You will see those slide shows posted here on RA for All on Tuesday and Thursday, but for today, I want to point out the article I wrote which really solidified my new series of rethink presentations. An edited version recently appeared in the ILA reporter, but I want to give you the draft which is decidedly more ranty.
On a side note, I am developing many RA Rethink, 30ish minute, Call to Action type programs that can be strung together to fit your group’s needs and the time frame. I have 4 completed and 2 more in the works, with a few more planned to be completed by the end of the year. And so far, all are good for all levels of staff who help leisure readers-- from youth to adults.
But that’s coming soon. Today is my call to Let Your Staff Talk!
Making Space for Conversation: Engage and Inspire Staff to Provide Readers’ Advisory and Build a Stronger Library Along the Way
One thing I have learned in my years of being a Readers’ Advisory advocate and educator is that there is a special magic when it comes to RA training because the act of talking about and suggesting leisure reading with patrons brings every library worker back to the reasons they first considered working in a library in the first place-- a love of books. Yes it is a stereotype, but it is one firmly based in fact. Every library worker, no matter his place on the organizational chart or her current job duties, has an origin story that, at some point, can be traced back to a specific book [or books] that captured his or her imagination, producing emotions of pure joy. I prey off of this inherent love of reading and desire to share the books we love with others when I train library workers to improve their RA skills and service. It is one of the secrets to my success.
I understand that under the surface, beneath the doubt, every library worker has it in them to be able to help leisure readers. My job is to simply engage and inspire, bringing those feelings of euphoria, we all felt deep enough at some point to dedicate our working life to libraries, to the surface, and now I will share some of the magic with all of you so that you can also inspire your staff to help match patrons with a great read. There is true power in this simple act. Power for the library worker, who has a moment to remember why they got into this whole library business in the first place, and more importantly to administrators, power in the satisfaction our patrons feel when they were given something they didn’t even know they would love without our help. That is an experience those happy patrons will pass on to their friends, who will pass it on to their friends, and soon, you have a community which treasures and loves its library.
But where does this fairy tale begin? It starts at the library where space is made for conversation. Thankfully this is the type of space that can be carved out for free; no need for architects or building plans here. Rather what you do is create an atmosphere where booktalking-- all over the library-- is encouraged, promoted, and celebrated. But this is easier said than done. I all too frequently come across libraries that do not encourage staff to talk to each other about what they are reading and watching while at the desk. These libraries argue that it is a waste of time and not appropriate. Well, it is time for that attitude to be adjusted and I am here to tell you why and how.
If you want your staff to be proactive in matching patrons with leisure reading and watching items, you need to let them practice so that their skills and confidence can grow. And the best place to start, is to allow staff to chat at their desk, or better yet, encourage them to walk over to other service desks throughout the library and start talking about the last good movie they watched or book they read. Yes, that’s right I am telling you to let your staff wander the building to talk with each other about what they are enjoying in their free time. It sounds fairly radical, but it really is not.
Here is how it works in practice. One of the most difficult rules for new practitioners of RA Service to learn is that you cannot simply suggest your personal favorites to the patrons in front of you. Rather, you need to use what they like and enjoy as a springboard to find them a book that is suited for them. Making this jump, between recommending books you like to suggesting ones that you may not have even read but are fairly confident that the patron in front of you would enjoy, is hard. But, you cannot even get to this intermediate level of service without having the chance to practice talking about books in the first place. So start with yourselves. Talk to each other about what you are reading or watching. What did you like most about it? Or, if it wasn’t so good, that’s okay too. Talk about why you did not enjoy it; there is just as much value in this conversation. Then start talking about what other books, movies, or TV shows it reminded you of? Again focus on the “WHY.” All of this is both fun and educational. You are conversing with co-workers about things you did on your free time, but each conversation builds your RA skills. You become more comfortable articulating the appeal of what you like-- the why. Allowing staff to get up and move between service desks to book talk also ensures that all this chatting does not get stale. You need to switch up who you are talking to, learn their likes and dislikes, and gather a larger variety of perspectives in order to build your skills. It also serves as an inexpensive but very effective team building exercise. Staff will be building connections across departments as they seek each other out to share their last good read. You now have a library culture where talking about leisure reading and watching is encouraged, and everyone has been exposed to more titles because they have heard someone share their love for it passionately. One day that title one staff member shared with another could be passed on to an appreciative patron.
If you create a library atmosphere where book talking is celebrated the magic starts to happen because not only is the staff building their skills, but patrons are hearing them actively and passionately share their leisure reading and watching choices. This serves as an advertisement for your expertise and willingness to match patrons with similar items. Despite the fact that we carry and circulate thousands of books and DVDs that patrons are reading and watching for fun, these same patrons do not think we want to or can help them find more things they may enjoy. They don’t think a leisure request is “important” enough. Well, when you let the staff chat at the desk, you are making it clear that it is important. Patrons begin to join the conversation which initiates more RA conversations, and wasn’t that our goal at the start of this article? I have even been lucky enough to be a part of a library where this atmosphere of book sharing was so pervasive that during RA transactions at the service desk, another patron would interrupt the patron I was helping in order to offer her own suggestions. Look at what making space for conversation can do!
You can hire me to come to your library and train your staff on the mechanics behind matching a patron with the right book for them. I can work through my Ten Rules of Basic RA Service with everyone. I can even walk you through specific exercises to improve your skills, but if the staff isn’t allowed to practice by talking with each other at the service desks, both to improve their skills and to advertise their willingness to engage in these conversations in general, all the good gained by any training will be lost. Talking about books with each other is the first step. Matching items with patrons comes next. When the staff is engaged in the process and inspired by their own joy over the books they love, they will seek out connections with patrons. As they have more positive experiences and feel the rush from a great RA conversation, they will begin to seek out more information and more training which again leads to helping more patrons. All they needed was space to talk. By encouraging staff to talk about books, you have given them the confidence they need to succeed, and now you have a library where the staff are constantly striving to improve their RA skills. I have seen this happen. It is not a dream. Fairy tale library, here you come.
[This is a draft of an article by me. The published version appears here.]