In past columns, I’ve discussed the ins and outs of launching and maintaining a music advisory service in your library and given lots of one-on-one advice on proposing and getting approval for such a service, but I haven’t really gone into the specifics of selecting albums for library patrons. So, here are some insights into the murky process of choosing albums for a patron, based on his or her listening needs.
1 You’ve Got More Freedom Than You’d Think
Unlike our hearty and hale readers’ advisory brothers and sisters, we’ve got a little more room for experimentation and, perhaps, even error in recommending albums. Patrons must invest more time before realizing whether a librarian has recommended the right book for them or not. Whereas with music, people have an immediate and subjective reaction—usually by the time the first song reaches its chorus. Yeah, it’s the worst to be subjected to music that you just don’t like—as even a five-minute trip to a mall or a restaurant can demonstrate—but with these lists, patrons can hit the eject button without losing too much of their precious hearing or having to fumble around for the receipt. So don’t be afraid to take chances, don’t be afraid to miss the mark. You can have all the enthusiasm and knowledge about why a particular record is right for a patron, but the smallest thing—vocal tone, the shirt the singer’s wearing on the back cover—can make it a miss. There’s always the next playlist.
2 Don’t Forget About Education
If patrons ask for pop hits from this year, by god, that’s what I’m going to give them. But, you can count on me inserting a few left-field and/or historically important picks in there to give them something different from what they’re usually exposed to. So maybe if they ask for Katy Perry soundalikes, they’ll get a Shangri-Las album alongside modern chart-toppers. With a library’s collection ideally holding popular music highlights from the last four to five decades, you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to give some historical context and/or exposure to artist soundalikes who never got their moment in the sun.
3 Don’t Be Afraid To Interject Your Own Tastes
If you’re passionate or particularly knowledgable about certain styles of music, don’t be nervous about pushing that on people. Your personal tastes, your musical personality as it were, can be an asset, as long as you can communicate your own enthusiasms. We have genre checkboxes on our music advisory form lined up in two rows (Hip-Hop, Classical, Metal, etc.) for patrons to tick off. We had one extra checkbox, which ended up, partly as a joke and partly as a placeholder, as “Matthew’s Wild Card Albums.” Lo and behold, people keep selecting it! And once they do, anything goes for that one album choice. It may not have anything to do with their listed tastes, but the wild card will always be an album I think is essential for everyone to hear.
4 Tell Patrons Why
It’s basically impossible to quantify in an objective, formulaic fashion why you think Album A, B, or C is going to change a patron’s life. Everyone doing music advisory right now is fumbling around with this new type of reference service. But with that trial and error comes a lot of freedom. As long as you can tell patrons why you think this album syncs up with their listening tastes in a knowledgeable manner, there is no “right” or “wrong” selection. In the past we used excerpts from reviews and biographies from outside sources to explain connections between a user’s tastes and the album in question, but we’re now transitioning toward using our own words and conclusions.
5 Get by with a Little Help
You don’t have to panic if a patron asks for some good 20th-century classical music; avail yourself of print sources like the Penguin Guides, the Allmusic Guides, the Rough Guides, and Trouser Press. Online resources like allmusic, last.fm, and even some music blogs can be a great boon in these situations. Finally, make sure to reach out to your coworkers. That hip-looking clerk might be able to help you out with a request for riot grrrl music. Or the guy who weeds the scores might know a thing or two about quiet storm jazz. You’ll never know until you ask.
6 Journey to the Outer Realms
This was touched on in previous points, but it’s important to reemphasize: don’t be afraid to go way into the outer worlds of popular music when recommending music to patrons. First of all, it’s your duty as a librarian to try to expand people’s (sonic) horizons as much as possible. All the music is free, so no one involved can really complain about wastes of time or money. And in an age of last.fm, Spotify, cheap MP3s, and YouTube, most people’s listening tastes are pretty mainstream, whether they want them to be or not. There’s no reason why we should be playing it safe and conservative in recommendations.
Take chances, don’t be afraid to recommend sonically extreme selections—and have fun with it!