Friday, July 21, 2006


Dear Esme,

I have a question! I've recently started working in a suburban public library. The branches are staffed mostly by associates - no librarians trained in or dedicated to helping children. My concern: Our customers, young and old, are really culturally diverse - but one thing most have in common is that they don't know how to browse. How do I teach them to find "something that looks good" on a shelf?

I've come up with several possibilities for the inhibition (they're polite, afraid to touch, or overwhelmed by choice) as well as several impossibilities (they're ignorant, bookphobic, or hopeless).

Solutions? 1) I've considered creating a brief scavenger hunt. Like, "Let's find the biggest book on this shelf. The smallest. The prettiest/ugliest. A book for a boy/girl. A book with pictures/no pictures inside. A red/blue/green book." SOMETHING that would get them looking at the trees instead of the forest and encourage them to interact with the books. Unfortunately, though, I don't usually have the luxury of spending enough one-on-one time to do this.

2) In a pinch, I've also tried the quick-and-dirty option often recommended for feeding or dressing toddlers. I pick up 2 books, smile big, and say, "Which of these would you rather read?" But this is more coercive than reader's advisory is probably supposed to be, and I've only done it when Mom/Dad requires a choice and the clock is ticking.

SO: Is there a 30-second solution? How can I encourage a roving reader? Everybody has preferences - how do these translate into considering books?

EJ, Atlanta

P.S. I'm really enjoying your blog!

Dear Gentle Reader,

First of all, kudos to you for the work you do and the efforts you have made. In all walks and strata of life, people are largely unenlightened in regard to the riches of reading, and uninformed as to the protocol that would allow them to make the most of this amazing resource that is the library, creating the special challenge that you describe. I describe a motivation theory, a five-finger test, how to keep book-leveling in perpsective and other things of interest in HOW TO GET YOUR CHILD TO LOVE READING (available at your local library! And will turn your associates into experts), but today I'll focus on a more immediate solution that speaks directly to your needs.

I think your possibilities are insightful, especially the feeling of being overwhelmed. I have often compared being faced with a wall of unfamiliar books as similar to being handed an extensive menu of some exotic, foreign cuisine. You know something on that menu is good, possibly delicious. But how can you choose when you aren't even sure what you're choosing? Maybe you'll order something divine, a delicacy that suits your unique palate! Or, just maybe, you'll unsuspectingly pick something from a part of the animal that shall go unnamed. It's enough to stop anyone in their tracks.

A patron may be set back in motion when they are reminded that they don't have to be so invested in any one choice. I think one approach that you, as professional book-sharer may find helpful is to remember that these are not just patrons but consumers, and, if they are American, they are likely very fervent consumers in other areas of life. I suggest you play into that role, where they may have more confidence. If at all possible, acquire tote baskets from a library supply company like Demco (search using the word "basket," and you'll find browsing baskets, tote baskets and better baskets, all of which are suitable). What this does is suggest to the patron, "take all that you can carry!" Since there are many other "shopping" situations in which the patron may be more familiar or comfortable, they may naturally get the idea that taking more than one book is the norm (children certainly get the hint!), and this is extremely important if they are ever to become avid consumers of books. By choosing books with abandon, they will encounter titles that they might not like as much as they thought they would. This is a good and natural thing: they can develop their own criteria and also see that it's okay, we don't have to choose the perfect book every time, and that indeed they are not expected to judge a book completely by its cover. Choosing more books also means they have a higher chance of encountering books that they do enjoy, and that, of course, will keep them coming back.

The other thing you can subtly (or not so subtly) suggest to the patron is that the shopping spree scanario: if you could go into a store and you could choose anything you'd like, would you really just choose one single thing, or would you go crazy? At the library, hey, it's an endless spree! A library card is like a credit card with no interest rate except maybe overdue fines, and no annual fee, and everything you get with it is free, free, long as you bring it back after a week or two. Work it, patron!

Though it may feel gauche at first making such avaricious comparisons, just remember: for a number of people, books were encountered first (and sometimes only) through the formality of schools. It takes a lot to move folks out of the mindset of books as props in an intellectual setting (to paraphrase from Auntie Mame, "books are sooo decorative!") into reading as part of a lifestyle with which they can identify.


Does anyone have other ideas and suggestions for the author of this letter? I know there are more. Please do share in our comments section. And if you have a question, please e-mail it with the subject heading "Ask Esme" to esmeatripcodotcom. Though I may not answer every question, you know that over time, I'll try!

And for our book-of-the-day, run to the library and check out
CHARLIE COOK'S FAVORITE BOOK by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler (Dial), a story within a story within a story, in which the choices made by an enthusiastic reader are revealed through samples of stories (pirates, dragons, fairy tales, nonfiction, joke books, science fiction, mystery...) seamlessly interlocked with the turning of every page, and brought together in the endpapers, where we see all of the volumes lined up on the shelf. A cheerful book that does offer a dynamic sampling of what adventures may be found as an armchair traveler. (5 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.


Anonymous said...

At our library, there are book lists to help kids browse. One list may be for "Animal Stories" or "Boys in grades 4-6 who like adventure stories" etc. I find this helps get my kids into the stacks.

Anonymous said...

My local library recently remodeled and added display ledges on the walls for displaying the front of books. So, rather than facing row upon row of book spines, the consumer can actually see the beautiful covers of the books the librarians choose to display. You can display books that you think your culturally diverse clientele might enjoy ("Zen Shorts", etc.)

If you don't have ledges, the tops of low bookshelves could be used.

Anonymous said...

Do you have shelving carts out in the public area? My patrons like looking thru what's been just returned to see what's popular. Cuts down on shelving, too! I also like to make themed displays, and keep a display of "oldies but goodies" you may have missed ...maybe with a new laminated cover I've made if the book doesn't have a nice like color.


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