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A Place for Reader's Advisory Librarians: Interview with SPL's David Wright
By Joan Hutchinson
February 27, 2003

At the Information School, with its emphasis on technology, research, and "content management," it's hard for some of us to keep in mind why we joined the program in the first place: our love of books and working with the public. Is there still a place for us in the librarian profession? I took this question to David Wright, a reader's advisory librarian in the Fiction Department at Seattle Public Library and an occasional iSchool guest lecturer in Nancy Pearl's reader's advisory class. The result was the candid, informative, and very encouraging interview that follows:

You graduated from here in December, 1999. Tell me about your decision to go back to school and get your MLIS.

Like many librarians, I came to this profession the long way 'round. I used to be in theater-got an MFA at UW-was always chasing after the next job and working day jobs to pay the rent...Well, one of my day jobs was as a library technician at the law library at Preston Gates & Ellis...and that evolved into a similar support position with the U.S. Courts Library, where I got my first taste of reference work. And I thought, hey, this is kind of fun, and fairly meaningful, and at least benign if not positively beneficial-let me look into this...I started taking night classes at what was then the Library School in Suzallo, and within a few months I started working as a student librarian for the Capitol Hill Branch of Seattle Public Library. That was it-I fell in love with this work. On my first day solo, I had people humming Mozart tunes for me to identify and a woman asking for a picture of what I later learned was called "canine coital lock" for a tattoo, and every other thing from every direction. I worked as a student librarian for two years while I continued as a library technician during the days, and took classes on nights and weekends-it was a very busy time, and yet...I always felt energized arriving at the public library for my shift, and I took that as a good sign.

Was there any coursework that particularly helped in your present job?

I took some classes from practitioners, some very good, some not so. I'll just wade into the controversy here-I was very critical about many of the changes that took place when we became the iSchool. I admire Mike Eisenberg and just about everything he's done for the school, but as a public librarian I remain unimpressed by the iSchool's commitment to the work and future of public libraries, as reflected in things like core courses and professorships-the service professions remain a poor relation in the department's budgetary priorities. Not that I want to pick a fight. It can be great having classes taught by practitioners in the field, and my favorite classes at UW were all taught by people I now work with at SPL...The student librarian experience was hands-down the best part of my schooling-I was very sad to learn that we've had to curtail that at SPL, and I hope we bring it back when our budget will support it..

So, what's a typical day on the job for a reader's advisory librarian?

On any given day I might be weeding the collection, assisting readers who come in searching for a particular book, or just looking for something they're going to like...assembling a customized book list for a patron or a more general book list for us to publish, setting up or stocking a book display, participating in a discussion group, assisting a member of a book group, lots and lots of other things. I get to participate in a poetry group we have that meets every Tuesday at noon, and that is a great time...The most important thing I do is simply giving good public service...Of course it's important to know how to find stuff, but all of that doesn't mean a thing if you don't enjoy talking to people and sharing their enthusiasms...

A while back you told me that people in your department were reading and discussing books from genres outside their usual interests. Has this been useful?

Genre study is one way of helping staff become more proficient at talking about books...For example, in the Fiction Department we did a study of the Romance genre, and everyone who participated in that read various kinds of romance: contemporary, historical, regency, paranormal, ethnic, young adult, and romantic suspense. That was invaluable to me, as I don't normally read romances. A suspense study that I've lead with PSRAR (The Puget Sound Reader's Advisory Roundtable) and will be doing at SPL includes softer suspense like Mary Higgins Clark, hard-edged suspense and noir, legal and medical thrillers, and different kinds of political and espionage novels. Doing a genre study won't make you an expert in any genre, but if you do it enough, you get toeholds all over the fictional map.

Aside from participating in an organized genre study, readers' advisors need to read all kinds of fiction. Reader's advisory is not about what you-the librarian-likes, but about what your patrons like. If you have lots of Horror fans that use your library, then you'll need to be dipping into the ghosts and gore, whether you like it or not. But it isn't a chore. One of the best parts of this job is the obligation to read and enjoy a wide range of popular fiction. "Gee-I'd really like to read this bone-dry article on retrieval systems, but I ought to get a few submarine thrillers under my belt first."

