Notes from the Wild – Not-So-Recommended Reads

As strange as it might sound, as a librarian, I try not to recommend books. I suggest books. I highlight books. I offer books.  I showcase books. I connect patrons with books. Call it what you like, as long as you don’t call it recommending.

 By Joe Crawford from Moorpark, California, USA (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Now you could easily say, “potato, potato”- what does it matter what you call it as long as you’re getting books into people’s hands?

Well, it actually does matter what you call it To get a better idea of what I mean, let’s look at a pretty typical definition of the word “recommend”:

to put forward (someone or something) with approval as being suitable for a particular purpose or role.

The part of that definition that makes many librarians uncomfortable is the phrase “with approval”. To recommend something typically means to put a seal of approval on it, which inevitably connects the recommendation with the recommender who has given it their approval.

By nathan williams from London, UK (Cinema Book Shop) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the main reasons for not using the term “recommendation” is the damage a failed recommendation can have on the important relationship between a patron and their librarian. If a patron dislikes a book that I’ve recommended, they might be disinclined to return to me the next time they’re looking for a new read. They might assume that I cannot be relied upon to connect them with books they’ll enjoy, since I personally recommended a book that they didn’t like. Alternatively they might be unwilling to admit that they didn’t enjoy the book I recommended – they might be worried that they’ll insult me or hurt my feelings, or they might be concerned that I might judge them or be disappointed in them because they didn’t understand or enjoy a book that I enjoyed.

By offering a book, or suggesting it, I can subtly remove my personal feelings and opinions from the equation, and place the emphasis on the patron and their needs, leaving the interaction open-ended. A suggestion is by its very nature open to interpretation and is open-ended, and doesn’t imply personal approval. If I offer a patron a book based on their expressed interests and they don’t end up enjoying it, there’s less of a chance that they’ll associate the success of the suggestion with my abilities as a librarian. This is why I always try to encourage patrons to follow along with me as I use Novelist, Goodreads and other resources to find titles they might enjoy, underscoring the separation between my personal opinions and the suggestion I give them.

By Dr. Marcus Gossler (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Providing the best possible service can often be dependent on the smallest details, such as the language I use when connecting patrons with books.  I want my patrons to trust my professional abilities, and feel comfortable telling me what they like and don’t like, what they’re interested in and uninterested in. Pay no attention to the librarian behind the curtain, she’s just the wizard of books!

  • Yes! The Importance of Being Earnest – er, I mean, precise. Diction is so important, and sharing books can be nerve-wracking. Thanks, Jane!

    • Jane the Raincity Librarian

      So true! I learned my lesson years ago, when an obviously uncomfortable student reluctantly admitted that they had accepted countless book recommendations from me simply because in their culture contradicting or disagreeing with “teachers” is considered very poor form, and they couldn’t bring themselves to tell me they didn’t like the books I had recommended. So, this student had just smiled and nodded along for ages, while I blithely thought they loved all the books I was giving them – I mean, they would have told me if they didn’t, right? Lesson definitely learned!