Readers’ advisory without subscriptions (and the merits of Wikipedia)

A lack of RA subscriptions is something I’ve been dealing with lately. Being at Dominican trained me into just going to Booklist, but 1) that was a college library, and 2) that library served library science students. My library now doesn’t have Booklist or NoveList, so I’ve been falling back on Amazon, Google, and what little knowledge I possess of the prolific popular writers and the new crop of children’s authors that have come onto the scene since I was a pup.

A brief search for some RA tools earlier this week led me to LibraryThing, a neat little site that’s like Goodreads for librarians and hardcore readers dabbling in amateur librarying. I came across them a couple years ago when I used their forums to track down one of the many barely-remembered chapter books from my childhood. Anyway, they have a book suggesting tool that will show you some similar titles. It appears that if you have an account with them, they can tailor recommendations based on your reading history, but the tool doesn’t seem to be working right now. They’ve also got an UnSuggestor that brings up the least likely book to be on the same shelf as your particular book. It’s a fun tool to play with, but it will take me some time to find a practical application for it.

librarything

Wikipedia’s article on RA also has some great ideas that I’ll have to explore.

I know just mentioning the name Wikipedia injects horror into some people like it’s an academic Voldemort and it took some flak a few years ago, but let’s be realistic. I’m sure dozens (if not hundreds) of librarians have collaborated to create that article, and thousands more have read it. How many professionals collaborate on the average pathfinder? And then how many users put that average pathfinder to work? How accessible is it? How often is that pathfinder updated? In how many different formats does it exist, and are they updated simultaneously?

There is no other single and free source that will quickly give you hard information like author bibliographies, Caldecott medal winners, and directors’ upcoming films, not to mention non-RA hard info like country capitals, dates and locations for significant events, typical ingredients in regional dishes, and word disambiguations. Sure, Google can collect all that information, but each page you click has a different page layout, flow of text, audience, and motive before even considering the trustworthiness of the source. After all, Google displays their results by popularity, not by merit. More often than not, Wikipedia editors have already combed through those Google results, plucked out the most authoritative ones, and neatly given you the URL in their References or Further Reading section at the end of the article.

So is it lazy to use Wikipedia? Considering the average patrons’ needs, the library system’s limited holdings, and the limited time I can dedicate to exploring those holdings, I’d say in many cases it’s the most practical option. I could comb through Google pages until I find a source with an .edu extension, or I could search the catalog for the possibility of finding a relevant print encyclopedia like I did in Reference class in library school. Had we but world enough and time. So why waste the patron’s time – and the time of other waiting patrons – looking for information that might not be there in the first place at the branch library? I think that’s the more important question for me to ask.

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