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Thursday, July 3, 2014

Readers Advisory, Leadership, and My Place In It All

Right after ALA Annual every year there is always a big buzz in the library community.  Yes, a huge number of librarians return to their work energized, sharing ideas, and making plans for future programs and services.  But, there is also the business side to the annual meeting and that too can make some waves that ripple out to all librarians whether they went to the conference or not.

ALA is a huge organization that is supposed to represent every single librarian.  Because it cannot possibly do that as one entity, there are also many smaller associations, roundtables and committees to handle specific service populations and library types.  This makes sense.  Yes it is more bureaucracy, but it is needed to get meaningful work done.

Well, I was not at ALA Annual, but something happened in some of the business meetings which I have strong feelings about.  In fact, it has further solidified the strict rules I have placed upon myself as a RA expert to whom many people look to for advice, guidance and training; rules I have slowly been bending in the last two year, but I now know will not budge again for a long time. Rules that mean I will remain only minimally involved with these groups for the near future.

For today’s post I am going to talk about this issue, the strict standards I hold for myself [which can sometimes be to the detriment of my “career advancement,” but are vital to my sanity], and hopefully, start a larger conversation here and in other social media outlets about what is most important about providing RA service.

Let’s begin with Kelly Jensen, a YA librarian who has just recently left a public library job to concentrate on her virtual RA work and free lance writing at her blog Stacked, for Book Riot, and with her new book It Happens: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader. Today on her blog Kelly had a post entitled, “Reader Advocacy, Speaking Up, and Ducking Out: On Quitting The Printz,where she talks about the new rule YALSA voted on which essentially is a gag order to anyone on any of their awards committees.  From her post:

The new policy is indeed a gag order. There's to be no electronic communication about eligible titles -- any YA titles published in 2015 -- at all outside of communication within the committee's work process.
No booklists. No reader's advisory. No talk of book covers.
For some YA librarians, that would mean they cannot do the job they are paid to do, where their job may involve updating social media or other electronic resources that have their name attached -- and this happens regularly as part of many library's desire to be seen as more personable -- with information about books for the sake of their teens. They'd have to go to their boss and say they can't do the job they were hired for for the sake of the award and the secrecy surrounding it.
In my case, that would mean not talking about any 2015 titles at all here on STACKED, no talking about 2015 titles at Book Riot, and no talking about any 2015 titles on Twitter or Tumblr or any other social network. The only time it would be okay to talk about any 2015 YA titles would be in person.
As Roger noted in the comments section of his post linked above, if someone on the committee were approached about writing an article about YA books, they wouldn't be allowed to. If a person on the committee were approached about offering some recent reads that would appeal to a type of reader via their blog or Twitter, they couldn't answer unless it was in person.
"Have someone else do it" sounds great in theory, but it's not always a possibility for many, for any number of reasons. Some librarians have gained their experience through electronic means and many work in rural or small libraries where they are the sole person doing the work of reader's advisory. Where they ARE the expert and expected as part of their job to talk and write about books. Or, they're in places like I am where my professional experience and knowledge has put me in the great position of being able to talk about books and reading online as a job.
When I was elected onto Printz, I spent a long time wondering whether I'd still be able to do my job at Book Riot and not have a massive conflict of interest. If I wasn't reviewing and I weren't promoting my work in conjunction with my position on Printz, it didn't seem like a problem.
But this new policy is an overstep that asks committee members to put their jobs involving talking and/or writing about books and their knowledge about books on hold for a year in exchange for choosing a handful of books to be regarded as "the best." Of course being on Printz or on another award committee is not a right anyone is entitled to; it's a privilege. But it's a privilege that privileges those with the ability to put aside their passion, their enthusiasm, their opportunities, and in some cases, their jobs in order to maintain a shroud of secrecy.
Because of this, I made the decision to quit the Printz committee to which I was elected for next year.
It's more important to me to advocate for readers and the books out there for them than it is for me to spend a year not talking. To spend a year in silence because I don't have an in-person community with which I can talk about books or reading. That, as long-time readers may recall, is why STACKED began in the first place and why it continues to be the blog that it is. It's why I took the job at Book Riot, too: more opportunity to talk about and be passionate for readers and books.
Please read her entire post because it goes into much more detail.  But, I do want to applaud Kelly for standing by her convictions and realizing that being an advocate for books (in her case specifically YA books) is WAY MORE IMPORTANT than being picked to be on a prestigious committee. As much as it feels good to be honored by your peers and to be chosen and/or elected to any of these committees, it is not worth the perceived career advancement to be forced to give up doing the best job you can for it.

