RA Unconference! #rauncon

I finally boogied on down to Darien Library for my very first unconference on Friday! I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but oh man, I would absolutely do it again. Right now. If you’re not familiar with how unconferences work, there’s a general theme but instead of offering pre-scheduled sessions, all the attendees vote on the session topics, and the content is completely decided by whoever shows up to the session. After keynote speaker Emily St. John Mandel read from her upcoming book Station Eleven, we voted and ended up with the following topics (I’ve highlighted the sessions I attended):

  • Rethinking book groups
  • Nonfiction that reads like fiction
  • Marketing librarians as experts
  • Recommending books you haven’t read
  • How to booktalk
  • Social media & RA
  • Passive RA & displays
  • Recommending outside your comfort zone
  • Getting staff excited about RA

What materialized in each session was lively, nonstop conversation to which everyone was able and eager to contribute, and for those of us livetweeting at #rauncon (pronounced ron-con), there was barely any time to send out and check tweets. I, with my still-fairly-new Galaxy, was out there tweeting with everyone else, and it was definitely a new experience (not just because I was actually being encouraged to check my phone while other people were speaking). The list of Twitterbrarians I follow has grown about tenfold since I’ve now seen the pros in action and have been able to interact with them within a meaningful context.

(That bit about context sounded awfully academic. I apologize – hubs is frantically reading for his upcoming comprehensive exams, so 90% of my conversations at home include phrases like cultural constructs, perceptions of identity, narrative as political tools, normative experiences, social and economic contexts, etc.)

The Nonfiction That Reads Like Fiction session ended up being about 45 minutes of throwing out title after title, with some tips for pursuing more NF titles. I was able to decode my hastily scribbled notes and typed them up. I’m thinking this is a good beginning to a public pathfinder down the line.

It occurred to me that I never had formal training in RA. So, it’s super good that I attended and was able to better my skills and see what other sort of conferences are out there. I learned some excellent things like:

  • Coworkers are one of the cheapest and most accessible sources of RA. Keep a mental log of which genres your coworkers read so you can refer patrons to them. Include an RA component in your regular meetings so you can share your latest reads.
  • Printed RA: Darien has bookmarks with three recommended titles on a topic.
  • To open up a conversation with patrons and let them know that you’re available to provide RA without being too aggressive or invasive, hand out your printed RA materials or ask patrons if they’re received a copy already.
  • Come up with a list of 3 or so “sure bets” for popular authors outside your genre. I need to do this for romance and mystery, for sure.
  • At the same time, the patrons who ask me about these genres could talk circles around me, so at the same time, is it worth it to find Nora Roberts’ or James Patterson’s top three? It’s fun, and good RA, to push people out of their comfort zone. E.g., “Relish” is about food and it’s a memoir, and it just so happens to be a graphic novel.
  • You can get adult patrons into graphic novels by suggesting they read one to see if it’s appropriate for their kid.
  • Another note for concerned parents and preventing offended patrons: though the book jacket is usually fluff, scanning Amazon reviews will immediately alert you to objectionable content.
  • There’s a difference between “recommending” titles and “suggesting” titles. If you suggest, there’s less culpability on you if a patron is unhappy/unsatisfied/offended with your selections.
  • “Books I hated that everyone else loved” would be a very popular display. Remember in Early Book class when they talked about how, way back when, the Catholic Church would publish an index of banned books, and how they became wildly popular titles as a result of the controversy?
  • However, it’s not the best idea to publicly announce to a patron if you hated a book. It could alienate the patron you’re helping, as well as any patrons nearby who might overhear your conversation. Patrons could end up avoiding you because they don’t think you’d be able to recommend them titles they’d like, or they could be ashamed that a professional disliked something they loved and they wouldn’t want to approach you. Either way, it negatively affects your accessibility and the service you deliver as a professional. (I’ve been nicely honest up to this point, saying I don’t personally read certain genres or I didn’t think such-and-such a book was as good as another and why, but it’s worth thinking about other ways to further remove my own tastes from the equation and mask my own preferences. Even if it’s a familiar patron who would love to hear my own opinion, there are still other patrons within earshot. Food for thought.)
  • Use neutral language to suggest books. I do say things like “that book has been very popular” if I haven’t read it. You can also do “my coworker couldn’t put it down.)
  • If you dislike a title, you can still suggest it. RA is not about you, it’s about the patron and connecting them with the right title. After all, “the first rule of RA is listening.”
  • Some patrons view circ-desk RA as an invasion of privacy. I happily tell patrons I enjoyed a book or movie in their checkout pile or ask them if they’ve read/watched anything similar (patrons are awesome RA), but I should probably use a little more discretion in choosing which patrons to engage.
  • There are lots of RA-specific roundtables out there, like Readers Advisory Round Table in Western Massachusetts, and the Chicago-area Adult Reading Round Table (they were the inspiration for #rauncon)
  • Pretty much everyone loves the Awesome Box idea from the Harvard Library Innovation Lab. For the visually inclined / lazy, they have a cute little slideshow that explains the concept.
  • In addition to having regular good book reviews, Entertainment Weekly’s Shelf Life occasionally does reviews tagged “I read it so you don’t have to!” for pop titles. Think Game of Thrones cookbooks and Snooki-penned novels.
  • Almost all of my previous conferences had been through state-level organizations, but when a library goes out on their own, it attracts out-of-state attendees. It seemed like the place was filled with professionals from Massachusetts and New Jersey. Surprisingly few attendees were from local systems. (A more traditional RA conference was happening a few miles away in Westport, so maybe that’s where they all were.)
  • That might be because tech-savvy conferences beget tech-savvy attendees. Almost all Darien communication went through Tumblr and Twitter, and I don’t think it’s coincidence that the out-of-state librarians were also the most active Twitter participants.

So, very much looking forward to my next unconference!

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