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Monday, May 15, 2017

Call to Action: Allow People To Dislike The Books You Suggest

For today’s Call to Action, I want to remind you of something very important, something that can derail library workers as they begin to help more readers...

If patrons don't like every book you suggested to them, that’s not only okay, it is actually a good thing!

Failure in general teaches you way more than success.  But in particular, why is getting a book suggestion wrong a good thing in our work with leisure readers? Well, honestly, we learn so much more from patrons when they don’t like something. They share much more detail about what they want to read and why when they are talking about what they did not enjoy. Think about yourself. It is much easier to articulate why you disliked a book than why you liked it. And, this information helps us to fine tune future book suggestions.

Take the example from my own reading that I include on my staff reader profile exercise:

Just about every single RA resource [from computers to people] has told me over the years that I should like Outlander, but I don’t. Understanding this nuance as to why I did not like it, has helped me to not only understand how to find better books for myself, but it has also made me more aware of the intricacies in helping readers. It has also allowed me to understand that everyone makes a bad suggestion now and again and no amount of research can stop that from happening because working with people is never predictable.

Now, while failure is both inevitable and leads to more information we can use to help our patrons better, there is actually a larger, more overarching reason why getting a suggestion wrong is helpful. In general, the biggest missing piece in established RA Service in America today is feedback. I know this from my personal experience and from the hundreds of library workers I encounter in my work.

More often that not, we suggest a book or two or three to a patron and we never hear back about how we did. Many times patrons come to us over and over for suggestions without ever letting us know what they have liked or disliked about our suggestions. We can’t even get them to tell us which methods of book discovery we are providing they like the most. Now, over the years, I have worked intensely with a few patrons [I still continue to work with one from my former library, weekly] to get very specific and detailed responses to every book I suggest. This non-scientific research has been time consuming, but I have learned a few things I want to share with you.

The best way we can encourage feedback is to make time and space for conversation at the library.

People are afraid to tell us that they didn’t like the book not because they think we will get it wrong again; no, that is not what is going on at all. I have found that more often than not, they are afraid to tell us we got it wrong because they are worried that we will have hurt feelings and won’t help them anymore.

That’s right, they still want our help when we get it wrong. This fact alone should free you up to accept more failure. They don’t want to lose you, their book discovery tool. They care much less about how much they liked your suggestion than we think they do. Add to this that we, as a group of library workers serving leisure readers, are starved for more feedback and you can begin to see one of our biggest hurdles we have to taking the next step toward more robust RA Service.

So how to stop this vicious cycle and create the space to fail on a suggestion but win at RA Service overall? One of my favorite tools is to make sure every time I suggest a book to a patron that I tell him or her something like, “Based on what you have told me about the books you have enjoyed in the past, this seems like a good option. But, if you aren’t enjoying it, bring it back and let me know. I have thousands of more options. We will find the right book for you. Besides, it’s no skin off my back, I didn’t write it.”

This mix of humor with a gentle reminder that not only do I not mind criticism, but that I have so many more books that I can substitute this one “dud” with, goes a long way toward enraging feedback and creating a space where the RA Conversation can not only live but flourish.

Of course, you don’t have a physical interaction with every patron; therefore, why don’t you start including statements like this on your digital and paper lists and bibliographies, or even stick a note at the end of some of the books. Have a statement like the one above. Something like, “Let us know if you loved this book, hated it, or fell somewhere in between. We want to know so we can help you better!” Have an email address, your phone number, your Facebook page-- multiple places where feedback can be given, but you have to make sure you are letting them know that negative feedback is okay.

When we make the RA conversation-- a truly honest back and forth sharing of ideas and preferences-- our priority and stop making the book we suggest our ultimate goal, then we are encouraging the RA journey. When you encourage the journey it doesn’t matter if your patrons love every book you give them. What begins to matter is HOW they felt about the book-- positively or negatively. Then we learn what our patrons want to read and why-- each one individually and overall as a population we are serving as a whole.

When you encourage the journey and do not put the focus on yourselves [or your employees] to get every suggestion right, you encourage the feedback we all desperately crave.

Now don’t worry about having to force a failure in order to practice this Call to Action; they will come.  The more RA work you do, the more you will get wrong. And, the more you help a specific patron the more he or she will feel comfortable telling you the honest truth about how much they liked or disliked a suggestion.

Get out there and make suggestions. Don’t be afraid of failure; in fact, let the patrons know you might get it wrong and encourage them to come back and work with you more. Let them know how helpful it is for them AND you to have the most feedback-- positive and negative-- possible. It will  help them get access to the perfect book for them and it will help you to help even more readers.

For past Call to Action posts, click here.

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