When I am in the library, the books I most frequently hear recommended to children are the Dog-Man series and Magic Tree House. If the children protest they have read these series already, the librarians will usually move on to Stick Dog, Wimpy Kid, and Geronimo Stilton. I am always perplexed by these interactions because, well, of course, the children have read all these series. They are incredibly popular series, many of them bestsellers. Recommending a child read “Dog-Man” is akin to saying, “Have you heard of this magical series called Harry Potter?” “What about Percy Jackson?” Well, yes! Who among frequent readers and library users has not?
Now, the first problem with these interactions is undoubtedly that the librarians here have failed to perform a successful reference interview. In theory, when someone asks for a recommendation, the librarian should first ask what kinds of books the person likes. They would thus (hopefully) avoid giving a bunch of recommendations the person has already read. More interesting to me about these interactions is, however, the obvious fact that librarians being questioned really do not know what books they ought to be recommending. They are resorting to Dog-Mag and Magic Tree House precisely because these series are popular. They see the books on the bestseller list and being constantly circulated and so their minds automatically jump to them. They are recommending perhaps some of the only titles they know.
Surprising as it may seem, a number of librarians I have spoken to do not read. Of the children’s librarians who do, many read only adult books, perhaps reading primarily cozy mysteries or historical fiction or some other genre they love. Of course, everyone ought to read what they love. But how can librarians competently perform a central part of their job–readers’ advisory–if they have read none of the books in their collection?
People go to librarians for recommendations because they perceive librarians to be experts in the field. They assume librarians read all the time (an annoying job stereotype is that librarians read all day at work, right?) and thus know how to recommend titles that a search algorithm will not easily pull up. I have heard patrons ask librarians for things like “books with sassy heroines for third graders,” “lyrical picture books good for a read-aloud,” and “books for a preschooler that read on a first-grade level, but have nothing dramatic or scary in them.” An Internet search engine simply is not going to pull up many good results for such specific requests. And so, people turn to librarians, assuming they will the answer. But librarians will not have the answer if they do not read, because these are questions they cannot easily research online, either.
Also common are the readers who have seemingly read everything in the library. After going through what may seem like every fantasy series available, a reader may then ask for more recommendations. These interactions require reader expertise as well because the person asking is seeking to go beyond the obvious titles, the bestsellers, the books everyone has heard of. Libraries are special in many ways because, unlike a big chain bookstore, they tend to purchase and stock midlist titles they think are worthy and somehow add to the collection. They do not fill their shelves only with bestsellers. But, to recommend hidden gems, the librarians will need to have read them. Searching for “popular middle-grade fantasy series” will likely give them results an avid reader has already read.
It seems obvious that librarians need to read the books in their collections, the books they may be recommending to patrons. The problem here is, perhaps, that librarians generally do not read at work and so any reading would have to happen on their own time. In that case, people would, of course, prefer to read the types of books they like–or, in some cases, to read no books at all. To expect librarians to be experts is to expect them to do the work on their own time without recognition or pay.
I do not know what the answer is. Maybe being a reader of certain types of books needs to be in job descriptions. Maybe librarians need to receive some time to read books at work. Maybe librarians at least need to be given time to read professional reviews of books, if they are not going to read the books themselves. But, ultimately, I do think librarians need to be readers. They need to be reading the books they are expected to recommend. Otherwise, they are failing to be experts in their fields–and experts who answer questions the Internet cannot is what the public needs them to be.