Redefining and Redesigning the Practice of the Reader’s Advisory

**Disclaimer-While I have my MLS, I am not currently a librarian. I’m a PhD student in Rhetoric and I’m a graduate research assistant in the TWU library, where I’ve worked for 5 years. I also happen to be taking a library school class as an elective. These posts are part of a weekly reading response. I am not speaking as a library expert. I’m speaking as a student and observer.**

When you act in the capacity of reader’s advisory, are you aware of your own implicit biases and how they can affect the recommendations you make, especially when it comes to young readers? Do you understand that, for young readers, your position as librarian gives you assumed authority? And, after self-reflection, if you realize that you could possibly do better, will you?

This week’s readings focused on inclusive programs and services, including reader’s advisory services. All of the articles came at services from a different direction, but “Gender and Sexuality, Self-Identity, and Libraries: Readers’ Advisory as a Technique for Creative (Dis)Assembly” by Michael M. Widdersheim and Melissa McCleary was especially enlightening. Widdersheim and McCleary break down the process of reader’s advisory services in libraries, and how they can often be problematic. The reasons for this are many and varied but the authors point out that the inherent problem lies in the fact that:

“…libraries define who is literate, who is underage, who is responsible, who is transient, who is eligible, and who is recalcitrant. Through the materials they house and circulate and the services they offer, libraries also confirm and identify who is straight, who is deviant, who is a girl. Through the reading practices they promote, libraries multiply the encounters of bodies with the disciplines that structure and regulate them (Chartier, 1989). (720)

Widdersheim, M. M., & McCleary, M. A. (2016). Gender and Sexuality, Self-Identity, and Libraries: Readers’ Advisory as a Technique for Creative (Dis)Assembly. Library Trends, 64(4), 714–740. https://doi.org/10.1353/lib.2016.0017

Libraries exist in a unique place in our culture and they have the ability to set cultural standards simply by the books that they offer and display, and the ways in which they speak with their patrons about their reading choices. Due to the implied authority of librarians, young readers especially will be influenced by the suggestions that are being made. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. It really just depends on the librarian.

I know there are many librarians who like to believe that the library is a neutral and apolitical place and many librarians like to believe that they too are neutral and apolitical when on duty but y’all, that is just not the case. This is a point that I’ve made many times but I still see comments on Twitter about librarians being guardians of privacy and the right to read and that is dangerous magical thinking. Librarians are just people, y’all.

Another issue that the authors discuss is within the development of “special collections” and how they are presented to marginalized groups. They make the very good point that:

…the approaches isolate nondominant groups as requiring special needs but do little or nothing to subvert hegemonic cultural practices in the dominant culture…The point is that a critical advisory approach should not only meet the needs of special groups but also disrupt oppressive practices perpetuated by dominant groups. (726)

Widdersheim, M. M., & McCleary, M. A. (2016). Gender and Sexuality, Self-Identity, and Libraries: Readers’ Advisory as a Technique for Creative (Dis)Assembly. Library Trends, 64(4), 714–740. https://doi.org/10.1353/lib.2016.0017

Essentially, if we consciously begin crafting a special collection for queer kids but we only suggest the books in that collection to the kids who specifically request books about queer kids, and don’t offer them as valid reading material to kids who have not made inquiries about books with queer kids, we’re participating in the process of marginalization, indirectly or not. In order for queerness to become an open and accepted part of society it has to be normalized, and this includes adding books that have queer protagonists to your regular slate of books that you would recommend to any kid.

If a kid comes in and only asks for recently released fantasy that’s fun and exciting and you just suggest the usual white-cis-hetero fantasy story, you’ve done a disservice to your patron. For the authors this mean utilizing “disjunctional advisory”:

Librarians involved in readers’ advisory to young readers can play a critical role in a disjunctional interaction of creative self-assembly. Rather than give young readers predefined forms of gender and sexuality and expect the readers to function according to those forms, in disjunctional readers’ advisory, librarians supply young readers with a wide range of options, and leave it to the readers to figure out how to construct the puzzle. (729)

Widdersheim, M. M., & McCleary, M. A. (2016). Gender and Sexuality, Self-Identity, and Libraries: Readers’ Advisory as a Technique for Creative (Dis)Assembly. Library Trends, 64(4), 714–740. https://doi.org/10.1353/lib.2016.0017

Simply put, librarians might need to take a deeper look into their own practices when it comes to advising young readers who come to them looking for recommendations. Don’t stop offering the standard titles, but mix it up by throwing in something that can offer them a different perspective and help them to understand society and the world around them. Especially when you consider the fact that the kids that come to you but don’t specify that they want help finding books with queer protags might be wrestling internally with who they are and just aren’t comfortable voicing it to an authority figure. Recommending something a little different might be just what they need to start figuring out who they are.

This Week’s Readings:

Adkins, D., Sandy, H. M., & Bonney, E. N. (2019). Creating Personas on Which to Build Services for Latinx Users: A Proof of Concept. Public Library Quarterly, 38(1), 50–71. https://doi.org/10.1080/01616846.2018.1528573

Cooke, N. A. (2017). Information services to diverse populations. Libraries Unlimited, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC.

Dali, K. (2013). “Ask me what I read”: Readers’ advisory and immigrant adaptation. New Library World, 114(11/12), 507–526. https://doi.org/10.1108/NLW-06-2013-0054

Tewell, E. (2019). Reframing Reference for Marginalized Students: A Participatory Visual Study. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 58(3), 162–176. https://doi.org/10.5860/rusq.58.3.7044

Widdersheim, M. M., & McCleary, M. A. (2016). Gender and Sexuality, Self-Identity, and Libraries: Readers’ Advisory as a Technique for Creative (Dis)Assembly. Library Trends, 64(4), 714–740. https://doi.org/10.1353/lib.2016.0017

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