A Librarian’s Guide to Recommending Books

by Rebecca Harrison

One of the many hats I wear as a public librarian is that of readers’ advisor. Put simply, a readers’ advisor is someone who suggests books to another person—a reading matchmaker of sorts. At first blush, readers’ advisory sounds pretty easy—fun, even. After all, my mental bookcase is jam-packed with beloved titles, acquired over decades of voracious reading. What could be simpler than reaching into my mind and pulling out one of those wonderful books and offering it to a patron?

Unfortunately, this is where a lot of readers’ advisors go astray. Recommending books is not a one size fits all operation. What I love about a book (the prose! the Victorian setting! the empowered female lead!) might completely turn you off. An individual’s reading habits are so deeply personal, and particular, and sometimes nonsensical, that selecting books for a stranger is significantly more challenging than it sounds. If you happen to find yourself receiving requests for book recommendations from your friends or family, I hope this blog post will help you navigate those conversations as gracefully as possible.

When faced with a reader whose tastes differ wildly from my own, I reach into my librarian’s bag of tricks and get to work, starting with the readers’ advisory interview, which, at its heart, is just a conversation about books. It’s also an opportunity for me, the librarian, to actively listen while someone describes the last book they really dug, and what exactly they dug about it.

I teach classes on readers’ advisory to other library staff, and one thing I emphasize is the importance of being completely free of judgment when someone is describing their reading tastes. There truly is a reader for every book, and it’s not up to me—or anyone else—to deem someone’s favorite book less than. I like to use Twilight as an example. For a long time, to admit to liking Twilight was treated as akin to committing serial murder. At my previous library job in Arkansas, I recall staff wagging their heads over the purple prose, the milquetoast heroine, the nonexistent plot. Yet, despite its flaws, Twilight was a bona fide phenomenon. Whether you loved it or hated it, you can’t deny that it resonated with millions of people. As I mentioned before, reading habits are deeply personal, so insulting someone’s favorite book is like insulting their mother. Just don’t do it.

Nancy Pearl, librarian and patron saint of readers’ advisory, developed a concept called the “Four Doors to Reading.” In brief, she posits that readers “fall in love with books” for one of four reasons:

  1. Story—the plot. The sequence of events that unfold on the page. Plot-centric books are often described as “page-turners” or “unputdownable.” We read these books to find out what happens next.
  2. Character—the individuals who dwell inside the pages of a book. The heroine, the villain, the lovable sidekick. If you’ve ever described a character as your “book boyfriend,” character might be your key to falling for a book.
  3. Setting—the world you crawl into when you open the book. Setting-centric books are typified by their intricate worldbuilding. They transport you to another place or time, real or imaginary. We read these books to lose ourselves in another world.
  4. Language—the words used to bring the story, characters, and setting to life. We read these books to savor the prose—the exquisite turns of phrase, the expert dialogue.

There’s a lot more to say on this subject, of course, but identifying a person’s primary “doorway to reading” is a great first step toward figuring out what kind of books they might enjoy.

A final note: I will dare to presume that many of the writers who frequent this blog are also readers, so if you would like a trained readers’ advisor to develop a list of reading suggestions for you, I encourage you to use Tulsa City-County Library’s Your Next Great Read service. Caveat: you must be an active TCCL cardholder to use this service.

Happy reading (and advising!)!

Rebecca Harrison is the manager of Adult Services at the Central Library in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When she’s not at the library, you may find her writing, reading, or marveling over how cute her cats are.

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