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Monday, March 20, 2017

RA for All Call to Action: Thinking Like a Reader Will Make Your Job Easier

One of the hardest things about proving RA Service is that matching books with readers involves...well...people.

Duh, of course Becky. You need a person to receive the book suggestion in any RA interaction. Yes, I know this, but what I mean is that what makes the RA conversation different from the Reference interaction is that when someone asks a reference question there is generally A correct answer or at least a correct list of resources that can be used to find the answer.

When someone wants a good read, what makes it good to them is completely dependent upon them, their personal reading quirks, their preferences, their past reading experiences, etc... There is nothing CORRECT about how a specific person’s brain works when dealing with personal preferences.

So we can try to use resources like NoveList to match readers with a good read based on readalikes of previously enjoyed books or appeal factors that they tend to enjoy across a list of books or even based on genre preferences, but in the end, what may seem like the perfect reading suggestion on paper turns out to be a total flop with the patron. Even when all signs seem to point toward a winner.

The problem is that too often we try so hard to match a reader with the perfect book based on what we hear the patron tell us that they like that we forget to have them explain more about the titles they know they like so that we can truly understand what they mean. We jump to conclusions based on what we hear them say and what we think we know about all books rather than trying to get inside their brain and understand what they mean when they use terms we think we understand.

Let me explain with some concrete examples.

A Historical Fiction fan: The technical definition of historical fiction is that it is written by an author about a time before their personal experiences, typically 50 years before their birth. So, Longbourn by Jo Baker is Historical Fiction about the era in which Austen’s Pride and Prejudice takes place. But Pride and Prejudice itself is NOT Historical Fiction because it was written by Austen as a commentary on the era in which she was living. It is the “Chick Lit” of its time.

Goodreads Genre Classifications for P&P by users.
However, patrons regularly will say they like Historical Fiction, and when we ask what their favorite Historical Fiction titles are, we hear back....Pride and Prejudice! I can replicate how often this happens with the graphic on the left. Almost 1700 users marked this title as Historical on Goodreads when I just told you technically this is wrong.

But guess what? It doesn’t matter that we are right and the patrons are wrong. What a title’s technical genre classification is does not really matter as we are helping readers. What matters is that we understand how readers classify books in their brains and use that information to help them find a book they will enjoy.

Now I know I just made a bunch of readers mad as they ask me, “Becky, why do you work so hard to make us learn the genre definitions if you are going to turn around and tell us that they don’t matter if a patron thinks of their favorite genre in a way that contradicts the definition?"

Because, the genre definitions and conventions are an important GUIDE for us to start sifting through the large mass of leisure reading options that are available. They are a way to narrow down a place to start. But they are not a replacement for actually listening to our patrons explain why they like the books they like.

So this P&P fan may want to read everything set in that time period no matter the genre and they see anything set in the past as historical. That’s fine. We now know we can look more broadly for suggestions.

Let me give you another example from a genre that I know all too well-- Horror.

As I explain in detail in this post from 2011, I worked for weeks to hone down the perfect definition of horror for my book and it clearly states that there must be a speculative element in the story for it to be capital H- Horror. However, I also recognize that what scares people is a completely subjective thing and many, many readers consider other genres to be horror. I wrote an entire chapter on the topic.

Okay, so what do we do now?

My advice on how to navigate this space between where our professional knowledge and skills do not quite meet up with our readers’ actual preference is to find ways to use the resources to get inside their heads-- in other words-- when helping readers it is best to think like a reader.

As I mentioned above with the Goodreads P&P example, looking on Goodreads and seeing what “genres” the readers mark a title for is very helpful. So every time you look up a favorite book for a patron on Goodreads, take a quick glance at the title’s most popular shelves and consider those genres as places you may want to look for reading suggestions.

Another place to look is Book Riot and their "Riot Recommends" lists [use this link to pull them all up]. Here they pose a question to readers about types of books using natural language AND genre classification by asking them to contribute a favorite title about, for example:

The lists that are created are crowd sourced from reader responses to the questions they had posed. Book Riot is trying to get into readers’ brains with these questions not lecture at them as to what makes a book fit that category. The classification itself is useless without the list of books that readers make from it.

Because I can tell you the technical definition of horror all day, but that will not stop readers on Book Riot or Goodreads from both saying that they overwhelming think Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is Horror  when it is technically not [use the links earlier in this sentence for the proof]. And guess what? ...I don’t care that we contradict each other. If it is Horror to them, then it is Horror to me as I help them find a similar read. Knowing that a reader find this title scary and terrifying AND that they want something similar helps me match that person with his or her next good read. Ignoring this information will only lead to failure. I will make a bad suggestion and the reader will not be satisfied. Now that is horrific.

So remember to learn all you can about genre classifications but also remember that writers don’t write in genre absolutes and neither do readers read in them. Think like a reader. Use reader driven resources to help you get into their brains and see books as they classify them.

The dual impact of your training and your willingness to understand their thought processes will make you an even better practitioner of RA.

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