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If Books are Magic, Librarians are Wizards:

Readers' Advisory as Fortune Telling

by Molly Wetta

*This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Kids & Books.*

Good readers’ advisory is like magic. Much like a fortune teller can predict a person’s future based on just a few bits of information, a librarian can ask a patron just a few questions and predict the next book with which a reader will fall in love.

Of course, like all magic, there’s science behind it. Good readers’ advisory is about identifying the appeal factors that make a reader fall in love with a book, such as writing style, setting, pacing or subject matter. But beyond a genre guide or a topical book list, that special, human touch is often the best way to help a reader find the perfect book. Librarians bring magic into the process of matching readers to books.

If books are a “uniquely portable magic” as Stephen King has said, then librarians are wizards. Here are three ways librarians can quite literally show patrons the magic of finding a new book.

Your future is booked!

Looking into a Crystal Ball: Biblioczar Booth

At Lawrence Public Library, a dedicated volunteer built this Biblioczar Booth so that at special occasions and outreach events, librarians could offer readers the opportunity to have their book fortunes read. The booth is about the size of a phone booth (or TARDIS for those who don’t remember phone booths) and has just enough space for an adult to stand in it. The top half of the front panel is clear plexiglass and the back has a curtain to allow easy access. There’s a shelf at higher than waist level where any reference materials or a water bottle can rest.

This booth has been used several times at different events, and was a hit with patrons each time. Our director, Brad Allen, manned the booth at a Final Fridays Art Exhibit event where the library was handing out copies of the book selected for a community-wide reading event. To no one's surprise, the Biblioczar saw that book in everyone’s future.

The Biblioczar has also made appearances at a summer reading kickoff party, where all kinds of community organizations are invited to set up booths in a fair-like setting and offer crafts, games, snacks, and other activities. While initially our Readers’ Services coordinator handed out fortunes, it became clear that most patrons lining up to have their book fortunes told were younger, so the children’s librarians took over, offering book suggestions for readers to try based on their interests. By looking into their crystal ball -- or, iPad with NoveList open in the browser -- they were able to match young readers with their first summer reading selection.

Initially, some staff were a bit intimidated. Practicing beforehand can help staff become more comfortable. Actors, performers, or anyone with a drama background should definitely be part of the team, as children especially enjoyed the more theatrical antics some staff used when predicting their book futures. It definitely helps to have some book lists for reference on hand when matching avid readers to new books or for interpreting the book futures of readers with very specific taste.

To start off, ask simple questions like:

  • "What is the last book you read that you loved" Followed by, “Why did you enjoy it?”
  • "What kind of book are you in the mood for?"
  • "What is your favorite TV show?" Followed by, “Why do you like it?”

All the guidelines of good readers’ advisory interviews still apply. Helping people find their next favorite book is still about identifying what they like and why they like it. Asking open-ended questions can give you the most details to draw from in selecting a book to suggest.

For a different take on the librarian as fortune teller, a “tarot” reading could be given. Rather than a crystal ball, the book fortune teller (aka librarian) could have a set of playing cards, but instead of the seven of hearts or king of spades, a reader could draw a science fiction thriller or a historical mystery. Either way, it’s fun for patrons to see what books might lie in their reading future.

The Magic of Passive Readers’ Advisory

Book fortunes can also work as a passive program, whether low or high-tech. Children will love manipulating “cootie catchers” -- folded paper fortune telling devices popular in elementary and middle schools everywhere. With numbers on the outside and genres on the inside that can be lifted to reveal a book title, these offer numerous configurations for children or teens to use to find the perfect book to fit their mood.

Catch a love of reading with a cootie catcher!

To assemble a paper fortune teller, follow these steps:

  1. Take a square piece of paper (if using copy paper, fold in half diagonally and cut off 'extra' paper strip)
  2. Fold in half horizontally, forming a crease, then return to a square
  3. Fold in half vertically, forming a crease, then return to a square
  4. Fold the corners into the center along the crease lines to form a smaller square
  5. Flip the paper over and fold the corners into the center again to form an even smaller square
  6. Fold the paper in half in either direction in order to make the creases more pronounced
  7. Push the center down as you bring all four corners together to make a three dimensional shape
  8. Add the numbers to the outside flaps, genres on the middle layer, and open up to reveal triangles for the book titles

With just a few folds, a librarian can have a ready-made, passive readers’ advisory tool that is more interactive than a list and makes finding a new book to read fun. These can include options in a variety of genres, as the one pictured, or a several color coded paper fortune tellers can be made that contain many options in a specific genre or further break down a reading list by sub-genres. For example, science fiction-themed paper fortune teller could give options for aliens or time travel, or direct readers to action-packed or romance-heavy reads within the genre. The options are endless. Providing folded paper fortune tellers can give children or teens an opportunity for self-directed readers’ advisory and can introduce readers to new books they might otherwise overlook. These have been popular as part of a Teen Read Week display, but could be a regular fixture with fresh, newly folded fortune tellers added monthly. It would also be a fun project for a book club to make to share their favorite books with their peers.

Magic Meets Technology in Printed Book Fortunes

For a more labor-intensive and technologically savvy version of a fortune teller, librarians can program a simple computer and printer to dispense book fortunes. While this isn’t something we’ve yet done at Lawrence Public Library, it’s on the list of grand schemes to put into action. Scientist turned librarian Jesse Henning of Westerville (Ohio) Public Library has shared instructions for his printed book fortune machine for patrons to use to discover their next read. The British Columbia Library Association Readers’ Advisory Interest Group also shares their experience building a book fortune machine. A library can put their own signature spell on the device to create unique reading recommendations for their patrons with a bit of original coding, or use the files that have generously been shared.

Readers’ advisory services can be delivered through a variety of mechanisms, but the result is always about introducing people to the magic of reading.

Editor's note: Aspiring biblioczar tip: Tap into readers' interests with suggestions from NoveList's For Fans Of…lists and Genre Overviews for teens and older kids.


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Molly Wetta is the YA and Media Selector at Lawrence Public Library in Lawrence, KS, where she wrangles a teen book club and manages the library's Tumblr. She also contributes to YALSA's young adult literature blog, The Hub