What is equally as frustrating about this situation is that Kelly is probably one of the best people to be involved with picking the Printz winner.  She is knowledgeable so would pick a deserving book, but more importantly, she has enthusiasm for spreading a love of YA books and a platform on which to spread the word.  This is a very short sighted decision by YALSA.  It hurts their award and their mission to spread a love of reading.

Now on to why this struck such a cord with me personally.  Yes, it is time for a Becky rant...

 I have talked before about why I blog, but the short version is I blog to help any RA librarian who will ever help a reader find anything to read.  I love being a match maker between people and books they will love so much that I literally can’t stop myself from doing it ALL OF THE TIME.  The blog began as a way for me to keep track of everything I was doing as an RA librarian but it quickly caught on and became useful to others.

Along the way I have been approached MANY times to be on committees or officially write for other resources.  Unlike Kelly, who has made the decision to stop working in a library and focus on being a virtual readers’ advisory, I have made the opposite decision.  I have committed (for 14 years this month) to helping the adult readers of Berwyn.  They are my first concern, especially the older men and women for whom I have become a fixture in their lives.

Every day at the desk I encounter people who I have helped for years as well as some I have never met  Each interaction is an example of why I love my job.  I seek patrons out and offer help before they ask. I want to send everyone home with something they will find wonderful.  And my book club, well, I truly love my book club ladies.  I am so proud of how much they have grown as readers.  I too learn from them every time we meet.  These are things I will not and cannot give up no matter how hectic my life gets.

My second concern is turning out more librarians like myself. I spend a lot of time working with library workers, building their skills, encouraging them to strive for better service.  I want to inspire others to fell the immense joy I get from putting the perfect book in someone’s hands.  I know I am good at my job, but instead of finding satisfaction in that alone, I instead have dedicated myself to making others better at theirs.  I work 1-on-1 with librarians who need some mentoring, I run genre studies, I provide workshops, etc... I do whatever I can to make us all better at RA, including posting daily on this blog.

I write the blog first and foremost for these two reasons: the patrons and other RA library workers.  Since I have made this the mission of my blog, it has meant I have also had to make hard choices about who I will align myself with.  I have many affiliations, but each new agreement I enter into involves me taking a long hard look at my mission and principles before I say yes. I will not do anything that compromises these two main goals.

For example, here are some of the things I AM involved with and why:

