In previous blog entries, I have discussed how librarians fit into the new electronic information world. I have also talked about the need for librarians to embrace change and be open to new ways of doing their job. Mary Chelton’s essay on readers advisory services (RAS), chapter 14 of The Portable MLIS (2008), offers a great example of one way in which the change-friendly librarian and the newly empowered twenty-first century user can come together as a team to create better outcomes for information queries. It is this type of cooperation that truly harnesses the power of libraries to best serve their users.
Chelton’s description of the way RAS used to work sound very much like a traditional tutoring situation. The librarian suggests works that improve the user’s education and knowledge base (2008, p. 159). Of course, whether a particular book contributes to this improvement is left to the librarian’s discretion; it is up to him or her to decide what’s “best” for the reader at this particular development step. The main problem with this system is, of course, that it does not take into account what the reader wants, or even what he or she believes is appropriate. It is very much a top-down system of information control and dissemination. The librarian knows best what type of book the user should be reading.
In today’s customized, collaborative world, a typical user will likely not think much of this approach. Maybe my local librarian might know what’s best for the average person, but I am an individual. I have my own personal tastes and development needs, and no one could possibly know better than me what my own needs are. If this is the way my library’s RAS works, I am likely to avoid it altogether, and find my next book by browsing Amazon.com. If I need someone else’s opinions I can always read the user reviews.
In the face of this insurgency, what should librarians do? We should listen. We should strive to collaborate with the user, find out what she liked about the last book she read, what she thought of the author’s style. We should ask the user what she is looking for in her next reading experience, and use our vast store of knowledge to produce a recommendation that fits the bill. That does not mean we are not to have any opinions about what is best for the user. The key here is collaboration. The reader has an idea about what she ought to read, and so does the librarian. We should work within a system that encourages the mutual sharing of information, so that we optimize the outcome, i.e., the book choice. The reader will benefit by getting the best book choice possible, but the librarian will also benefit: he will have gained another satisfied customer, one more user who thinks of the library as a place where she will find what she is looking for.
Chelton, Mary K. (2008). Readers Advisory Services: How to Help Users Find a “Good Book.” In Haycock, Ken & Sheldon, Brooke E. (Ed.). (2008). The Portable MLIS: Insights from the Experts. (pp. 159-167) Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.