Monday, October 7, 2013

Reflections on Library Service to Parents

One of the things I enjoy most in the world of children’s librarianship is reader’s advisory. I enjoy discussing books with kids, parents, and teachers, and I love the feeling of satisfaction that comes from connecting a kid (or an adult) with a book that he or she truly loves reading. I think the trickiest part of Reader’s Advisory is advising parents about books for their kids. Over the past three years, working in my busy branch where many parents visit the library without their children, I have become better and better at these interactions. I attribute this to a very specific trait in my personality: my ability to put myself in another’s shoes and remove myself from the equation.

How many times has a parent come to your reference desk with a request you just can’t stand? I can name a few:
  • The recently divorced mom who only wanted her girls to read “happy” books so they would be protected from feeling sad. (She also said she would prefer it if they were “nice horse stories.”)
  • The mom who genuinely feared fiction because she thought the books were lying to her son. (“But that isn’t the truth. He should only have the truth, or he’ll get confused.”)
  • The mom who asked for books on Guided Reading level C that were “literature” and “not these boring leveled readers.”
  • The mom who wanted her kids to “branch out” and stop reading fantasy and focus on “serious books.”
The examples I remember happen to be moms, but we all know lots of moms and dads who have unusual and sometimes frustrating opinions about their kids’ reading. When we hear their requests, we can easily fall into the bad habit of judging the parents’ views. Instead of answering their questions, we might offer them the books we think they should want, or start trying to argue with parents to dissuade them from their stifling opinions. We think of these poor children, forced to bypass Harry Potter in favor of Kira-Kira, and we have an instinct to rescue and protect them from the evils of their overprotective and misguided parents.

What’s wrong with this approach, you ask? Well, put simply, it’s bad library service.

My approach to reader’s advisory has always been to treat the individual in front of me as my patron. When a mom comes to the library without her son, the books might be for her son, but my customer, in the absence of the child, is his mom. This means that, for the duration of our time looking for books together, I am on the mom’s team, and I do my best to see my collection from her point of view. If she tells me her son is an advanced reader, I believe her. If she tells me her son hates fantasy, I avoid fantasy, even if I know from the child himself that she is wrong about his preferences. I am not serving the child at that moment. The customer whose information need I must fulfill is the mom.

In these interactions, it helps me to keep my ego in check by remembering the following:
  • Parents have a right to raise their children any way they see fit, just as I will have the right to raise my child according to my principles and beliefs. Trying to sell a parent on a book that directly opposes her firmly held opinions is a waste of my time, and hers.
  • My personal opinion of a book is usually irrelevant. Though parents ask me all the time for recommendations, I typically think of them as suggestions. I have my own set of preferred books and genres, but most of the time, parents are not asking me to share those. What they want is for someone to tell them which books of the many on the library’s shelves fit their preferences. This is the role of a librarian - not to decide for a patron which are the best books, but to help the patron find the books he or she thinks will be best for her children. There are occasions where a parent selects a book that is a particular favorite, and I might volunteer that information if it turns out the child enjoyed it, but otherwise, it’s not about me and they don’t need to know my personal feelings.
  • Parents will guide the conversation in the direction they want it to go. I never ask a parent outright if they object to swearing or sexual content or swords or aliens or evolution. Rather, I ask general questions and let them supply their own prejudices and requirements. Then, based on my knowledge of my collection, I can lead them to the books that will be most likely to please them. This is where reading as much as possible comes in really handy. Parents with lots of specific preferences about their kids’ reading often ask me: “Does this book have suicidal ideation? Does this book have swear words? Does anyone in this book use a weapon?” It’s fine to say I don’t know, but when I do know, parents are eager to have an honest answer. It helps to have the facts filed away in my memory so I can answer them without getting caught up in my personal feelings for the book. 
  • Most parents are just trying to do right by their kids. It’s easy to think of people with strong religious convictions or unusual beliefs as “crazy” or “out there,” but for the purposes of successful reader’s advisory, it’s important to think of your parent patron as a person, just like you, who has specific likes and dislikes, preferences, and habits. You’ll never enjoy the company of every patron, but smiling and trying to make your book hunt a team effort usually leads to the best outcome, and it avoids that stressful boxed-in feeling we get when we think of those poor kids who will never read the books we wish their parents would allow them to read.
Dealing with parents is an important part of children’s librarianship, and the better you are at assisting your parent patrons, the better your reader’s advisory skills will become. Please feel free to share your experiences helping parents find kids’ books in the comments section below.


  1. Thank you for this post. I often find it hard to give readers advisory when I don't agree with what a parent is saying, but I have to remind myself: just as we don't act "In loco parentis" when the parent is not present, we should not be taking their place when they are.

    1. It is definitely tricky to remain neutral, but I like the way you frame it in terms of not acting "in loco parentis." That is a helpful way of looking at it. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. I strongly agree with you! Sometimes people with very specific parameters (or vague ones - those are worse) make me want to tear my hair out, but it's my job to find what they want and need - not what I think they SHOULD want or need. This is why I disagree with librarians who want to weed all their branded books - Barbie, Disney, etc.

    1. Vague parameters really are the worst! And I'm with you - I don't necessarily like those branded books, but they're not in the collection for me, they're there for the community, and the library should be interested in giving them what they want. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Thanks for this post. As a (mostly) adult Librarian for 20 years, I am just beginning my journey into the world of Chrildren's books. I know the basics and what is popular etc. but I've just started my storytime training and I find your blog extremely helpful! It's taken the fear out of my new responsibility :)

    1. I'm glad to know my blog is helpful to you. Good luck!


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