The Critic: Reflections on Readers’ Advisory


By: Katrina Spencer, Literatures & Cultures Librarian, Middlebury College

For two years now, I have been publishing a weekly book review column, “The Librarian Is In,” in Middlebury College’s weekly print and digital newspaper, The Campus. I have found it a wonderfully enriching experience that has benefited the community, my critical thinking, my relationships with library users and even one of my side hustles. Let me share some of the cool takeaways and results from my journey.

  1. You remain in the public eye.

    One of the challenges librarians regularly experience is making our services, resources, duties and expertise known to the communities we serve. As a community that broadly leans into introversion, we are not known for attention-seeking behavior. However, with a regular publication that is shared not only on my campus but also within the surrounding residential community, the book review column acts as a weekly advertisement of our wares, my name and our collections.

  2. Reading is an inherent part of your work.Audiobook Display

    It likely goes without saying that we librarians are a bookish lot. And if you’re anything like me, you’re always looking for an opportunity to get a little more time to read a few more pages. If you found a review column where you work, one of your duties is reading and pondering what you’ve read. Not only does creating an expectation of reading force a critic to establish a paradigm of accountability, in my experience, it’s typically more fun to create my work duties than to wait for them to be assigned.

  3. You read with a purpose and establish credibility.

    When you are reading with the objective of preparing a critical review, you actively search for a work’s strengths, weaknesses, gaps, genius, inconsistencies, artfulness and exclusions. While reading for leisure can be a more passive act, reading with the intention of evaluating requires an attentive engagement. By underscoring even the best work’s successes and failures, you model integrity for your audience, thereby allowing readers to rely on you for fair and balanced impressions.

  4. You have the privilege of promoting titles that might not be on everyone’s radar.

    For me, this is the most important benefit of all: being able to highlight works of literature and art that may not appear within the curriculum. Don’t get me wrong: I review classic works, too, like Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, which remind readers of their continued relevance. But recent releases like America Ferrara’s American Like Me and Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ Heads of the Colored People may not feature as prominently yet on the literary landscape. Writing reviews gives these works and these artists greater visibility and a heightened chance for recognition and engagement.

  5. You set the boundaries.

    I have stretched the limits of the “book” review column. For example, I highlighted the DVD Unchained Memories and reviewed the audiobook Less to promote our holdings on the audiobook and ebook platform OverDrive. So, not only is the column good for spotlighting works that reflect non-hegemonic narratives, it’s also good for advertising a variety of material formats. In an effort to cater to local tastes for foreign language study, I included titles like Deus por trâs as câmeras (God Behind the Scenes) and Ummī tuḥibbu al-fattūsh. With a personally authored column, the reviewer gets to decide or influence its focus and frequency of publication. And if weekly publishing is too much pressure, your reviews can be released at a more manageable rate and/or enjoy shared authorship by/with your colleagues.

  6. You model critical engagement and continued learning for your readers.

    When you read a variety of texts and write critical reviews of them regularly, inevitably you will come across works that have weak points and some that you just do not like. Having to highlight how a published work fails, excludes voices or neglects to engage important topics develops one’s Black History Month Displaycritical thinking and is both an exercise and skill that college educators are attempting to teach worldwide.

  7. Your expected audience is not always your actual audience.

    My primary objective in all of my library and information science work is to reach students, particularly students of color. Curiously, many more white, male professionals have reached out to me regarding this column than any other group. On our campus, the college’s newspaper is widely read by students, faculty, staff and local residents. So while my gesture was designed to draw more POCs (people of color) to the libraries and our collections, it would seem that at this predominantly white institution, I have provided greater visibility for authors representing groups that have been historically marginalized to a broader audience than the one I originally envisioned.

  8. You develop a skill that may lead to broader opportunities.

    Having published about three dozen reviews, I have developed a greater familiarity regarding what a review should include and when. I am also familiar with how much reading I must do in advance to stay on pace with a regular publication schedule. So, when I saw that the American Library Association’s Booklist was seeking more diverse reviewers, I had a wealth of experience and an arsenal of samples to share that allowed me to confidently offer my services up for compensated reviews, the first released in July 2019.

I’ll be honest with you: there have been some unexpected results of establishing this book review column. First, I didn’t realize that a New York-based podcast was using the name “The Librarian Is In” until after my column was well underway. Second, having published my photograph alongside my reviews allowed many people to get to know me before I knew them. This is great for anyone who is extroverted and sociable, but for anyone who is more on the reclusive side, know that you may be making yourself a local celebrity by following this route. As mentioned above, regular publication means you have to churn out copy at a steady and reliable pace. I would have never been able to do this had I not already had a strong appetite for reading, a deft hand at writing and a wealth of reviews prepared well in advance of the initial publication. Also, navigating controversial materials and/or authors can get tricky. What happens when you love an author’s work/voice/style but not the choices they allegedly make in their personal lives? I encountered that rub with Junot Díaz and his work Islandborn. To be a balanced critic, it may be in your community’s interest for you to not only review works you like but also ones you find troubling and explaining why publicly. Would I do it all again? Yes. The second time around, however, I’d establish word limits for myself, as I tend to write essays, and consider a quota system that obliged me to include a certain number of materials that were not books. All this said, I wish you all happy reading and rich readers’ advisory.

Katrina Spencer

Katrina Spencer works as the Literatures & Cultures Librarian at Middlebury College in Vermont. She serves the multicultural student center, the Language Schools, the Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies program and other campus groups. Find out more at