What are reader's advisory librarians around the country doing? Is there an active network?

Public libraries all around the country have been getting wise to the importance of reader's advisory, but the capitol of the RA world is still the Midwest in general, and Illinois in particular. Most of the big names in RA are there, and they have been doing great networking throughout that region for decades, with groups like the Adult Reader's Roundtable. Here in the Northwest we've been working to get a similar group going for a number of years (the above-mentioned PSRAR). Four times a year, reader's advisory librarians from around the region get together to do training and exchange ideas. Recently I was invited to be an inaugural member of PLA's Reader's Advisory Committee. We met for the first time at ALA midwinter this year, and it is hoped that we'll be doing some programming at PLA in 2006.

I am an active member of Fiction_L, the Reader's Advisory listserv, which is a great resource for people doing this work. I also belong to SF-Lit, Dorothy_L (a mystery listserv), Romance Reader's Anonymous, and other listservs. Hundreds of librarians around the country help each other out via these networks, suggesting readalikes or identifying hard-to-find titles that patrons have been seeking for years and years...Reader's advisory really thrives on this kind of sharing both within and between institutions-the collective mind is a valuable approach for questions that don't resolve into a single factual answer, but rather a range of choices.

What's the career outlook for RA librarians?

The whole reader's advisory renaissance came about in part because of a growing awareness that much of the reference work that librarians have done in the past is being steadily chipped away by the Internet. Not to overstate the case-there are still plenty of things that a good librarian can do for even the savviest online searcher...But more and more people don't need to ask us what the height of Mt. Kilimanjaro is anymore, or get us to reserve books for them, and that used to be a big part of our business. So librarians have been casting about for things that help justify our continued existence-and there it is, staring them in the face. The vast majority of people who walk through the library doors, or dial in to the catalog, are coming to us for a good story...Think about it-if our libraries just provided reference, with no kids' books or fiction-how many branch libraries do you think the public would support?...On the other hand, we could probably eliminate the reference desk altogether, and still have people flocking to their neighborhood library.

I don't mean to knock reference work-I love reference work-I totally understand and share that badger instinct, and it is a hugely important and useful service. But for way too long librarians and library schools seeking some kind of scientific legitimacy have ignored the human side of our profession. Now that tide is turning. More research is being done on how we read, what we read, why we read. Story is fundamental to our lives-to how we think about our existence, how we construct meaning, how we get through the day...

Reader's advisory is definitely a growth field right now-it is in vogue-witness the boom in reader's advisory publications...And reader's advisory is showing up in job descriptions and mission statements all over the place. But even if and when the current fashionableness of RA fades, the actual ability to do basic reader's advisory-to reach out and take an interest in people's reading lives and make your library a part of the greater community of readers-that will remain a vital skill for librarians to create living, breathing libraries-libraries that will survive regardless of what technology does.

What is the role of developing technology in reader's advisory? If people can search databases like Novelist, will they still need librarians?

No, technology will not replace reader's advisory librarians. Not that there aren't lots of interesting and useful online and print tools coming out that really help with this work. The Novelist database has been adding features and refinements over the years, and has become quite handy for tracking down hard-to-find titles, the kind of literary detective work we do a lot of, as well as identifying similar books...I'm a big proponent of using all the tools you can get your hands on...But in truth the kinds of things that a reader's advisor is looking for are more complex than what goes on in a reference interview. Reference is all about subject-we look for things "about" things, and there is a long tradition of indexing, classification, and cataloging that assists in that. Reader's advisory isn't about subject-or rarely is. It is about character depth, pace, tone, setting, outlook, language, and lots of other things...There have been attempts to automate that process, resulting in some interesting and entertaining websites and databases, but there is no reader's advisory machine. There is not a scanner that you can feed a book into and get a printout that says, "Hmmm, menacing and creepy in a nonviolent, psychological way, sort of like Ruth Rendell, but funnier, edgier, and with some profanity-starts slow, but picks up nicely, etc." Ultimately it is that human contribution that tools like Novelist rely upon.... Plus a lot of reader's advisory is about human interaction-having conversations about books-sharing that pleasure (and pain) person to person. That won't go away-people need that, and that is what will keep people coming to libraries even when that distant day comes when everyone truly does have online access.

