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February 19, 2008

Today's Librarian: Concierge to Readers

Posted by carol
Today's post is from Nora Rawlinson who recently started a website for collection development and readers advisory librarians called When we decided to do this blog, Nora was one of the first people who I reached out to and asked to become a regular contributor. She has been "my" personal advisor on the library market and over the years she has given me intros to some truly wonderful librarians. You can read Nora's bio here.

I love the movie Sophie's Choice and end up watching it every time it shows up on TV. There are many painful scenes in the movie, but there's one that makes me cringe but it may not be the one you expect. In it, Sophie goes to New York Public Library in search of books by the American poet she's just discovered. Her native language is Polish and she doesn't have the unfamiliar name exactly right. Haltingly, she asks for "Emile Dickens." The imperious, I-have-more-important-things-to-do reference librarian tells her there is no such American poet and waves her in the direction of the English literature collection, assuming she means Charles Dickens.

This is completely counter to the nature of today's librarian, who often will go to great lengths to find exactly the right book for a library customer. I've seen this first hand, back when I worked in a library and today, by lurking on the library listserv, Fiction_L. Librarians go to Fiction_L to get advice from peers on books to recommend, titles that customers want but can only half-remember and to get ideas for the many book clubs they run. I had to stop subscribing to Fiction_L, because the responses from this passionate group began to overwhelm my inbox. Now I just visit the site when I can and always am reminded that there librarians out there who really live up to their position.

Last week, a librarian posted this typical puzzler -- "I've got a patron looking for a book she read as a child. I'd guess twenty-five years ago to give you a time line. She thinks it was about a boy with new neighbors. The neighbor gives him some old, dried up fudge and it causes him to shrink." Within 90 minutes, a librarian from many miles away had correctly identified the title as No Such Thing as a Witch, by Ruth Chew.

There are dozens of such needle-in-the-haystack moments weekly, but the really lively discussions are about reading groups. Requests like "books on Venice that are good for discussion," or "books in which the main character makes a radical change in lifestyle," or "books for a prison reading group" bring a deluge of suggestions.

Because of their enthusiasm for books and reading, librarians organize reading groups, host them in their libraries, and support them in any way possible. Some, like Seattle Public Library have discussion groups not only for adults and teens, but also for families, the visually impaired as well as Spanish- and Chinese-speaking customers. Seattle has such an active program that they have a collection of 400 Book Group titles and keep 24 copies of each on hand, ready for groups to use them. They also have excellent reading group guidelines on their website.

The Williamsburg Regional Library (VA) works with reading groups, but also tailors services for individuals. By filling out a thorough questionnaire (, library card holders create their own "reader profiles." Within a week, they receive customized reading lists from the Williamsburg librarians (note: this service is only available to the library's customers).

I have to admit that there may still be some Sophie's Choice librarians out there. But if you ever run into them, remember that they are not typical. If you have a librarian who works well with you and your book club, we'd love to hear about them. Just post your comment below.