Engaging readers, engaging texts: an exploration of how librarians can use reader response theory to better serve our patrons.

Author:Mathson, Stephanie M.


Wolfgang Iser, in "The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach," states, "The fact that completely different readers can be differently affected by the 'reality' of a particular text is ample evidence of the degree to which literary texts transform reading into a creative process that is far above mere perception of what is written" (958). If reading is, as Iser describes it, a creative process in and of itself, which adds layers of meaning and understanding to a given work, then practitioners of a profession closely associated with books, reading, and literacy--librarianship--can use reader response theory to improve the services they offer to patrons. This paper will outline ways librarians can accomplish that task through readers' advisory, collection development, book reviewing, community reading programs, and book discussion groups.

Librarians of all people should understand the relationships that can exist between readers and books. As Iser put it, reading allows us to "formulate the unformulated" (968). Reading--and relating to--a work awakens something within us that we were never conscious of before, but which now we can at least acknowledge if not comprehend. Librarians are keenly aware of the power of reading and the impact a book can make on someone's life. Perhaps, though, the profession just has no name for that effect because librarians are generally not taught literary theory in Library and Information Science (LIS) graduate programs. The emphasis of such programs today is on technology: indexing and abstracting articles for online research databases; cataloging non-print items; utilizing metadata; understanding and teaching information literacy skills; and using web-based tools to bring libraries into the 21st century. Though LIS programs offer an occasional "History of the Book" or "History of Printing and Publishing" course, books, print culture, and literary theory are usually afterthoughts. [1]

A decade ago, Wayne Wiegand, then a professor in the University of Wisconsin Madison's School of Library and Information Studies, asked, "Why don't we have any 'Schools of Library and Reading Studies'?" (1). Dr. Wiegand, who is currently the F. William Summers Professor of Library and Information Studies in the College of Communication and Information at The Florida State University, teaches courses on, among other topics, the history of reading and incorporates literary theory--particularly reader response theory--into his classes. At the point in the semester when Wiegand introduces the works of Iser, Hans Robert Jauss, and Stanley Fish to his students, he is usually met by blank stares (2). Often the majority of students pursuing graduate degrees in Library Science have completed undergraduate studies in the humanities, yet they have never been exposed to the theoretical underpinnings of reading scholarship. Wiegand finds this matter to be deplorable. However, he is not alone in his mission to educate LIS students about reading scholarship.

Catherine Ross, former Dean of Information and Media Studies at Western Ontario University, has engaged in reading theory research for much of her career and taught countless LIS students about the reasons why people read. Ross is curious about how readers "distinguish between fiction and nonfiction" (105), as well as why some readers prefer fiction to nonfiction and vice versa. While conducting hundreds of interviews with readers (who were selected for the study precisely because they love to read), Dr. Ross and her research assistants posed many questions, including: "How do you choose a book to read for pleasure? Are there types of books that you do not enjoy and would not choose? What are you currently reading? Has there even been a book that has made a big difference to your life in one way or another?" (106). Like Wiegand, Ross uses reader response theory in constructing her arguments about reading scholarship, but she frames her findings exclusively within the context of readers' advisory service. [2]

Dr. Ross drew several conclusions about her subjects' choice of reading materials. She found that readers enjoy both fiction and nonfiction and "an interest in a particular subject can trump the distinction between [the genres]" (107). People who read nonfiction exclusively do so because they "want to read about things that are 'real'" (108). Some readers indicated that the length of time they have to devote to reading influences their choice in reading material. If they have short periods of time in which to read, they select nonfiction titles, which can be read in short sections or in non-sequential order (Ross 109-110). Some respondents feel they "'should' read nonfiction to increase their knowledge" (Ross 110).

Ross also found that readers distinguish between pleasure reading and reading to "take something away" (111). This led her to draw upon Louise Rosenblatt's distinction between efferent reading and aesthetic reading, which Ross addresses:

Efferent readers read to find some particular information or fact that they can transfer from the reading situation and use in their everyday lives. Or readers can choose to see the text as primarily 'poetic,' in which case they take an aesthetic stance. In aesthetic reading, the important thing is not the message that can be extracted but the reader's lived-through and immediate experience of encountering the text (111).

This is the one instance in a lengthy book chapter that Dr. Ross refers to reader response theory (and, specifically, the phenomenological approach), but it is clear that reception theory underlies, and can help explain, many of her findings.

Ross's next conclusion is one for librarians to take to heart: "The stance taken by the reader is not determined by the text" (112). In other words, library classification schemes (such as the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal System, for example), depend "on the assumption that certain basic differences inhere in the texts themselves and that these differences map on to how people actually use books" (112). However, Ross found, for example, that some of her subjects reported reading encyclopedias for fun when they were kids and that kind of book was a source they still enjoyed. Are those people best served by finding a favorite kind of text in a non-circulating reference collection ? No. Such people may find that a "passion for a single topic is the impetus for reading" (114), so librarians should find ways to better serve them. Ross also learned "sometimes readers don't want to do something; they just want to read about it" (114) and that "part of the joy of reading is serendipitous discovery" (115). In short, some of Ross's findings may seem obvious, but nevertheless, the more reading scholarship librarians can see in black and white, the better informed we will be.

Before faculty members and administrators make additional changes in library and information science curricula regarding reading scholarship, we should further examine how librarians can use reading theory to improve the professional services we offer. Though now sometimes considered a throwback to the days of the stereotypical, bookish, old-maid librarian with glasses perched atop her bun, readers' advisory service is still an expectation many library patrons have notably of public librarians, but they seek academic librarians' advice on books, too.

"I've just finished the Left Behind series. What should I read next?" Or, "I love Anita Shreve's books. Who else writes novels like that?" Though those may be questions that academiclibrarians do not receive as often as their public counterparts, there is no reason why we should not have a basic understanding of reception theory (the phrase Wiegand uses to refer to Iser's work) to offer improved services and new programs to patrons. In recent years, academic librarians around the country have begun working closely with public librarians, teachers, and bookstore employees to coordinate community reading programs. Libraries of all kinds host readings, book clubs, and other literary-themed events in order to promote the library as place--reminding people other than heavy library users that even in our current Information Age, the library (and, by extension, the book) is still relevant.

In selecting texts to promote or writers to host, librarians can, as Iser described it, help readers to formulate the unformulated and expose them to new thoughts, ideas, and emotions. In their own way, all librarians can, in our increasingly multicultural and multinational society, help promote better understanding between people of diverse backgrounds. The question is where do they begin? Before attempting to answer that question, I will examine reader response--or reception--theory more closely.

Louise Rosenblatt, the literary critic whose seminal 1938 text, Literature as Exploration, opened up a new avenue into literary theory, served as a precursor to Wolfgang Iser and his contemporaries. Rosenblatt, in the fifth edition of her book, wrote:

A novel or poem or play remains merely inkspots on paper until a reader transforms them into a set of meaningful symbols. The literary work exists in the live circuit set up between reader and text: the reader infuses intellectual and emotional meanings into the patter of verbal symbols, and those symbols channel his thoughts and feelings (24).

By infusing meaning into symbols, the reader, in other words, plays a part in the creation of a text. Rosenblatt's premise was later referenced by Iser in his notion of...

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