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Readers' Advisory

Four RA strategies to promote new voices and inclusion

By Kat Drennan-Scace

Librarians pride ourselves on being gateways, not gatekeepers; we aim to help our communities discover new information, new voices and new opinions. We also want our communities to see themselves reflected in the books, movies and music they encounter in our spaces. How can we use reader’s advisory to ensure that our communities feel seen, and how can we help people in our communities discover new voices and cultures? Here are four strategies: Policy review, merchandising, book list creation, and handselling.

1.  Look at your policies
In most things, it helps to start with checking policies to make sure your library is supporting diversity in collections before even getting  into how to promote those items. Does your collection policy explicitly state that it aims to collect a diverse selection of books that reflect your diverse community interests? Does your collection policy state that if a community member requests a book to be removed, it will not remove books based on the race, religion, sexuality or nationality of the author? If you have a merchandising policy, does it include diversity? There are lots of great collection policies out there but see Vancouver Public Library’s Collection Policy for some ideas.

2.  Merchandising
When I go into a bookshop or library and they have a great Valentine’s Day display I’m checking to see if queer romances are being featured. On Family Day displays, I’m looking for same-sex parents being represented. 

On Great YA Fantasy Read displays, I’m looking for great fantasy with queer protagonists; like The Afterward by E. K. Johnston, for example. My heart shines in June when Pride displays light up bookstores and libraries but to be honest, I never stop looking for representation in the other 11 months of the year, and I don’t think I’m alone in this.

February being Black History Month and May being Asian Heritage Month does not mean that displays honouring these different cultures and heritages can’t be displayed any other month.

We know that displays are generally not for displaying the James Pattersons of the world – ur library patrons can find him just fine. Instead, displays are meant for discovery, exploration, or for a moment of serendipity when a customer finds something they wouldn’t have noticed or paid attention to before. Try including a diverse range of experiences in your displays for your customers to discover.

No display space? No problem. Use cue-card sized booktalkers to highlight books in the stacks (see the We Need Diverse Books toolkit for great examples) or use Staff Picks sticky notes on covers, as we do here at the Hamilton Public Library.

Some ideas for displays that include diverse titles:

  • It
  • Can
  • Be
  • Literally
  • Anything
  • Have fun

3.  Book lists
We all know that libraries love lists. In a session at the American Library Association conference,  the Edmonton Public Library talked about local celebrities who made lists of their favourite books for the library to share. I really like the idea of reaching out to community leaders and well known folks in your community to recommend some great reads, but at the same time, I recognize the amount of emotional labour that putting together a list of great reads, can require—particularly if those books are about a personal topic like disability or race. Don’t be discouraged if the answer isn’t a yes, or if it’s a ‘yes but’.

I went to EPL’s site recently to see if I could track these recommendations down again and found a blog post by their Executive Director of Customer Experience, Tina Thomas, about BLM resources in which she also talks about her own experiences with racial oppression. Asking staff to share their experiences with oppression is a lot to put on someone and while some staff will be willing, maybe even excited to share their experiences and resources, it’s not for everyone.  However, it can be very effective in promoting diversity in general, or of your library staff.

As library staff, there are a lot of resources at our fingertips already and while book lists made by your community can be awesome and unique, there are a lot of book lists out there already that you have most likely already come across (far too many to list here). Make these available to your library community in print or online format and watch the titles on those lists circulate

4.  Handselling
When thinking of Reader’s Advisory, most of us think of an interaction at the circulation desk or in the stacks where staff members hand a patron an item that they might be interested in based on what the patron has enjoyed before . Sometimes, the item that first springs to mind when we’re asked for a recommendation is something that we ourselves have read. Just like how we try to read outside our genre comfort zone to give better recommendations, I would encourage you to read outside your identity as well. Not only does this build empathy, but it also makes you able to recommend more diverse materials.

I would also encourage you to not be afraid to recommend something you haven’t read. Have some recommendations ready (maybe from those lists you looked up earlier) for your usual reader’s advisory questions you get from your community; for instance, Alexander McCall Smith fans may also like Vaseem Khan’s Baby Ganesh Agency books for instance. 

If you’ve been putting diverse books on your displays, walk over to your display for inspiration or pull out one of those handy lists that you’ve already printed.

If you can’t think of anything in the moment, that’s okay. That’s why we have tools like Novelist and great websites like We Need Diverse Books to help fill in our gaps.

I’m aware that nothing I’ve written above is groundbreaking. I am not aiming for an “aha!” moment, but rather hoping to plant the seed of highlighting underrepresented voices in your collection. I want this to be the niggling thought at the back of your mind when you’re pulling books for your display that makes you wonder whose voices aren’t being heard. Let’s make the books that we recommend as diverse as the communities we serve.

Pride photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash
List photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Kat Drennan-Scace is a branch manager at the Hamilton Public Library.

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