My career in public libraries began as a paraprofessional running an adult literacy program in a rural North Carolina county with an adult illiteracy rate of 30 percent. That work opened my eyes to the potential of public libraries to change lives and launched me on a five-decade-spanning career. In 1980, with a newly minted MSLS, I started my first professional position at the Forsyth County Public Library in Winston-Salem (NC) in what we would now call a job-career information center. That position again affirmed my belief that libraries support people in building the lives they wanted.

In 1982, I became a branch manager running the Kernersville Branch Library. I was often asked by patrons, “Who else writes like my favorite author?” None of the authors that I was being asked about were the ones that I studied as an English major. I was also surprised (shocked is probably a better word) to find that 50 percent of my circulation was adult fiction. While I still got reference questions and requests to help my users with life’s problems, I struggled with the fact that my circulation was driven by genre fiction, the same authors and titles that Dr. Margaret E. Monroe, who founded and refined the concept of adult public library service, referred to as books that “fed an addiction.”

Then a colleague suggested that I read Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984). That book changed my life. Instead of adopting an English department standard and applying it to romance fiction, Radway studied how romance readers decided what made a book “good.” Her work helped me realize that the value of reading does not lie exclusively in the book. The true value of reading comes from what the reader does with the book. The reader is engaged in a creative act that is equal to the act of the author. In fact, every reader rewrites every book they read. A reader takes the author’s work and makes it their own. It is the act of weaving the author’s yarn into the fabric of the reader’s life that makes a book matter.

I am a big fan of Dr. Monroe and her work, attitudes about popular fiction aside. I am also fortunate to be able to call individuals like Joyce Saricks, Dr. Mary K. Chelton, Nancy Pearl, the late Dr. Catherine Sheldrick Ross, and many other readers’ advisory champions colleagues and friends. My relationships with them have been one long unending conversation about books, the pleasures they bring, and the differences they make in the lives of readers.

Some of you may have attended one of the readers’ advisory workshops I conducted over the years. In those sessions, I played videos of a reader talking about a book they read and enjoyed. Then we evaluated a reader’s reactions to suggested titles. You may have read one of the articles that I have written about readers’ advisory service or the impact of reading on lives. Telling Stories (Booklist, June 1, 2019) is one where I explore the enduring themes and connections between one reader’s life and the books she reads over the span of 30 years. Many of you may or may not know that the idea for NoveList grew out of workshop participants asking for a database to help them do this important work.

I want to thank my colleagues at Learn with NoveList for giving me the opportunity to work with them on my new course, Deep-Dive Into Building Relationships with Readers. Developing this course allowed me to spend time with readers in a way that I have not been able to for several years.  The work we did with Emily, Mark, Alice, and Cesar not only gave me a chance to brush up on my readers’ advisory skills but extended my thinking about what our work is about. 

In this course, learners will advance their readers’ advisory skills by learning how to assess a reader’s interests, evaluate titles suggested to a reader, and review the reader’s reaction to these titles. Then, learners will get the chance to practice their new skills through real-world experience by suggesting titles for real readers. You’ll leave the course with five readers’ advisory goals you should strive to meet in every conversation with a reader. And you’ll learn how to create a lasting connection and relationship between your organization and your community based on the value you provide to readers. And if you enroll now, you’ll be invited to a live, interactive session on May 2, 2023, at 2 p.m. ET with me!

Readers’ advisory service is much more than putting a book in someone’s hands.  It is about a conversation that helps both the reader and the book expert explore the relationships that exist between books, readers, the library, us, and ourselves. Working with these readers has renewed my faith in the value of the work you do every day. I hope Deep-Dive Into Building Relationships with Readers does the same for you.

Deep-Dive Into Building Relationships with Readers

Conversations are the heart of connecting readers to the books they want and need. These conversations can be one of the most rewarding parts of your work... or one of the most challenging! NoveList co-founder Duncan Smith shares his time-tested readers’ advisory methods, the goals to strive for in every conversation with a reader, and how to create a lasting connection between your organization and your community based on the value you provide to readers.

Duncan Smith is the founder of NoveList and currently serves as EBSCO Information Service’s Chief Strategist for Public Libraries. He is reading Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen, From Strength to Strength by Arthur C. Brooks, and Abide by Jake Adam York.