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Formal Training Isn’t Enough

On October 21, 2016 the Ontario Public Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory (RA) committee hosted the eleventh annual RA in a Day symposium at the University of Toronto.

I have often gone to this event through the years as an organizer, presenter, or attendee.

This year, I was a last minute stand-in on a panel that was discussing how different library systems train their staff in RA.  My role was to represent training in a rural setting where there is a geographical challenge and branches are mainly staffed by one person.  Haliburton County covers a land mass nearly the size of Prince Edward Island with eight small branches scattered throughout the area.

RA Training: The Questions

I was provided with the four questions that would be asked during the panel discussion.  The questions were:

  1. Please comment on the type of readers’ advisory training you offer in your libraries.  How do you develop your training?  Who delivers it?  Who is the training for?
  2. Libraries often choose to focus training resources on reference rather than readers’ advisory. Can you discuss the role you see readers’ advisory playing in your libraries?  Why have you chosen to invest in training staff to be good readers’ advisors?
  3. What is your biggest challenge in offering readers’ advisory training? How have you overcome it?
  4. As you developed your training, what was your best idea? Why did it work for you and why should others know about implementing it?

RA Training: The Culture

I really struggled with these questions, because even though our library does offer formal and informal RA training, RA goes deeper than that. I came to the conclusion that our library system has an institutional culture of RA.

By this I mean that I think RA has an impact on pretty much all that we do.

Our emphasis is on books and reading, and that extends to our hiring process. Our job ads start in the following way, “As an interested reader you will…” and they go on from there.  Our expectation is that you have to like books and reading or you will be unhappy working with us. Learning how to talk and write about your reading can be developed if you are already invested in it.

I have said before that I believe that RA is the sales and marketing side of library work.  It logically follows that books are our most significant product, our bottom line, and the items that we are selling to our patrons.  Like any other product, books, in whatever form, need promotion. Our measurements of success still rely heavily on how many of those books we circulate every year.

In order for books to move, you have to carefully select and purchase them and then promote them in any way possible.  Your library staff needs to be very comfortable with books; displaying them, talking about them, researching, and writing about them.

RA Training: The Programming

Haliburton Public Library Blog

To create an institutional culture of RA, every employee at our Library has to be committed to a good collection, promoting that collection, and programming around that collection using all the tools available to them.

The influence of RA extends to all our employees, including our courier who knows the reading tastes of different groups within our community.  Discarded Large Type goes to nursing homes and weeded paper backs go to the hospital. She even keeps an eye out for specialty collections from discards and donations for some local collectors.

We do extensive work with our local radio stations.  For the community station we produce a segment called “Library Moments”, which is 95% a vehicle for book promotion.  The production technician at the station was not much of a reader when we started the show more than six years ago, but now after recording us each week, he has started to be interested in what we are promoting, especially memoirs.

This proves to me that even something like the desire to read can be developed from sustained exposure and encouragement.  Research on marketing says that the message needs repetition; the promotion of books is no different.  We promote books on two radio stations and four weekly newspaper publications.  For us, converting one person at a time into a reader is a perfectly acceptable result.  But it also indicates that book promotion produces results and that furthering the development of readers is hard work and happens over time.

The majority of our programming is book based, with story times and book clubs still being the best attended.  Much of our technology programming seems to revolve around downloading books to various devices.

In order for staff to keep up with all the promotion when they don’t see each other and aren’t in a centralized location, we started a blog.  The blog is categorized by activity so staff and the public can easily find items from newspapers, radio, or social media.  The blog acts as an archive for all our media and online activity.

All these things combined result in a very rich offering of RA where all staff are included and participate.  So while we do use formal training though online courses, workshops, and conferences, I think the real key to an overall successful RA program is an institutional culture of RA.

Bessie Sullivan is the CEO of the Haliburton County Public Library. She can be reached at bsullivan [at] Trees and Forests is a column about library issues and ideas.

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