Readers’ advisory expert Becky Spratford sounds off on independent bookstores, a parallel-universe Nobel laureate, and how librarians learn to connect you with the books you love.
By Stephen Lovely
You specialize in training library workers to help readers find their next great read. What’s that process like? How do you connect with libraries, and what form does the training take?
The field is known as readers’ advisory, which is a terrible and wonky term for what you said in better natural language: helping library workers help leisure readers find the best book for them.
My company is called “RA for All” because I believe that every staff member who works in a library — whether they are a degree-holding librarian, a clerk, the director, a page, or a maintenance staff member — can and should participate in RA in some way.
We used to teach RA by telling library staff they had to forget what they like to read. We told them that it had to be only about the patron and what they wanted. And we said only the professionally trained staff could handle this. None of this is true.
My trainings are very different. I use my Ten Rules of Basic RA Service to introduce the concept of RA service and to allow staff members to reconnect with a book they love as a reader, not a library worker. I have everyone think of a book that they love and go through its “appeal factors” — like pacing, story, and setting. Then I ask them to give a two-minute book talk to a neighbor about why they like the book — not what happens in it.
And that’s just the start of my training sessions, which range from 60-minute webinars to 7-hour interactive classes.
What sort of things should librarians be considering in their book recommendations to readers?
Number one, the backlist is your best friend! Those of us in the book world are obsessed with new titles. We think we can’t suggest that hot book from last year. But we know way more about all of the books than the average patron does. You think everyone has read Gone Girl? Think again! Seriously, your best suggestions are those books that everyone was talking about one to four years ago. More people haven’t read them yet than have.
Number two, our recommendations should be titles that patrons wouldn’t find on their own. I talk a lot about the need to suggest books that are diverse and inclusive. Reading helps open us up to new perspectives, but people tend to stick with what’s comfortable. Patrons need a nudge to try something new.
Finally, we should convince people to take more than one title home. They might like one or all of them. I remind people that we don’t take it personally if they don’t like the books, because we didn’t write them!
What does the world get wrong about librarians?
How much time do you have? Seriously, like many professions, there are a lot of stereotypes. I think the biggest misconception is that we read all day and hate people.
The type of librarianship I work on — service to patrons at a public desk — is much more of a customer service-oriented job than a book-oriented one. It is all about talking to people and seeing how I can help them. If you don’t like people and just want to read all day, you will not enjoy this line of work.
What book has made the greatest impact on you?
The poetry of Shel Silverstein, particularly Where the Sidewalk Ends. I read that book over 100 times as a kid and many more times with my kids as an adult. I would spend entire days memorizing and reciting the poems. I had a cassette with Mr. Silverstein reading some of the poems that I played and rewound and played again.
I think what captivated me about these poems was the slightly askew worldview, the focus on outsiders, the lyrical language that often veered into the nonsensical, and the hint of darkness under it all. All of those features are still things I love in every book I read now.
What book do you recommend most, and why?
This is a great question, because it changes all of the time. What I look for in a book I can suggest often is a universality in the themes, great characters, a solid pace, a unique twist, and a “sound bite” hook. Here are five titles I have most recently been suggesting everywhere I go, along with my one-sentence sound bite hook.
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones: Imagine your dad had a secret family, and you had a sister you didn’t know about — but she knew about you!
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: What if the Underground Railroad was an actual train?
There There by Tommy Orange: A mosaically told story of the modern urban Native American experience, with many voices telling their stories as the characters and reader head toward a high powwow at the Oakland Coliseum.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: A 20th-century historical family saga, set mostly in Japan, with a family of Korean immigrants.
In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson: The most subtle vampire tale you have ever read hidden inside of a thought provoking, modern western a la Cormac McCarthy.
The book I have suggested the most all-time is probably The Known World by Edward P. Jones. It’s a lyrical historical fiction tale based on the fact that there were black slave owners.
Every single one of these books has won or was nominated for a major award. I bet that there is no one reading this other than me who has read all six. Feel free to use any and all of these suggestions — in a few weeks I will probably have swapped a few out already.
What’s the last great book you read?
I also listen to a lot of audio books. A recent one I absolutely loved was The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar.
What’s your favorite literary genre?
Well, I am the library world’s horror expert. I have literally written the book on it twice, and I am about to start the third edition. I also really enjoy psychological suspense (which is really horror without the supernatural) and literary fiction. I also love novels of place, where the setting is key, no matter the genre.
In fact, this is part of my training programs: I have people think deeper than genre. Most readers are like me in that they don’t only read one genre. So it’s better to think about what the books you enjoy the most have in common beyond genre categories.
What’s your favorite bookstore?
My local bookstore is a branch of Illinois independent bookstore chain Anderson’s Bookshops, but I am also one of those people that frequents the local independent bookstore in just about every town they visit.
Recently, my family stopped at Page & Palette in Fairhope, Alabama. My parents live in Waterbury, Vermont, and I love Bridgeside Books there — and, in nearby Montpelier, Bear Pond Books. When I was in Paris, I made it to Shakespeare and Company, and I once drove through Oxford, Mississippi just to go to Square Books.
Wherever I go, I find the independent bookstore. I chat up the employees. I talk to them about the books I have reviewed for Booklist and try to get them to hand sell my favorites to others. I never stop pushing good books.
What’s the most unique or memorable book request you’ve gotten?
This one is easy, because I use it in just about every training I provide. Once, I was asked by a patron to get her the book for which James Patterson won the Nobel Prize. Now, I could have laughed in her face and told her that James Patterson was never going to win the Nobel Prize, or lectured her on the fact that the Nobel Prize is given for a body of work, not a single title. Instead I blinked hard a few times, took a breath, and dove into her request.
I told her I was pretty sure he didn’t win that award. I then had to figure out if she wanted a Nobel Prize-winning book or a book for which Patterson won a prize. Turns out it was the latter.
And, wouldn’t you know, James Patterson did win a major prize for a book: the Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 1977 for The Thomas Berryman Number. That story always shocks the audience, but it also serves as a reminder that Readers’ Advisory is a nonjudgmental service. We don’t make our patrons feel bad about what they want to read. We help them find a title that they will enjoy.
What big book trends have you seen in the libraries you’ve visited in the past six months?
For a while, I had to convince people that books were our brand, and we should double down on them. Everyone wanted to talk about makerspaces and the like.
I used to have to sell the need for RA training to the bosses. Administrators weren’t convinced that they needed to spend an entire day on RA. Now, they’re finding me and begging me to come.
Libraries are also getting more serious about making interactive and interesting book displays and putting up staff book recommendation shelves. This is a huge shift from two years ago when barely any did.