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Journaling for Readers’ Advisory

Published onMar 29, 2024
Journaling for Readers’ Advisory
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Readers’ advisory (RA) is one of the trickiest job duties facing library staff. While luck and memory play their parts, library staff can also intentionally cultivate the skills necessary for excellent readers’ advisory service. One method for fostering those skills is reflecting in a journal, turning observations on one’s personal reading into meaningful readers’ advisory in a professional setting.

Note that throughout this article, “reading” stands in for all types of information consumption and “books” as a catch-all for all types of media, including audiobooks, TV and movies, magazines, video games, or music. This list is not exhaustive; any items you might reasonably provide at the library or suggest to patrons fall into these categories.

What Is a Readers’ Advisory Journal?

Reading journals abound. They often instruct users to rank titles, write down favorite quotes, or respond to prompts. What makes a readers’ advisory journal different from these is the intentional inclusion of one’s reflections on appeals, emotion, read-alikes, and suggestions. Reflecting on these elements transforms journaling practice from simple remembering into an exercise that anticipates and improves readers’ advisory interviews in the library.

Why Journal?

The simplest answer to this question is practice. Library staff spend time outside of work reading books, watching movies, playing board games, and debating which House of the Dragon characters will prevail because the book came out so long ago everyone’s forgotten who wins. In their day-to-day lives with friends and family, chances are staff already have these conversations. But in a professional capacity in the stacks, being asked for suggestions can induce a sense of panic. The formality of the transaction underscores the disconnect between personal practice and practical application in the workplace.

So much so that when I conducted my first readers’ advisory interviews in the library, I struggled to remember the title of one single book, much less multiple titles that might help my patrons. I began thinking about how to combat my freeze response and found an answer in Joyce Saricks, who wrote that asking questions about our own reading makes thinking about books and appeals “second nature” as advisors.1

As a single RA provider in a small library, I began a readers’ advisory journal as a scaled-down, manageable adaptation of the database Saricks and team implemented to annotate appeals for their patrons. This journal provides a low-stakes arena for analyzing familiar books to improve future suggestions. The act of writing imparts a sense memory and creates entries to refer back to during RA interviews. (Yes, it is perfectly acceptable to whip out a notebook during an interview!) The RA journal helps me recall details such as titles I’ve recently read; it also helps me identify and remember what’s important for a patron to know about them later.

Diagram depicts a continual cycle of reading, reflecting, and making suggestions.

Continual practice for readers’ advisory.

Before beginning an RA journal, I was missing the critical step that converts reading into meaningful RA for patrons. Through journaling, I developed the habit of reflection, making it one of three legs in a continual practice: Read, Reflect, RA (or in broader terms: Consume, Consider, Connect). To bridge the gap between personal reading and professional RA service, time and attention must be given to reflecting and planning how to communicate the information. Familiarity through constant practice can combat the freeze response and establish the vocabulary of readers’ advisory as second nature, increasing the likelihood of success when faced with an active readers’ advisory interview in the library.

Setup & Reflections

Set up a journal however it feels most comfortable to you: in a physical notebook, in a notes app, or as a Cloud file with cover graphics and an interactive table of contents. There are only two requirements:

  1. Make it something you want to use and absolutely will use. Invest time in creating an incredible digital spread so that you’re less likely to abandon it later, or plaster a notebook with stickers and use colorful pens. Whatever you can do to ensure you use it consistently and often is worth it in the end.

  2. Make your journal accessible at the library so you can refer to it when needed. Integrate RA journaling into your daily or weekly routine. Spend ten minutes journaling each Monday morning, or five following each staff meeting. Keep it within easy reach at the library so that you can refer to it when a patron initiates an RA interview.

Include space in your RA journal for a table of contents, appeal notes, and personal reflections. Use the table of contents as a list of what you’ve read with page numbers for reflections; sometimes the list alone is enough to fuel an RA interview. Using symbols can also help you analyze reading trends and identify gaps in your knowledge.

Invest lots of time researching and taking notes on appeals, the elements that indicate to readers whether a book will match their interests. Appeals act as shorthand for identifying a book’s audience; good appeal notes are good rehearsal for articulating suggestions during an interview and will save time when you reflect. Suggested readings for notetaking include The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction by Neal Wyatt and Joyce Saricks (pacing, characterization, story line, frame/setting, tone, and language/style); NoveList’s The Secret Language of Books: A Guide to Story Elements (illustration and audio); and a video game study by Lee, Clarke, Cho, and Windleharth. 

Notes on relationship fiction and romance genres listing typical tone, story line, setting, characterization, style, and pacing appeals. The notes are colorful, have playful text, and display a personalized character.

Mikayla’s appeal notes on relationship fiction and romance, adapted from The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction.

