Reading Conversations: RA for All Library Staff

Betha Gutsche /

With a new strategic goal to focus on increasing patron access to and engagement with books and reading, the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS) in Northwestern Washington State embarked on an ambitious effort to get all of their staff ready and eager to get out and talk to patrons about books and reading. All staff includes pages, clerks, non-public services staff and administrators, well beyond those traditionally trained as Readers' Advisors. The message to administrators and non-professional staff: if the library expects our patrons to come in and find books they like to read, then everyone on staff should know how to support the patrons to do that.

Image of staff bingo card provided by WCLS

The key ingredient in motivating all staff to get up to speed on the new service orientation was rebranding Readers' Advisory (RA) as Reading Conversations, taking the intimidation out of "advisory" and promoting the informality of friendly conversations. It's a conversation, not a reference interview.

Training was designed to increase everyone's comfort level with just talking about books. All staff were introduced to NoveList, which integrates with the library's Bibliocommons system. They were encouraged to try reading titles that were outside their comfort zone. They practiced talking about their reading with each other.

To further foster the fun in reading and boost everyone's knowledge of books and authors, WCLS added a game element, introducing a staff reading challenge in the form of a year-long BINGO contest. The BINGO cards provide a different reading prompt in each square, such as a "title set in another world or in the future" or "title that teaches you how to do or make something." When a player reads a title that responds to the prompt, s/he gets to fill in the square with the title of the book. Simple guidelines apply:

  • These have to be current reads—not something read in the past.
  • They don't have to be print books—all formats count; players can try ebooks, audiobooks or emagazines.
  • For an extra challenge, players can read in different formats.
  • Players can use one book for multiple squares.

Image of bingo ribbons provided by WCLS

Are there prizes to motivate staff to participate? Well, yes, but the WCLS Prizes and Incentives Policy only allows "de minimus" awards, that is, things that are "too trivial or minor to merit consideration." Readers who fill out a row get a ribbon to attach to their badge that says "Reading Superhero." Filling all the squares―a blackout―earns a ribbon that says "Reading is My Superpower." For all staff with complete blackout cards, there will be a drawing at the end of the year for a basket of (donated) goodies.

Image of Star Wars bingo card provided by WCLS

The program has resulted in a culture change. Everyone talks about books at all staff meetings now. Many proudly post their BINGO cards in their workstations, not only to show their progress but to share the titles of books they're reading. Staff challenge each other to read different genres. They have even come up with their own additional team challenges. One staff-created challenge involved a Star Trek theme to encourage science fiction reading; "to boldly read where no one has read before!" One branch is staging a Mission Impossible challenge ("your mission should you choose to accept it . . ."), with teams of Pages and Custodians versus Clerks and Assistants vying for the most reads.

The BINGO challenge has generated so much enthusiasm among staff that they thought patrons would like to play too. The Summer Reading committee designed BINGO cards for four levels of patrons―adults, teens, children and early learners. They defined the prompts and came up with reading lists for them. Patrons have remarked on the noticeable change and their appreciation of engaging in conversations with staff about reading.

These reading conversations are likely to continue for a long time.