Education for Readers’ Advisory Service in Library and Information Science Programs: Challenges and Opportunities

Barry Trott, Editor
Connie Van Fleet, Guest Columnist

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Most frequently, this column looks at potential new directions in readers’ advisory theory and practice, offering tools that readers’ advisors can use in their day to day work as well as expanding the theoretical foundations of that practice. This issue, we step back and take a broader view, looking at the challenges and opportunities that arise in making readers’ advisory services an integral part of library-school education. Connie Van Fleet is a professor at the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Oklahoma. One of her major fields of research is the “interaction of practitioners and educators in the library and information science professions.” She also has a strong interest in readers’ advisory work, and is coauthor of African-American Literature: A Guide to Reading Interests (Libraries Unlimited, 2004). In this column, Van Fleet makes a strong case for the importance of readers’ advisory studies in the curriculum of library and information studies programs, and suggests where both library educators and library practitioners can collaborate more actively to develop a strong foundation of readers’ advisory theory and practice.—Editor

No one who keeps abreast of current trends in libraries and information science can doubt that readers’ advisory is an important service area that is expanding its conceptual base and growing in practice. This is an area of education that is rich in the use of experiential learning pedagogies, critical analysis, and interdisciplinary foundations. Nevertheless, there are special challenges, as well as opportunities, in teaching readers’ advisory. Although individual programs may offer excellent courses of study that prepare librarians to meet the needs of readers, marginalization of this area in schools of library and information studies persists. But the trends of the past several years give rise to cautious optimism.

Two columns that appeared in the winter 2000 issue of RUSQ provide an excellent springboard for a discussion of current issues of education for readers’ advisory. “Time to Turn the Page: Library Education for Readers’ Advisory Services” by Dana Watson and the RUSA CODES Readers’ Advisory Committee examined the content and availability of readers’ advisory–related courses in ALA-accredited programs.1 Duncan Smith contributed “Talking with Readers: A Competency Based Approach to Readers’ Advisory Service,” the first offering in the Readers’ Advisory column, which Danny P. Wallace and I created when we assumed editorship of RUSQ.2

Content and Methods of Readers’ Advisory Courses

The content of readers’ advisory services (and courses) has expanded as we (the readers’ advisory community) explored what actually happens in libraries and found out more about what people want to read. We have moved from offering only genre fiction guidance to offering guidance for leisure reading, including mainstream fiction and nonfiction titles. For teachers of readers’ advisory, life has never been so good. We have an expanded research base and a growing number of resources to support our work. We enjoy active and enthusiastic partnerships with intelligent, lively, and creative librarians.

As Burgin and Shearer point out, readers’ advisory courses that are considered integral to the curriculum are most often associated with individual faculty.3Perhaps this accounts for the enthusiasm for the course that is evident in most syllabi. In any event, these courses reflect the nature of education for a profession, combining a conceptual framework with practical applications. Almost all readers’ advisory courses in MLIS programs are designed to address three levels of learning: knowledge, basic skills and techniques, and attitude.

Faculty usually ground courses in interdisciplinary research, addressing such topics as motivations for and the impact of reading, the social nature of reading, and cultural contexts and implications of stories. Studies of various types of literature (genre, mainstream fiction, and nonfiction) extend beyond familiarity and appeal factors to analysis of underlying themes and literary criticism.

These underlying theories and analyses serve as the foundation for the basic readers’ advisory skill set. Duncan Smith, using a “practice audit” approach to model development in which librarians observed taped interviews of librarians and readers, identifies four areas of competencies: (1) background in fiction and nonfiction, (2) understanding people as readers and readers as people, (3) the appeal of books, and (4) the readers’ advisory transaction.4 These are congruent with the outlines of basic texts frequently used in readers’ advisory courses: Saricks’s classic Readers Advisory Service in the Public Library; Genreflecting, the book whose original publication in 1982 is often credited as the impetus for the readers’ advisory revolution, Saricks’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, and Burgin and Shearer’s The Readers’ Advisor’s Companion.5

Readers’ advisory courses in MLIS programs all address skills for professional practice. Typically, students read in a variety of genres (both fiction and nonfiction), identify appeal factors, and write annotations that demonstrate that ability. Courses, whether face to face or online, generally include opportunities for students to practice talking with colleagues about books. Students may present booktalks, give presentations, create readers’ advisory tools or develop awareness materials such as bookmarks, brochures, or Web sites. Most will learn to guide a book discussion.

Refl ecting the close association of readers’ advisory education with practice, most readers’ advisory courses include assignments that require students to interact directly with readers or readers’ advisors. These may include unobtrusive observations, in which students act as patrons and ask questions of librarians, or shadowing activities, in which students interview readers’ advisors or observe them in action. In some courses, students may interview readers to determine how they think about the reading experience. In my own courses, students conduct a readers’ advisory interview, select materials for the reader, and conduct a second interview to get the reader’s reaction to their selections. They then analyze the exchange to determine what was effective and what aspects of the process they would change.

The growing number of resources is another exciting element of readers’ advisory service. There are a number of fine print sources that are useful to readers’ advisors and enjoyable to readers. The Genreflecting Series, for instance, now includes entries devoted to mainstream and nonfiction materials, as well as those focused on special audiences. In addition to several excellent subscription databases (NoveList from EBSCO, The Online Readers’ Advisor from Libraries Unlimited, among others), there are myriad Web sites to support reading guidance. Despite this, the literature suggests that librarians tend to rely on personal knowledge rather than use readers’ advisory sources.6 Readers’ advisory courses require students to become familiar with a variety of sources, both print and online. Most require comparison and critical analysis of several sources, a practice that not only enhances the students’ working knowledge of the specific sources but also instills a critical approach that will serve them throughout their professional careers.

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