Refer to your bookmarked appeal notes when you begin writing a reflection to think about how a book fits into a genre or larger landscape. Most of your notes should be adjectives that describe appeals, which are the features readers notice and appreciate as they read. Another handy feature to include in your journal is an adjective bank. The plot will be evident from the dust jacket; what readers are looking for during an interview are the less obvious elements that will make them feel a certain something. Your job as an advisor is to convey how the story is told and whether a reader might enjoy it.2

Personal reflections should be brief and connect titles to other books and other readers. Mine typically include one to three adjectives for each broad appeal; the top three adjectives I would use to handsell this book at the library; brief thoughts and impressions; three read-alikes (or listen/watch/play-alikes); and a suggestion section. Suggestions can be for someone specific (your mom, a particular patron) or a general someone (a fan of a read-alike author). Finally, include a statement: “This book made me feel _____.” This helps convey the emotion of the book when performing readers’ advisory. Reflections can begin during your reading and should be finished as soon as possible after finishing the book so that details are fresh.

Sample Reflection

Title: Our Missing Hearts

Author: Celeste Ng

Appeal/Characteristics [Listed in order of importance. The language, characterization, and story line of this title are more likely to make an impression on potential readers than the frame, tone, or pacing. This order will likely be different across titles.]

  • Language/style: impressionistic, lyrical, richly detailed

  • Characterization: introspective, multiple POVs, compelling

  • Story line: character-driven, issue-oriented, unresolved ending

  • Frame/setting: dystopian, speculative, near-future

  • Tone: emotionally intense, reflective, thought-provoking

  • Pacing: leisurely

  • Top three: impressionistic, introspective, issue-oriented

Genre: literary fiction

Thoughts: Lack of dialogue markings increases emotional/reflective feel. Speculation on current events but will have long-lasting interest.

Read-alikes: The Handmaid’s Tale (dystopian, near-future, thought-provoking); Little Fires Everywhere [show] (issue-oriented, character-driven); Fahrenheit 451 (dystopian, impressionistic)

Suggest to: library staff/booksellers/educators; Atwood/speculative fiction fans; my siblings

This book made me feel: anxious and thoughtful

Growing Your Practice

Use your journal. The more you exercise your appeals vocabulary, match books to other books and readers, and reflect on story elements in a comfortable environment, the more likely you are to be able to use these skills during an active readers’ advisory interview. You can also refer to your journal during an interview to jog your memory.

Use your journal to review more than just books. Patrons now expect recommendations across mediums. Turn to your RA journal when you play a new board game, listen to a new band, or beat the new Assassin’s Creed game, not just when you read. Readers’ advisory for non-books only becomes more natural when you practice talking about non-books.

Use your journal to spot and break patterns. If you notice you’ve classified your last three reads as mysteries, head to the new arrivals shelf and pick up a horror novel. Has it been a while since you’ve read a culturally, religiously, or ability- diverse book? Reach for one. Curate a list of titles at the back that have been suggested to you by friends, colleagues, or patrons, and read one every so often. Break up a reading streak with a documentary or an audiobook. Use your journal to identify your readers’ advisory holes and start filling them.

Finally, don’t let your journal become a victim of your junk drawer. Keep it near you and use it often. Bust it out at staff meetings and try to handsell the latest game you played to your coworkers; compare the appeals and emotions you experienced with theirs. Use your table of contents the next time someone asks what you suggest. Add a list in the back of books you’ve successfully suggested to readers and suggest them again. Embed the continual cycle of Read, Reflect, RA into your daily practice to grow your skills as a readers’ advisor and make more meaningful suggestions for your patrons.

Suggested Reading

Lee, J. H., Clark, R. I., Cho, H., & Windleharth, T. (2017). Understanding appeals of video games for readers’ advisory and recommendation. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 57(2), 127-139. https://doi.org/10.5860/rusq.57.2.6529

NoveList. (2021). The secret language of books: A guide to story elements (2021 expanded ed.). NoveList.

Saricks, J. G. (2005). Readers’ advisory service in the public library (3rd ed.). American Library Association.

Spiteri, L., & Pecoskie, J. (2018). Expanding the scope of affect: Taxonomy construction for emotions, tones, and associations. Journal of Documentation, 74(2), 383-397. https://doi.org/10.1108/jd-02-2017-0026

Spratford, B. (n.d.). RA for All. Raforall.blogspot.com

Wyatt, N., & Saricks, J. Go. (2019). The readers’ advisory guide to genre fiction (3rd ed.). Chicago: ALA Editions.

Mikayla hides behind her stickered RA journal with her glasses and pulled-back hair peeking over the top against a book shelf background.
Mikayla is the Adult & Teen Services Librarian at Liberty Lake Municipal Library and serves as Co-Chair of the Alki Editorial Committee. She’s reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics (dark academia, black-and-white illustrations); watching Our Flag Means Death (dark humor, large cast of characters); and playing Nancy Drew: Shadow at the Water’s Edge (point-and-click, mystery narrative).
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