Every Book Its Reader
THE GREAT WHITE WHALE
NEIL HOLLANDS is an adult services librarian, specializing in readers’ advisory, at Williamsburg Regional Library (VA).
Call me Ishmael. Readers’ advisory is a great white whale hunt, with ev- ery reader’s eyes trained on the horizon, searching for the
next great book. We think about it obsessively, sometimes we
find it, but it always remains elusive. Before I go any further, I
should confess that my own attempt at reading Moby-Dick back
in college was unsuccessful. That won’t stop me from using it for
a metaphor, or from suggesting Melville to readers who might
enjoy him. We readers’ advisors are tricksy that way.
My jaw dropped as I read an e-mail from Bill Ott asking me
to write a regular RA column for Booklist. I was to replace Joyce
Saricks, who was putting her considerable focus elsewhere, particularly on the magazine’s audio section, which she edits so ably
in her so-called retirement years. Joyce Saricks, who cowrote
Readers’ Advisory Service in the Public Library, the textbook most
of us used in library school; who helped create the appeal-factor
language around which modern RA is built; who, if you’ve been
paying any attention at all, has been leading us through the steps
of conscientious practice for more than 12 years in her monthly
At Leisure column here in Booklist. And now it’s my turn to see
if I can find something new to add to this grand and important
conversation. No pressure there.
I first met Joyce in Boston at PLA in 2006. It was my first
national library conference. With my mentor and friend Barry
Trott and the rest of my esteemed RA colleagues at Williamsburg
Regional Library, I was there to present
about a revised method of providing service: the reader-profile forms that we use
to create personalized suggestion lists in
our Looking for a Good Book program.
We were finding some real success with
this happy innovation, and it was a joy to
promote it. Lots of great libraries across
the country have built upon and spread that work in the intervening years.
I’d written about the theory behind the reader-profile form
in an article called “Improving the Model for Interactive Readers’ Advisory Service,” published in RUSQ in spring 2006. The
article was meant as an addendum to the standard RA interview,
crafting a method of service that can reach patrons who won’t
engage with us in a face-to-face discussion and that empowers
librarians who are just learning RA, who aren’t yet gifted at the
challenging task of prying reading preferences out of patrons or
elegantly suggesting half-a-dozen books in a short conversation.
It was meant to supplement the work of Joyce Saricks, Duncan
Smith, Nancy Pearl, and other professional heroes, the creators
of the RA renaissance, not to supplant them. I was still nervous
about their reaction.
So when Barry grabbed me in a hotel lobby and casually said,
“You should meet someone,” I was a bit stunned to discover that
“someone” was Joyce Saricks. She pierced me with her best Ahab
stare and said, “I hear you’ve got a problem with how I do read-
ers’ advisory.” I promptly melted into the floor. Part of me is still
floating in Boston Harbor.
The glare turned into a mischievous smile, and before I knew
it, I was walking Boston streets with Joyce on my elbow, engrossed in our own RA interview, talking books and finding
common interests. We’ve been great friends ever since, and a
lunch with her is a highlight of any trip I can make to a national
conference. PLA Boston was a whirlwind of meeting idols like
the reading-theorist Catherine Sheldrick Ross; the denizens of
the back pages of Library Journal and Booklist, Neal Wyatt and
Bill Ott; and the happy spark plug who enlivens every RA-loving
librarian, Kaite Mediatore Stover. Talking in person with these
marvelous book people in locations like the hallowed Boston
Athenaeum made an impression I have carried ever since.
My point is not to throw names like harpoons, although I could
easily prattle on about the passionate people who inspire and influence librarians around the world and, through those librarians,
their patrons. My point is that as you go about the practice of
trying to connect people with the books and other media that will
enliven and enhance their lives, you are not alone. As you take the
Nantucket sleigh ride of each new RA interview or reader’s-profile
response, skimming across the sea of books after hurling the
harpoon of “What are some books that you have enjoyed?” a longboat of theory and experience is beneath your feet. At times we
all feel like we don’t know scrimshaw from ambergris, but there’s
a jolly but ferocious crew engrossed in the hunt. We will happily
make room for you in the boat.
Every Book Its Reader takes its name from Ranganathan’s third
law of library science. Though not aimed originally at readers’
advisory, these five little laws are still a pretty good distillation of
1. Books are for use.
2. Every reader his/her book.
3. Every book its reader.
4. Save the time of the reader.
5. The library is a growing organism.
I hope to use this space to support that practice, to continue
a discussion of stories and how we can best get each of them
into the hands of the readers who will appreciate them and
grow from them.
“Readers’ advisory is a great white whale hunt, with every reader’s eyes trained on the horizon, searching for the next great book.
We think about it obsessively, sometimes we find it, but it always