The broad definition of this is helping readers find what they want by recommending specific titles. In this context it is something that all reference staff does occasionally. Often time’s readers will ask for suggestions on what books to read by a certain author, a particular topic, or in a specific genre (such as mystery, science fiction, or western). It is satisfying to be able to refer the user to a particular title if you are knowledgeable about the writer or subject that is requested.
Readers’ Advisory, however, also refers to a particular service that is usually found in public libraries. The clientele for this service ranges from children to house bound seniors, but is mostly made up of adult fiction readers. The philosophy that Readers’ Advisory is built on is that reading has intrinsic value and that readers are best served by a good collection of knowledgeable staff that are able to guide them in pursuing their interests.
This service was most popular during the first half of the twentieth century. During that period of time libraries were concerned with the educational and therapeutic benefits of prescribed reading. A lot of librarians at that time came to think that their job was to improve the lot of the reader when they saw the need. Librarians made the assumption that they could identify certain personality types and could make the lives of readers better by persuading them to read a few thoughtfully selected titles.
Structured Readers’ Advisory programs started in large urban libraries. The service covered both nonfiction and fiction reading. Advisors met with interested readers and made an outline of a reading plan for them. Classics and other books of perceived educational value were where librarians directed readers. During the end of the 1920s and 1930s the service grew. Increased amount of professionals working in libraries, the increased use of library due to the Great Depression and research on the problems of adult reading all caused this growth of the service. In the 1940s, readers’ advisory services declined as leisure time declined.
Nowadays the service is dramatically different from its moralistic beginnings. There are still readers who want to better themselves through reading, and library staff helps these readers as they would any others. The staff, however, doesn’t prescribe readings to “improve” the reader. Library staff advise borrowers primarily on recreational reading, mostly on fiction. Readers’ advisors try to be familiar with best sellers’ lists and popular perception as well as insight to the reading interests of their patrons.
Databases such as CARL Corporation’s NoveList now help readers’ advisors. These databases are designed to enhance readers’ advisory service. NoveList, for example, is a database of over 60,000 titles with enhanced subject headings, many with narrative descriptions. People can use the database to look up books they have already read and discover like titles and authors. Also, readers and staff can enter words and phrases to describe a book they would like to read and search the database for titles that contain the words or phrases in their subject headings. Databases like this allow readers to examine lists of award-winning literature. Readers’ Advisory is much less structured than it once was. The administration of this service now falls on the reference or circulation department. Readers’ Advisors are not always librarians. They are often paraprofessionals, who can be excellent advisors, especially with the help of electronic assistance.
“Introduction to Library Public Services: Sixth Edition” By G. Edward Evans, Anthony J. Amodeo and Thomas L. Carter