Readers’ Advisory in a Pandemic

Is there anything more desolate to a librarian’s eyes than shelves of books with no one to give them to? Last year, when our schools closed abruptly, I felt cheated. If I had known those students would be blocked from accessing our shelves for the rest of the year, I would have loaded their backpacks with every Wimpy Kid, New Kid and Last Kids on Earth before they walked out the door. 

I spent the following weekend working on a scheme to open a ‘drive-thru’ checkout, but I was told that our district would not take the risk of lending out physical books. Fortunately, we have a vibrant digital collection from Overdrive and my students had been trained in the Sora app and were able to keep up a vigorous book exchange.

As summer and fall rolled in, public and then school libraries found ways to serve their patrons and students. Across the country, some public libraries allowed limited access to pick up holds. Many did, and are still doing, curbside only. Some schools, like mine, opened with a full student-body granted full access to the shelves. Aside from a book quarantine and a generous side of hand sanitizer, it is business as usual, with facemask-to-facemask interactions.  Some had librarians delivering books to classrooms. Some are still dealing with remote school and getting creative with both digital and physical book placements.

The quandary is, if patrons are not allowed to wander the shelves, or turn to their trusted librarian for top-notch recommendations, how do they find what they don’t know they are looking for? How is readers’ advisory done at a distance? How do you honor intellectual freedom ethics if you are not sure of the home you are sending materials to? Do you shy away from content that might be controversial?

Responding to shifting needs

Becki Bishop, an elementary Media Specialist in Virginia, began the year with a hybrid schedule at her school but after four weeks they went totally remote. Initially, while students were still in the building, she reinforced with the older kids how to place holds on Destiny and had them delivered to their classes. They did not visit the library. For grades K – 1, she took a survey of interests and used her personal knowledge of the students, to select books they would enjoy. Now that they are totally remote, they have been able to invest more heavily in eBooks. She posts information regularly in her Canvas courses. She also posts on the school’s social media page, offering suggestions or interesting links she discovers. Some schools in her area have been able to offer drive-thru pickup.

Julia Nephew is a Children’s Services Librarian at Addison Public Library in Addison, Illinois who began offering a “library takeout” curbside pickup option last June. The Curbside Pickup Service is for all ages and allows patrons to request specific titles, or request books that the staff choose for them.  They also offer an online Children’s Book Recommendation. The library also has had very popular themed subscription Book Boxes for over a year.  The box is offered every other month with a new theme. Choosing a book for a patron who does not give much information can be difficult. The Book Box Committee is in the process of editing the Book Boxes registration form to require that patrons choose a G, PG, or R rating. There was some feedback that an adult book was too violent, but the patron did not choose a rating or anything else to guide the librarian in her choice. Two questions have been added that patrons are required to answer: a book they recently read and liked and a book they did NOT like.

Nephew explains that the library is stressing diverse books and she includes books which include diversity, whenever patrons ask her to choose their books. Still, she has shied away from including books on transgender children to patrons she knows little about, although she feels strongly that it is a vital and important representation to have in their collection. She explained, “I have decided that if someone requests books with diverse characters (or a similar request), I will ask them if including books about transgender children would be ok.” (Patrons are telephoned after they place their request, so staff members have an opportunity to ask them questions about preference, when they will arrive curbside, and whether they need any other items.) Julia reads widely for a state book award committee and is a valuable resource to her patrons looking for children’s books. Regarding classics with problematic racial stereotypes, she only recommends them with the caveat that they contain offensive references to specific groups.

When we are able to walk out of this “unprecedented time,” and can once again snuggle up to a bookshelf with a patron and paw through its offerings, I have a feeling some of our remote strategies may morph into permanent procedures. I, for one, would love a way to work in a request form that would allow me to hand a book to a kid they would never choose on their own. Adversity sparks innovation.

DaNae Leu is a K-6 librarian at Sunburst Elementary in Layton, Utah. Julia Nephew Children’s Services Librarian at Addison Public Library in Addison, Illinois. Becki Bishop is a Media Specialist at Campbell Court Elementary in Bassett, Virginia.

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

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