Expanding Your Skill Set Through Reviewing

by Elizabeth Nelson

Librarians have many different forms of professional development open to them, including taking courses or attending workshops, pursuing advanced degrees, participating on committees, attending or presenting at conferences, and writing for professional journals. One type of writing that is often overlooked, but can be beneficial for your career, is the art of reviewing. Reviewing can be rewarding for librarians at any point in their careers, but newer librarians in particular can leverage their reviewing experience to differentiate themselves. Reviews are generally used by librarians, and other readers, to help with purchasing decisions, and as such, are needed for all types of materials – fiction and nonfiction; books, media, and websites; for children, adults, and young adults. Different sources focus on specific formats or interest levels, and this allows the reviewer a degree of flexibility for preferences and areas of expertise.

The traditional approach to begin reviewing was to contact review journals and go through their application process. However, now with the explosion of web based publication, there are additional opportunities for new reviewers - from increased demand for reviewers from traditional review publishers to populate their web sites, to the ability to start a blog or online journal to publish your own reviews (Benedetti, 24).

Whichever path you choose, there are many professional benefits to writing reviews.

Getting Your Name “in print”
One of the primary benefits of writing reviews, or any kind of professional writing, is your byline. Librarians are the chief consumers of reviews. The more you write, the more visible you become to potential employers. There are other types of professional writing, but reviewing is “the easiest way for young librarians to begin publishing in a way that would advance one’s career” (Burch, 87). The reason this is such a clear-cut route is that there are not only a lot of books/media/websites that need to be reviewed, but also because editors value the experience and viewpoint of librarians as reviewers. And once you start writing, reviewing can become a springboard into other types of writing, which is helpful to any career and required for those in the academic world.

Honing Your Communication Skills
In contrast to writing blogs or articles, reviews are very structured. Each review journal has different criteria. Short reviews can be in the range of 100 words, while longer reviews may only be 300 words (with more scholarly sources allowing lengthier reviews). That leaves little real estate to describe the content, style, and features, and make recommendations or list comparable titles. Reviewing teaches you to be concise and specific, relating all the key points in an understandable way. In addition, reviewers work with an editor who assigns and edits work. As such, this is very much a work relationship, with clear expectations from both parties, but your editor is probably not someone that you will meet in person. Therefore it is necessary to communicate clearly by email regarding deadlines and the editing of your review. Occasionally written communication may arrive from the editor by mail enclosed with materials, but the bulk of your interactions will be by email. Even though you may be reviewing on a volunteer basis or for a small fee, the editor you are working with has a job to do and they have deadlines and quality standards that you agree to meet when taking an assignment. Clear communication can save a lot of headaches for both you and the editor.

Demonstrating Your Expertise
Reviewing highlights the reviewer’s expertise in several ways. The first is that it shows your subject knowledge. From genre fiction to scholarly non-fiction, reviewers have to be well-read in the area they review in. Many reviewers have an educational background or experience in the area they review. Becoming adept at reviewing requires a level of subject specialty that can help further your career.

In the same vein, reviewing demonstrates the ability to make collection decisions and to compare a particular item to the body of information already available. It also allows you to explore materials beyond your current job responsibilities. Moving between different areas of librarianship can be challenging, but reviewing can give you a leg up. For instance, a librarian wanting to move from technical services to readers advisory can use reviewing to show his abilities. Or an adult services librarian who wants to move into youth services can use the reviewing of children’s books and media to demonstrate an understanding of youth materials.

The same argument applies to new librarians as well. With increased competition for open positions, an interest in the job responsibilities is not enough. Reviewing can expand your knowledge of current books and media, making you more conversant in current trends and differentiate you from other candidates. It also shows initiative when you actively pursue opportunities in your area of interest, something that managers will take into consideration.

Personal Satisfaction
At the end of the day, you have to do what you love. If you enjoy critically reading, listening, and/or viewing, and then sharing your opinions, then you can get a lot of personal satisfaction from the reviewing experience. It also allows you to polish your skills in evaluating materials for your own collection, while at the same time helping other libraries select the best materials for their collections and their users.

Getting Started
If you choose to self publish your reviews, there are many free sites to begin a blog or journal and you can get started right away. If you choose to go through a review journal the process takes a little longer. Each of the review journals has instructions for reviewers that can usually be found on their websites. The application process differs for each; some have formal application processes and require writing samples, and others just require an email to the editor. Before you start writing, read as many reviews as you can get your hands on. Each review journal uses a slightly different format and you want to find the best fit for your writing style and interests.

Writing reviews can be difficult at first since it is so different from other types of writing. The best way to improve your writing is to keep writing. The more reviews you write, the easier it will be. If you have problems, the editor is a good source to consult since they know what they look for in a well-written review. But most of all have fun. After all, once you start reviewing, there is nothing quite like the thrill of exploring the new books that are delivered to your doorstep.

Benedetti, Angelina. "Writing Is the New Reading." Alki. 25.1 (March 2009): 24.
Burch, John R. “Learn How to Review Books.” Writing and Publishing: The Librarian's Handbook. E. Carol Smallwood. Chicago: American Library Association, 2010.