Yesterday my husband passed on this interesting article from the local NPR station's blog about accessing the Chicago Public Library's open data portal to look at circulation and popular titles in real time.
At the BPL, we regularly look at the circ stats for our various genre and format categorizations to see what is most popular with our patrons.
Now I am sure you are thinking, well of course, but this is all helpful from a collection development perspective; it let's me know what I should buy more of and what I should consider weeding. But how is this related to RA and matching readers with their next good read?
Well, let me take this a step further. All of these stats only tell you WHAT your patrons are checking out. They tell you nothing about HOW they felt about the titles. How do we gather this information?
Well, some of it is by talking to readers and asking them WHY they like or don't like a specific author or title, but that only gives us some appeal information from the patrons who already talk to us. I want to know the likes and dislikes of the people (for whatever reason) don't talk to us but still check out books.
Summer reading is our best time to gather precisely what I am talking about. This is when we get the highest number of leisure readers coming through the door. So, we have created an adult summer reading program that has some of the easiest rules around (making patrons happier) but allows us to collect the richest data (making the staff happier).
Our adult summer reading program is simple. We have a theme and we make some fun displays to go with them for those who want to play along, but in reality, all you have to do is read 3 books. Any three books. They don't even have to be checked out of the library. All we ask is that for each set of three books, you fill out the official prize entry form completely. On this quarter sheet page you have to put your name and contact info (in case you win) and the titles of the books you read. We ask you to rate the books on a scale of 1 to 4 (we have boxes you mark and we allow half a box) and then for at least 1 title, tell us what you liked or didn't like about it or write a blurb. Just give us a sentence about the book.
That is it. After you fill out the form, you place it in a box and you are entered into one of the many drawings we have all summer. You can enter as many times as you like.
Now we save every single one of those slips. A staff member goes through them at the end of the summer and enters all of the info into the computer. Each fall, we are able to not only see which books were checkout the the most, but how they were rated by readers and we even get some appeal language from the comment line. This is valuable appeal information.
Since this is our first year doing the Teen summer reading program and we are still new to developing that collection, we are allowing teens to enter for a chance to win with each and every book they read. But for them, they have to give us a blurb for each book by writing it down or posting it on our Facebook wall.
For teens we are letting them enter for a chance to win with every book they read as long as they give us a sentence in writing or on Facebook with what they like about it. And they are doing a great job. Look at what we have posted there already. This is going to help us to build a Teen collection that is responsive to their likes and needs.
So now by using the circ stats and the information we gather from our summer reading program in tandem, we have a more complete picture of what people like a why. But there is even a further step you can take to provide better RA service. Use what you have learned gathering this data in your conversations with readers. Ask questions about why they liked them using terms of appeal that you have heard or seen other patrons use for similar authors or titles.
Let's look at an example from the information we gathered during last year's summer reading program. Like most libraries we learned that Gillian Flynn is one of the most popular authors at our library (remember she came to our library too), but by gathering information as described above, I also know that people like her for the hard edged psychological suspense, the alternating view points, the family drama aspects, and the twists.
Since we gathered this more specific info from readers last summer, I have been able to work this appeal language into my RA conversations with patrons. I specifically ask if they like these points in her writing, or I ask about these appeals in general when talking to readers since I know they are popular appeal terms with our patrons. This has allowed me to be more precise with my reading suggestions to patrons.
For example, for those who say they really loved hard edged psychological suspense I lead to Mo Hayder and Chelsea Cain. For those who like suspense and twists but also enjoyed family drama, Tana French is perfect. And for those who liked it all in Flynn but wanted the violence toned down a notch or two, S.J. Bolton has become my go-to author (with tremendously successful results).
The point here is, you need to see the stats, but you also need to use them to probe for more information. People are checking these books out, but WHY and HOW did they like them. FInd that out and you will feel more confident in your suggestions and have more satisfied patrons to boot.
So ditch the strict rules for summer reading participation and instead of rules, engage your patrons to tell you what they like. Everyone will be much happier in the end.
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