, they must first be part of someone’s life. They need to be valued and read.
Readers’ advisory librarians are perfectly positioned to fill the role of advocate. There are many articles extolling the value of reading, which includes helping people become better leaders, better citizens, and better versions of themselves. Librarians already see this value, and we can help others see it too. But how well do we do that now?
Consider the typical readers’ advisory service: it’s currently a passive approach. At our information desks, we wait for people to ask us for help. Even the word "advisor" is revealing: we offer advice. But advice is different than "hitting the streets" and advocacy.
Imagine if we shifted from thinking about readers' advisory to something more like reading advocacy. What if we started hitting the streets, getting out in the world, and talking to people about reading and how it transforms lives? What if we spent more time advocating for the value of reading?
Here are five ways to start:
1. Make reading a priority in your library.
This really begins with the library's strategic plan. Is reading listed as a priority in your strategic plan? Have you included it in position descriptions and objectives so that staff think of it as more than “other duties as assigned?” Do you have positions dedicated to serving the needs of readers? Those kinds of staff provide visibility and leadership for the effort. Reading advocates need to make reading a priority because if we don't prioritize reading, who will?
2. Advocate for keeping the fun in reading.
We can all think back to a book we HAD to read that just wasn’t engaging. For some people that’s what reading feels like all the time. But as reading advocates, we can help change that feeling by helping people discover that they WANT to read. For fun. For pleasure. Because they found something really interesting to them. And we can communicate the value of fun reading to our communities – to as many people as we can, in as many different ways as we can. That's one thing that nearly every librarian I know does really well -- they get excited about books. I have a friend who likes to say that "people will get excited about the things YOU'RE excited about.” Let’s be known as the people who are excited about reading.
3. Use data to better understand your readers.
What do you already know about readers and how can it help you make better decisions in your library? And not just decisions about which books to buy, but also which programs to plan, which book displays to create, which marketing messages to use. All aspects of the library could be informed. What data do you have available to help you get to know readers better? Besides circulation and demographic data, consider analyzing patron acquisition requests, ILL requests, hold requests, form-based RA data, surveys of patron interests, data about which book displays perform well, which books cycle through your book return over and over, and so on. When we get better at understanding our readers, we can better advocate on their behalf.
4. Advocate for individual readers.
“The best book in the world is simply the one you like best” -- this really gets at how personal reading is. Our goal is NOT to guide readers to our favorite books or the books we think are the best, but instead to match them up with the books that are right for them. NoveList is an awesome tool for matching readers with the right books because you can help readers combine story elements and narrow down a list of titles that match their individual interests.
5. Promote your collection.
Unless you let people know what you have in your collection, you run the risk of having a collection that remains unused. So, make sure you are regularly singing the praises of your collection. Some ideas include book newsletters that feature reading recommendations, personalized RA services that match specific titles to individual readers, Lucky Day collections, book tables around town at festivals and events, book delivery services (to senior centers, or to offices), and so on. Notice how many of these ideas involve getting outside the library -- make sure you’re going where the readers are. It’s our job to keep reminding people that the library is there to support and encourage their reading life.
Those are just 5 ideas, and there certainly even more things we can do as reading advocates. But our end goal is this: to make sure that reading is valued in our communities.
As librarians we ALREADY love books and we're ALREADY convinced of the value of reading. Our challenge is to make sure everyone else in our community gets it. How do we do that? We can do that by making sure people have books to read that matter to them, by helping people understand the value of reading, and by letting our communities know that they have an advocate on their side who values reading.
Danielle Borasky is the Vice President of NoveList. Her favorite appeal term is 'character-driven'.