My Secret Shopper Assignment

9 Feb

Setting the Stage:

The reference interview took place in a public library on the Westside of Indianapolis, at the end of the workweek, 45 minutes after opening for the day. The library seats two reference desks next to each other (one male librarian and one female librarian) with their back to a shelf full of ready reference materials. On the desk is a computer monitor, some printed takeaways and some books waiting to be shelved. When I walked in, the female reference librarian was arranging the Black History Month book display and the male reference librarian was taking a phone call and conducting a search on the computer. I locked in on male reference librarian and pretended to browse the collection until he was done with the phone call and available for Readers’ Advisory (RA) service.

Initiating the RA interview:

I approached the desk shortly after he hung up the phone. I specifically wanted the male librarian because he was behind the desk and it would be interesting to see how he would handle a query about fiction books on women’s lives and relationships and nonfiction books on emotional self-help. I must have set my expectations too high because when I approached the desk to greet him he looked up, extended his arm and offered me an internet pass. Fumble! When did reference librarians become mind readers? I am not sure if I was more troubled by his assumption that I was only there for the free internet use, or to know that he really wasn’t listening to me. I responded with “No, thank you. I actually have a question.” After hearing that, he put the internet pass back on the desk and asked me to hold on while he finishes something on the computer. I was fine with waiting another moment, so I went to browse materials on a book cart nearby. I wanted to stay near enough that he wouldn’t forget about me but far enough away that I wasn’t hovering over him. After about 7 minutes, I returned to the desk to try again, and you wouldn’t believe what he did -he offered me the internet pass all over again! It took him a minute to realize that we’ve danced this dance before, and just as I was about to ask my RA question the female reference librarian intercepted and asked if there was anything she could help with.

Finding text appeal:

With the way the previous RA interview was going, I was relieved to receive anyone’s help at that point. And he seemed relieved to pass me off to her, so I gladly accepted. She began the interview by asking if there was something specific that I was looking for. I offered the vague response, “a good book to read,” then she drummed up a series of investigative questions to figure out what that meant to me.

I appreciated her cheerful disposition and eagerness to help me. I also appreciated the fact that she was roving the floor instead of hiding behind a desk or a computer screen. As she was asking the questions, she walked me through the collection, pulled titles off the shelf, and flipped through the pages to let me see excerpts from the book. She was very attentive. I could tell when I said something to trigger a new search, because she had me follow her to another section of the collection and pulled titles again.

During RA interview, I exhibited interest in both fiction and nonfiction materials. Once I saw she was comfortable with suggesting fiction novels, I asked for nonfiction “self help” materials. I was intentionally vague about what I wanted and only answered the questions she asked me. Our entire interview was conducted on the floor, as we browsed the collection for a “good book.”

What she covered:

The librarian asked me if I was interested in reading a fiction novel or nonfiction, then took me to a section that was organized by genre and browsed with me; pointing out authors that most people enjoy.

I believe that because I asked for a “good book” she only showed me materials in book format. Although she did mention that the book I recently read comes from a series of 18 titles and the very first title was made into a movie that is now playing in the box office.

She suggested authors who used the same writing style as the writer of the book I just read. She noticed that the book I read most recently was part of a series and that the author used consistent characters throughout the series and a play on numerical order for the titles. From that information, she showed me an author who uses a similar style and titles each book in her series with a letter of the alphabet. When she realized that didn’t appeal to me, she moved on to something else.

I told her that I enjoyed how the story was told from the main character’s point of view, so she showed me other books in that genre that exhibited that point of view.

She asked me if I liked how the main character was solving a mystery and I told her that I was more into the relationships she maintained throughout the story.

It was interesting the way the reference librarian used mood when searching the nonfiction materials. When I asked her about finding self-help materials in the collection, she asked me what type of self-help I was looking for. She asked if I was looking for something inspirational or psychological. By inspirational she meant religions and once I told her that I didn’t want religious based books, she showed me to the books written by psychologists.

She asked if there was a particular type of self-help, I was looking for. I told her the name of an author someone suggested I look up. I could tell “self-help” was a genre that she was not as familiar with, so we went back to the reference desks and she did a catalog search on the computer. She found two titles from that author in the system and took me to the section where the books were. She flipped through the book to see if it was something I liked, and pulled other titles that were in close proximity. She suggested that I take a moment to look through the books we collected so far, showed me to the seating area, and told me to tell her if I want her to look for more.

What didn’t she cover:

I was a little disappointed that she didn’t ask my level of comfort with the violence and sexuality in a book. She may have assumed that I was fine with it since I didn’t complain about how much sex and violence was in the novel I recently read.

She didn’t mention book length during our interview. Nor did she ask how I felt about the pacing. Had she asked, I would have told her that I enjoyed the way the fiction author lingered on the thoughts and feelings of the main character throughout the story. I felt like sharing that would have opened up the interview to more suggested books, but I really wanted her to get me to say that.

My Observation:

Compared with the “TO-DO and NOT-TO-DO LIST for READERS’ ADVISERS” chart in Ross’s article, “The Readers’ Advisory Interview,” this librarian did fairly well with the interview. She did not refer me to the OPAC, or start with the OPAC to answer my questions. She knew her collection well enough to make suggestions before resorting to an RA tool. I was impressed with how she took time to flip through the book with me, rather than do a title search and hope for the best! When introducing a new author she asked questions like “have you read…” and “would you like to read more about…”. I felt like she was really listening to my responses. It was helpful to have her talk to me while she searched for more. The moment I reveled a little more information, she was prepared to move to another set of books. She told me what other readers, of books like the ones she showed me, also read. And most of all she did not assume that she couldn’t help me with nonfiction self-help. I could tell the query slowed her down a little bit and caused her to use the RA tools, but she was just as eager and helpful as she was with the fiction materials.

I noticed that she asked many questions about the book I recently read. Although I’ve never read books by the authors she suggested, I look forward to exploring those materials. Due to the nature of the assignment, I did not checkout any of the books we found that morning. However, I was quite satisfied with the materials this Readers’ Advisor was able to produce during my secret shopping adventure.


-A Teaching Librarian


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