Librarian and former head of Library Journal‘s reviews team Henrietta Verma is the author of Reviews Are In: Read, Write, and Expand Your Career (Mission Bell Media; ISBN 9780997175707), a guide for both new and veteran librarians on evaluating books and media, writing reviews, and stepping up as a leader within one’s community and profession. LJ recently caught up with Verma to chat about her latest project.
LJ: Why should librarians be reviewers? What’s in it for them?
HV: Free books, first of all! More importantly, from a professional perspective, is the chance to be seen as an expert in the genre(s) you choose and to become familiar with upcoming titles (you’ll mostly review early, prepublication copies of books).
Beyond specific guidance on evaluating books and writing reviews, a large portion of this book centers on leadership—why librarians need to be leaders and how they can overcome the many challenges they face. Can you talk about leadership in the library profession and some of those challenges?
Not everybody wants to be a leader, and that’s fine. If they did, there would be nobody left to lead! But I think women in particular need to be reminded that many of the qualities they bring to the job every day make them leaders, and seeking professional recognition for that isn’t egotistical, it’s just getting ahead. [As] librarians, [we] too often shoot ourselves in the foot by being overly humble about our literary expertise. So what if you aren’t at the level of a New York Times critic? You still read way more than most people, and patrons want your advice. Finally, I think certain positions of leadership have become overemphasized in our profession. Running a Maker space or being big on social media are great things but not the only route to leadership. Putting yourself at the forefront of your library using books and multimedia is another way that’s perfectly valid and provides a great service to patrons. It’s fun, too.
You include a chapter called “So You Have Imposter Syndrome.” Why did you include this? Why do you think imposter syndrome is so prevalent in the library profession? How can writing reviews help people overcome this?
Imposter syndrome refers to the feeling that you will be discovered at any moment as a fraud. This exhausting, unproductive mode of thinking affects women disproportionately, and since our profession is mainly female, it stands to reason that it will rear its confidence-destroying head among us. A study of the syndrome among librarians (ow.ly/CNjF306LoMH) shows that it is a common cause of burnout, especially among academic librarians, as they are in college classrooms where the professor usually has more education than the librarian in the topic at hand.
Although Reviews Are In offers ways to reduce imposter syndrome, I don’t actually see reviewing as a way to overcome the problem. It’s more a way to sidestep it. Obviously, a reader of your review can’t see you and, without taking the effort that a naysayer mostly won’t bother with, has no way to imply that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Yes, the syndrome mostly means that you’ll be telling yourself that regardless, but in the book I encourage readers to feel the fear and do it anyway.
Throughout the book, you include leader profiles to represent diverse experts in the field. Who are some of the folks you profiled and why?
There are so many ways of being a leader in our field. I wanted to offer readers perspectives from an array of professionals who are out there every day using books and other content as a way to reach patrons.
We need diverse books, and one way of achieving that is to have diverse reviewers and other library and publishing professionals. In choosing interviewees, I thought of who could best represent the breadth of expertise out there. So I interviewed, for example, Angie Manfredi of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, who talked about the importance of that movement and why readers need books to be reviewed by people who are familiar with various experiences and cultures. Charlene Rue of New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library’s BookOps talked about being an African American collection development librarian and a member of [numerous] literary award committees. I don’t know a thing about being a male library manager, and Douglas Lord of Plainville Public Library, CT, spoke about both the challenges and rewards of that role.
Why are professional reviews—in this age of Amazon reviews, Goodreads, etc.—still relevant?
They offer another type of diversity. Amazon and Goodreads offer reviews by readers for readers, and those reviews range from sock puppetry to insightful. Adding another perspective are reviews such as those in literary journals and newspapers, which are by professionals for readers. Then there are the reviews you find in magazines such as LJ, which are by professionals for professionals. A librarian knows what another librarian needs to find in a review—namely, some plot or content description, but mostly critique and a clear recommendation to buy or skip and for which type of library. Reviews written that way are not found in many places.
You devote a whole chapter to getting started in reviewing. If you could offer librarians one piece of advice to get going right now, what would it be?
I have to give a few, sorry: your opinion is as valid as any reader’s, and don’t forget when choosing what to review that #WeNeedDiverseBooks. On a practical level, look at various publications’ websites and find out how to apply, and do it!
You’ve worked as an editor for both School Library Journal and Library Journal. What was the most challenging part of your job? What was the most rewarding?
The most challenging was picking titles for review. There are just so many books now that only a relatively small percentage of them can be reviewed—that often means that perfectly good works won’t make the cut and worthy authors will be disappointed. The best part is the chance to help a struggling author’s career. I often heard from authors whose LJ review was the break they needed, and that was very gratifying.
One of my very favorite parts of the book is appendix A and B, a list of adjectives, and a list of terms to describe artwork, respectively. As a review editor constantly searching for synonyms for “fun,” “interesting,” and “good,” these are much appreciated. How’d these lists come together?
That part was fun! And it was inspired by the very problem you describe. Whether a book is good or bad, you have to say more than just that, and you start to run out of adjectives for the task. Further, I’m no art expert, and I sometimes struggled to describe illustrations, a crucial part of SLJ reviews especially (hint: see if the illustrator has a website describing their projects). As I was writing the book, I became more aware as a reader and jotted down adjectives that came my way. The best source was a book I purposely picked for material for the list: Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, whose main character has a superhuman sense of smell. I thought his descriptions of the aromas to be encountered in 18th-century Paris slums would be very adjective filled, and ewwww was I right.