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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

RA Service Assessment: Step 4-- Start Booktalking....Every Chance You Get

This is Part 4 in my ongoing RA Service Assessment Series. Click here to access the page for the entire series.
With chain book stores closing and independent book stores struggling, more Americans live closer to a public library than a book store. As a result, we are seeing more people turn to their libraries as a book discovery tool.

We all know that public librarians are the local book experts, but patrons sometimes forget this fact or-- even worse-- they think we don’t want to help them.  But we do! You wouldn't be reading this blog if you didn't want to help. How do we let them know we are able and willing to help them discover their next good read? BY BOOKTALKING.

There is great power in sharing a book with someone, one on one.  We can harness that power and energy by improving our book talking skills. With just some quick tips and tricks from me, combined with a steady amount of practice, you too can show your community both in person where the community’s book experts live….at the public library!

But how do you get started?

Look for opportunities. This often involves you getting up and walking around the stacks. This is a great idea in general. Too often we stay sitting at the desk, but it is when we get off our butts and walk through our collecitons that we see the stacks as the patrons do.  Along with looking for people in need of assistance, we also notice overcrowded shelves, messy areas, and we get to experience the joy of the serendipity of finding a random book that we end up loving.  But that’s a whole other post. Back to looking for opportunities.  

You will find you have much more success encountering patrons on their own turf.  They will be more willing to talk to you when you are out from behind the desk.  Whether you realize it or not, we are fairly intimidating when we sit behind our desks-- we hold all the knowledge and power there. Even me, all 5 ft 2 of me, I seem a bit scarier with the authority of the desk between me and the patron. But by moving out from behind the desk and meeting your patrons near the books, especially as they are looking a bit lost or indecisive, you can make the biggest impact.  It may not seem like a big deal to you, but subconsciously, it is less threatening and intrusive to them. And it is here you can take your service to leisure readers up a few notches simply by standing up and walking into the stacks.

But once you stumble upon someone while you are in the stacks, you need to be ready.  Having a go-to opening line is half the battle.  You need to feel comfortable beginning the conversation.  I like to use these lines:
  • “Let me know if you need help finding something to read”
  • “I have lots of great suggestions if you want some help?”
Notice I did not use the more aggressive tactic people at stores use like “Can I help you?” or “Are you looking for something specific?”  Picking books is more personal than buying a new tv. You cannot force yourself into their process, but you can let them know you are there to help if they want it.  Again, since you are in the stacks already, you aren’t only there to help them….even if that was your secret reason for getting up and looking busy in the first place. But there is plenty else you can be doing while you are up. [Again, that's a whole other post] Make yourself look like you are actually in the stacks for a different reason.

If they take you up on your non-confrontational offer, before you start hand selling a book, walk over to the shelf it is on and make sure it is there.  To get people to move I often say, I have a great book in mind, but I don’t want to tell you about it if it isn’t on the shelf.

This brings us to a big point of booktalking in the stacks, often you are just bringing up some of your general sure bet-- or at least wide appeal options. Once you see the book is on the shelf, you need to have a soundbite to describe it quickly.  This way you can gauge interest and tell if the patron is interested or not.  Booktalking in the stacks requires switching gears quickly if you are wrong. You should have a range of books in mind already-- some go to titles in the front of your brain that you can describe quickly-- BEFORE you ventured away from the desk.

The key to successful booktalking in the stacks is to keep the book at the center of the conversation.  And that’s what it is a conversation, back and forth between you and that patron in the stacks among the books.  As you do it more and more, you will develop a style and patter that feels comfortable to you.  When you are comfortable, it will all flow better. Your brain will make connections between titles faster, and the entire interaction will feel like the whole reason you became a librarian in the first place-- talking about books with patrons in the stacks.  There is true power there. You will energize yourself and your patron.

Which leads me to my final tip...be enthusiastic.  This is why you have dedicated your life to serving patrons and sharing great reads...because we know it is not the money.  Remember that.  Don’t be scared.  Be excited to find them a great book that they will love.  Focus on that and not on the fact that your mind will go blank and you will have nothing to say.  You will be surprised by the adrenaline rush and what it can do to power you.

That being said, I will admit here that sometimes you won’t be able to do it.  In these cases, you can always excuse yourself to retreat to a computer and use more of a  traditional behind the desk approach. But even in retreat, the patron will appreciate that you tried.

Now the situation I have outlined here only happens if you create a culture of booktalking at your library-- not only between patrons and staff but between staff members too.

If you are committed to providing better RA service you need to work to create as many opportunities for your staff to booktalk as possible. Here are some of the ways I encourage staff to incorporate book talking into their everyday life at the service desk:

  • Encourage staff to talk to each other while on the desk. They should talk about what they are reading and watching. They can be chatting, but also listening to each other and trying to make connections to other leisure reads or watches. When staff chat with each other about what they are reading, not only do they improve their skills and confidence at book talking, but their chatter serves as an advertisement of your library’s expertise at talking about leisure reading AND your willingness to do so. Patrons will walk up and join the conversations happening between staff members. So let your staff chat!
  • I even go so far as to encourage staff to roam to different departments simply to chat with different people, from different parts of the building, about what they are reading. Then you are creating a culture of book talking at the library. You are also giving yourself more opportunities to practice your book talking skills. But mostly importantly, you connecting with staff members you don’t interact with as much. This builds camaraderie AND allows you to know what genres other staff members are personal experts in- knowledge that will only enrich your patrons’ experience at the library at some future date. Because when you get that question about obscure fan fiction, if you haven’t spent time chatting about books with the entire staff, how will you know about that part time staff member who works in a non public area whose area of interest intersects perfectly with the patron who just came in. You won’t.
  • When you are ready to move onto a patron, enlist the help of a regular. Someone who already comes in and talks to you about what she is reading. Practice a book talking on her. She what she thinks of your suggestions. Take some risks. Let the patron know what you are doing too. My regulars always loved when I told them I needed their help “beta testing” something new.
  • I have helped some libraries set goals for staff and then create friendly competitions. Here is an example: You tell your staff that each week they need to engage at least 5 patrons who DID NOT come to the desk for help in a conversation about their leisure reading needs. Someone else on the staff has to vouch for the interaction happening. But, if you reach 5 you get an extra 30 minutes of break the next week. You can ratchet it up a notch and have a competition. The person who gets in the stacks and book talks more than the rest gets an extra hour lunch break.
These are just ideas, the point is that when you start book talking, you recapture the fun of our job. You are being paid to talk about books and spreading the joy of a great read. What could be better?

[Pssst....the answer is....nothing!]

So get out there and start leveraging the power of sharing books to spark energy and enthusiasm for reading among staff and patrons. Booktalk every chance you get. The payoff-- happy staff AND better RA Service to patrons.

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