Can people really learn how to do reader's advisory, or is it a God-given talent?

It's a God-given talent. (Just kidding.) There are some extraordinary reader's advisors out there-Nancy Pearl is a great example. She has done a lot for this profession...But it is easy for the rest of us mortals to get a bit intimidated by such stellar performers... Reader's advisory is something that everyone can do, and can learn to do much better. I'm not saying it is easy-in my view it is more challenging than reference. But you can definitely learn how to do it.

Does adult reader's advisory have a place outside of the Fiction Department of libraries?

While most public librarians can use reader's advisory, I'm not as sure about subject specialists in academic and special libraries. Mary Whisner at the UW Law Library did a neat article on reader's advisory in law libraries ("Good Reads in the Law Library?" Law Library Journal. Summer 2001, 517-523). I certainly think anyone dealing...with nonfiction subjects in a public library benefits from knowing some things about reader's advisory. Sometimes you'll be doing a reference interview, and you'll find you're having a tough time-that the question, the subject that you're looking for, just won't jell properly. At those times it is useful to remember that the patron might not be looking for a subject at all, but just for a good book. "Can you recommend a good history book? I'm interested in WWII, but I'm more interested in something exciting, something that doesn't bog down in details, etc." The subject of nonfiction reader's advisory is starting to get written about-there was a nice article in a recent collection called The Readers' Advisor's Companion (Shearer, Kenneth D., and Robert Burgin. Libraries Unlimited, 2001).

I can't let you get away without asking the fun stuff. What are you reading? What were your favorite reads of the past year? In general, what are your reading interests?

I've always been fickle in my reading tastes-and working with fiction readers is a way of turning that into a virtue...My all-time favorite books tend to be big old things by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has a special place in my heart. I loved Middlemarch-the sparkling intelligence of Eliot's narration. The best book I read last year was Nabokov's Lolita-just brilliant! I want to read more of him, including his translation of Eugene Onegin. Other stuff I've enjoyed recently was the latest of Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch mysteries-I read much of that excellent series this year-and az novel by Richard Flanagan, Gould's Book of Fish, which is just about indescribable, but hard to forget. Hari Kunzru's The Impressionist was hard not to like, although a bit impersonal for my taste. There was a really good Jazz novel that came out this year called Shackling Water.

I tend to like books that combine elements of genre fiction with some of the style or characterization of literary fiction-a good example of that this year was a book called Violence, Nudity, Adult Content. I also really enjoy more spare stuff, like hardboiled and noir writing by folks like Jim Thompson, Kenneth Fearing, Frederic Brown, Charles Willeford, Raymond Chandler, James Sallis, Chester Himes, etc. Ken Bruen is a good current writer in this area, and John Ridley. I read this just NASTY book by Gary Phillips called The Perpetrators that was a true guilty pleasure, as is Iceberg Slim. I like lost treasures. I've recently been reading a guy named Jim Tully who wrote back in the 30's-a tough guy writer who eschewed crime stories for books about circus life, carnies, etc. John Franklin Bardin, Boris Vian. Writers who like to shock. It is fun working with readers who have adventuresome tastes and look for cutting-edge books-a lot of Capitol Hill patrons are like that. I like spy novels-one of my favorite spy thrillers of all time is a 1939 Geoffrey Household thriller called Rogue Male. Terrific action. Delighted to see the early Eric Ambler titles come back into print as well, riding on the coattails of historical espionage writers like Alan Furst.

I also enjoy poetry, from haiku to rap to epic, and have been reading a fair amount of Greek history and philosophy lately. I read Hamsun's Hunger this year, a book I'm sure I'll return to...I just loved a recent little book called The Emperor's Babe-a bittersweet love story between a teenage Nubian housewife and a Libyan Roman Emperor in Londinium, written in verse.

Wow, I was going to ask you what I should read next. I like history, unrequited love, fires and circuses, and books set in Africa...But I'm afraid your answer will exceed my word limit! So, I'll seek your advice later. Besides, I need to go find a copy of The Perpetrators...

Thanks, David. (By the way, David would like to continue this dialogue with any iSchool students who have further questions about the profession-or maybe just some good book suggestions. His email is

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