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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Form Based RA From a Non-Library Based Perspective-- What We Can Learn

A few days ago I received a forwarded email from my husband with this quiz that promised to answer the question, “What Book Should You Read Next?"

He included the following comment with the message: “Isn’t this what you do for a living?!?”

My first instinct was to be mad and scream at my phone, “What do these random people know about the art of matching readers with books?” [For the record, I was at work, sorting through book donations and did not actually scream out loud, but inside I yellin'.]

But after a few deep breaths, I found a computer so I could properly assess this non-library generated threat to my profession, and a miffed, feeling superior Becky clicked through to the quiz. And do you know what happened...? I learned so much!

Yup that’s right.  I am saying right here that the silly algorithm based quiz that was probably paid for by the publishers to promote their titles taught me something.  And it taught me enough that I felt like it was worth sharing with everyone else.

Here’s what I want to share. First, click through and look at the questions. The quiz provides a very basic version of the RA interview but uses language questions that were not only intuitive but also based in current popular culture.

Compare the quiz to some of the very best libraries who use form based RA online interview questions: Williamsburg Regional Library, Seattle Public Library, Skokie Public Library. I love these services, share them with libraries to encourage them to adopt similar ones, and am actively working toward instituting a service based on these at my library.

But stop the presses! Where is the fun in filling out these forms? Where is the natural conversational tone that we certainly have when working with people at the service desk.  I mean, I totally ask about television shows and movies when working with a reader in front of me, but I don’t see that showing up in form based RA at libraries with any regularity.  Similarly, I often ask where my patrons will be doing their reading, as the quiz does, but not in form based.

Here’s the heart of the issue: we often get so caught up in our library world and theory that we forget we are helping people who live outside the library world and firmly in the real world.  We ask questions about appeal and genre and pacing.  We try to do it in a conversation manner, and we do, but it is still from a more esoteric starting point-- especially when we make the transition from in-person RA to form based.

And every more freakily, I filled out the quiz and it told me I should read The Diner, a book on my to-read list! Here’s what it said for why the algorithm picked it for me:
Hey there, Queen of Darkness. You're clearly looking for a creepy thriller that will keep you up past your bedtime. Try Herman Koch's The Dinner. This Dutch best seller is about two couples who meet at a restaurant in the wake of their sons' terrible crime. As the story progresses, you won't know who or what to trust... aside from your own sense that something is very, very wrong.
Wow. It really got me with those lay-person, real world, and very whole collection questions.

Now, that is not to say that this quiz does not have its limitations. It has many. My husband tried it and was intrigued but not as happy.  I also tried to answer the questions as a few of my long time patrons and got mixed results.  Much of this has to do with the fact that there is a limited number of preloaded books that could be the answer while in the public library we have hundreds of thousands of possible choices.  But, still it’s all worth taking a little more seriously than my initial reaction called for.

All of us who work with leisure readers need to learn from this quiz and ones like it.  I think I am going to make it a part of the RA training I do now.  I have already started to incorporate resources and ideas from outside of the library world as a regular part of my training programs, so this is on that natural progression.

If nothing else, let a few patrons take the quiz and see what they think-- about the questions and the answers.

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