Interlibrary Advisory | Editorial

 LJ ’s first readers’ advisory (RA) survey in eight years found that RA is a growing practice, but librarians want more training and tools to do it better, particularly in genres they don’t read for pleasure. Can crowdsourcing help RA keep up?

Can crowdsourcing help RA keep up?

Meredith Schwartz head shotLJ ’s first readers’ advisory (RA) survey in eight years found that RA is a growing practice, but librarians want more training and tools to do it better, particularly in genres they don’t read for pleasure. 

One librarian’s comment caught my eye: Christopher Platt, director of Mono County Library System, CA (who I remember from his time at New York Public Library) suggested it would be an improvement “if we could more easily crowdsource RA suggestions from other libraries/publishers into our own RA mechanisms.” That makes sense: While ad hoc shared booklists and social media threads exist in which librarians help one another with RA, there aren’t easy and widespread ways to make the bulk of the RA work each library does available to and searchable by others.

Platt’s words also got me thinking about how collections themselves are increasingly crowdsourced. Interlibrary loan has long been a library staple, but modern tools and digital materials make it easier and quicker than ever. Perhaps as a result, more and more groups of libraries are approaching buying as a collaborative process, working together to reduce duplication, except where needed, and to cover niche areas more deeply than each could afford on their own. And, of course, growing mainstream acceptance of the open access publication model means that much academic content is not being collected, in the traditional sense, at all. On the public library front, open web content poses a similar challenge.

How can librarians who don’t have time to learn the richness of their own holdings for RA work also grapple with what’s available to their patrons from other libraries or for free online?

The only feasible answer is the same method that’s being applied to collection development: splitting up the work across a larger group. It’s not workable to avoid duplication completely, since RA is as much art as science, and multiple perspectives are needed. But both within larger institutions and from one library to another (or even one library type to another, as apt), the more librarians can rely on one another to pool and share knowledge and ideas, the better the RA service they can provide.

However, I’m wary of suggesting that the field create yet another platform for RA crowdsourcing. Such solutions rarely reduce the hodgepodge they are designed to replace. Instead they just become yet another competitor for time, budget, and mindshare, as illustrated by the xkcd webcomic “Standards.”

My question, instead, is whether it’s possible to piggyback this functionality on the systems libraries are already using, and on the listservs and social platforms that connect RA librarians to their colleagues from other institutions.

Can we do it through the catalogue, especially those already configured to include user reviews? Can we do it through a hashtag and a program that aggregates and makes searchable posts from across a variety of social platforms? Can ebook vendors that already allow libraries to create and promote curated lists let libraries opt in to make those lists publicly available through their APIs? How about marketing software?

I am sure, as with all tech questions, the answer is that this would be far trickier to achieve, take longer, and cost more than is obvious to a layperson like myself. I don’t expect that this will become a solved problem quickly or completely. But I’d love to see the question asked as each developer iterates their work: What small tweaks we could make to enable crowdsourced RA, or at least get a step closer?

Ideally, this would mean letting content out of the vendors’ walled gardens, allowing libraries to make the RA work they host on each site searchable not only by other users of that platform but by users of any platform. Vendors, of course, must be wary of collaborations that could run afoul of antitrust regulations. But as the ReadersFirst coalition demonstrates, libraries can lead a drive for new functionality that multiple vendors then separately provide. It is increasingly clear that the more ways we can work together, the more we can reduce inequitable service from one library to another, and provide good service to all readers.

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Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Editor-in-Chief of Library Journal.

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