29 May 2012

Shelf Shopping and why I should do it more

In the three years I've been in the library biz, I've all but abandoned shelf shopping (it's like window shopping, only better, because it's books).  Now I choose books based on reviews in professional magazines like School Library JournalBookList, etc., as well as various book blogs (similar to this one, only WAY cooler) like Stacked. Admittedly, most of the books on my to-read list are YA, but I'm a YA librarian (a fact that will change in about a month...more to come on that later), so it makes sense that I'd read what my patrons are reading.  Because of all these recommendations, I rarely wander the shelves and displays at the library, looking for something to read.  However, a few weeks ago, I was forced to shelf shop for the first time in a very long time.  I say "forced" like it was torture.  Well, truthfully, it was and it wasn't.  The good news is, on that trip, I ended up getting a great audiobook.  The bad news is, I tried it again this last week and the results were so terrible, I abandoned the book and am now afraid of shelf shopping again. Crap.
I've forgotten what shelf shopping is like.  On the one hand, it's like an adventure: you have no idea what you're going to end up with, you just head into the stacks and keep looking until you find a book that intrigues you.  Often, your decision is based on cover art and the teaser (the summary on the inside dust-cover or on the back), and even as you leave, you have no idea whether you'll love the book or hate it.  It's exciting and exhilarating and, quite frankly, now that I've been on the other side, scarier than a Friday the 13th movie.
Until recently, I'd forgotten the power of cover art.  Now, when I get a book, I look at it and decide whether the cover art fits with what I already know about the book, and as I read the book, I look at the cover art and decide whether or not the cover art adds to the book or doesn't fit.  It has literally been years since I grabbed a book that I knew nothing about and decided whether or not to read it based on the cover art.  The same goes for the teaser: by the time I get a book, I've usually read a professional review or two, and/or had it recommended to me by at least one other librarian.  When I get a book and read the summary, I immediately look for the "hook" in the summary - something that will catch a new reader's attention - and as I'm reading, I try to figure out which kids would benefit from reading the hook, and which kids wouldn't.
Now that my shelf-shopping muscles have atrophied, going to the library to look for a book takes on a whole new level of...gahhh.  I look at the covers of books way too long, trying to find hidden clues about the book, and I read the teaser 18 bazillion times wondering why there's so little information!  Clearly, my job has dimmed the magic of finding books. And that's sad, because, well, I'm a librarian, and I'm all about the book magic.  So I've decided I need to get the magic back.
So now I have to start thinking about shelf-shopping like a patron.  Being a librarian, I'm not afraid of libraries, I can usually figure out where things are pretty easily on my own, etc.  So my comfort level in libraries made it easier for me to be a shelf shopper - I loved wandering the stacks, looking at the displays, trying to find that next great read about who knows what.  In fact, I used to follow the library volunteers when the were shelving and try to grab books that had just been turned in.  I figured if someone else checked it out, it had to be good (incidentally, that's how I first came across Danielle Steele.  At age 13. Wowza.).  But not all library patrons are comfortable in the library, and not everyone has the time to wander the stacks and go on a book safari.  So if I were a patron, making a quick stop to find a book, or maybe I'm not terribly comfortable finding books in the library and, like my sister, am afraid that wandering the stacks would get me lost in the labyrinth of the library, causing the secret library cult to come out and force me to join, making me a crazy library nerd (no joke, she thinks we have secret handshakes and take blood oaths), how would I pick a book?
And as a librarian, how do I make sure the people who aren't book-finding-pros find books?
Well, for all of you non-book sleuths out there, here are my suggestions:

  1. Don't be in a hurry.  Give yourself some time to look at books, read the teasers, etc.  But if you are in a hurry, just head for the new book display or...
  2. Ask someone who works in the library for a recommendation.  Most people who work in libraries are readers, and they might have a suggestion or two.  Be prepared though, they won't just look at you and say "read this".  If they're worth their salt, they'll ask you about other books you've enjoyed or the genre/type of book you're looking for.
  3. If you're looking for a particular genre, look for the genre stickers on the books (something I used to HATE but now love), or...
  4. Use the OPAC - online catalog.  You can search for books by genre, author, similar author and similar title.  If you just finished reading Old Yeller and loved it?  Search for other books by Fred Gipson, or type in "Old Yeller" and then find the "similar titles" tab and click there.  This will give you a list of books that are similar either in genre or writing style.  This is also something you can do from home, when you have time.  AND you can put books on hold, so that they're ready the second you walk in the door! Yeay!
So what have I learned?  For one, I know that I need to practice my shelf shopping skillz.  I shouldn't be afraid to shelf shop! My insider knowledge of books has made me too critical of cover art and teasers.  I don't know if I'll ever be able to look at books with a non-librarian eye ever again, but I'm going to try.  With that, I bid you adieu and am headed to the library to just wander.

Happy reading!

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