  • I have written 2 books for ALA Editions’s RA series. Why? I do it to promote horror.  Librarians as a group aren’t big fans, but readers are.  Someone needs to train the professionals to help the readers.  It is a niche I love to fill. ALA Editions also requires very little of me in terms of restrictions, in fact, quite the opposite, they love that I promote the book and do the horror blog.  They are noting but supportive, offering me help and coupons whenever I have asked.
  • I write for Neal Wyatt’s Reader’s Shelf column in Library Journal, but ONLY 2x a year and ONLY on horror.  Again, like the first bullet point, I do this because horror needs an advocate in the library community, and I have embraced the job.  However, I will not write on any other topic for LJ other than horror. And, I will not write for anyone other than Neal who is a colleague and my book’s editor.
  • I am a member of the ARRT Steering Committee because their mission, “Developing reader advisory skills and promoting reading for pleasure in the Chicago metropolitan area,” is perfectly aligned with my mission. ARRT is also not-for-profit.  I have been paid a few times to present for ARRT, but at a reduced rate and only because I believe so strongly in what we are trying to do.
  • With reservations about conflicts, I did agree to serve on my state library association’s conference committee this year. But I only did this because I was asked by someone I deeply respect and I could serve double duty as an RA expert AND a trustee.  Although I am enjoying this committee, I do not think I will get more involved with the state association due to my conflict issues.
  • I write for NoveList. This one seems like it could cause the biggest conflicts, but it never has.  My library subscribes to NoveList.  I write for them because I know I can help my patrons and librarians all over the country with my articles and readalike information.  Yes, they pay me, but I have complete control over what I write.  I choose the topics, I pick from their lists of what information they need and only write the things that I feel I can do well based on my experience and preferences.  For example, if I don’t write the author description for Joe Hill, who will?  I am the most qualified librarian to do this.  I sometimes feel like it my duty to write for NoveList to make sure the correct information is out there to help match readers wight he best book for them.  
  • Finally, I did agree to be a judge for the Soon to Be Famous Illinois Author Award this year.  As you can see from the many posts I have written about the award, this was a unique circumstance.  We were judging unpublished books and doing it to promote the power of librarians, so I was okay with it.  But even in this lower profile award, conflicts came up that made me uncomfortable.  I am still in the process of helping a book that did not make the finals, but is head and shoulders above all 3 finalists [in my opinion] get published. Maybe someday, I will be able to blog about it all. But this experience did show me that I should not say yes to any other awards committee in the future. So lesson learned: judging unpublished books is fine, published ones, probably not a right fit for me.

Conversely, here are things I do not do, and in many cases, have turned down actual offers:

  • I do not accept non-horror ARCs for review by publishers.  I read what I want, when I want, and almost always check them out from the library with my library card.
  • I do not participate in Library Reads for similar reasons; however, I actively applaud the work of the librarians who do, actively promote their monthly lists, and totally use the lists to help patrons.
  • I have a GoodReads login, but do not keep my reading there.  I use Shelfari instead.  While both are owned by Amazon, Shelfari is less popular so people ignore it.  This serves my purposes well.  On GoodReads I am often hounded to review for people.  On Shelfari, I am left alone to use it as a way to keep track of my reading.  That’s all I want it for.
  • I have not gotten involved with RUSA CODES and all the great work they do for the field of RA.  I am a paying member of RUSA, but you will not ever see me seeking a place on the CODES committee for many of the reasons described in this post.
  • I have turned down multiple requests to write for other library publications. I am flattered by the offers but not only do I not have time to write for more, I am already a little uncomfortable the number of the affiliations I have already.
  • I do not sell advertising on this blog. I do run for free, and as a service to my readers, the Shelf Awareness monthly giveaway, but I have never accepted any of the free books they have offered to me. You can be sure that if I am promoting a site, or a book, or a resource on this blog it is because I thought it was worth your time. No one ever paid me with goods, dollars or services for anything here, EVER.
I have gone out of my way to stay as independent as possible.  It can be a lonely road at times, and I won’t kid you, it can be hard work, and I have almost given it all up a few times over the last 2 years,  but I believe in the patrons and the training of my fellow librarians more than anything else, and these strict, self imposed rules ensure that my convictions are not compromised.

At times, I think others get the impression that I go it alone because I perceive myself as better than everyone else, but this could not be further from the truth.  I love being part of a larger community of RA librarians and I work hard to stay abreast of everything that is going on. I love learning new ideas from others.  I have no hard feelings for those who make different choices than me.  For many it is simply more lucrative to have these partnerships. I am lucky that money does not have to guide my choices.

Along the way this has probably hurt my career, as I have not been as high profile as people like Kelly or even my good friends Joyce Saricks and Rebecca Vnuk, but it has also made me some great friends and allies.  It has made me a better RA librarian. And most importantly, it has made me a happier person.  I don’t want to be Nancy Pearl, I want to be me, Becky who loves matching books and readers and will not rest until every library worker out there can help readers with as much skill and enthusiasm as I can.

And those of you who know me or have met me know that this is a tall order, so I will be at it for quite awhile longer.

Thanks for reading my rant and have a great holiday weekend!


Sonia Reppe said...

Great post!

Sonia Reppe said...

Lots of good points.

Becky said...

Thanks Sonia. See you soon!