by Brandon West and Tina Chan
Whether you are a library student or a librarian, it is always good to become active in professional development. Attending conferences and being involved in committees in a professional organization are great ways to develop valuable skills (interpersonal, management, and leadership), meet like-minded people, learn about issues in the profession, and show employers and prospective employers that you're active, engaged, and you care about making an impact on the profession. Another area of professional development that any new librarian should consider is writing reviews of books and other library materials. There are many benefits to getting involved with the review process, most notably being able to contribute to the profession of librarianship and jump starting your professional writing.
Perks of Being a Book Reviewer
For new librarians, the first years in the profession can be a very busy time in one's career. Aside from learning job responsibilities, new librarians are also figuring out how to give back to the profession. Reviewing books and other materials can be a great way to start these contributions and there are many benefits to becoming a reviewer.
1. Impact Your Collection Development
Becoming a reviewer allows you to learn more about books and other materials. Reviewing materials for publications often requires providing more than just your opinion. Most publications require you to compare titles to similar works in the field. By analyzing materials in a more holistic sense, it is easier to understand the types of materials specific publishers produce. Understanding the style and format of publisher content is invaluable when developing your library's collections. Writing reviews also helps librarians develop a deeper understanding of content areas. There are plenty of materials that need reviewing: fiction titles, picture books, academic works, and DVDs are only a few. By taking the time to look closely at these titles, you can start picking up on new ideas and trends in literature, both of which help hone your expertise in collection development.
2. Share Your Voice
Sometimes it can be difficult for new librarians to lend their voice to the larger professional community. Writing reviews is a great way to start sharing your opinions with librarians outside your institution. Reviews are an invaluable resource for librarians, especially those who participate in developing library collections. Your reviews will influence other librarians as they purchase materials. In many ways, writing reviews is an empowering experience and helps new librarians gain confidence in sharing their ideas with the librarian community.
3. Jumpstart Your Writing Career
Many librarians, especially academic librarians, need to publish in order to meet tenure requirements. Regardless of tenure responsibilities, writing reviews is a way to get new librarians involved with professional writing. One of the barriers to getting started with this type of writing is usually the need to build more work and research experience. Reviewing materials is a way for librarians to begin publishing their writing, often to national or global audiences. There are many important skills that one learns as a reviewer, including time management and following guidelines. These skills are essential for planning larger writing projects and collaborating with others on written works.
4. Build Relationships Outside the Library
Most publications that seek out reviewers will assign an editor to oversee the reviews that librarians submit. Developing a relationship with these editors is very beneficial for a new librarian. In particular, it allows librarians to share knowledge and expertise with someone outside their library. A positive relationship with an editor can be great for networking and for referrals for other opportunities. For example, if there is a conference needing presenters, sometimes editors for review publications get asked to recommend librarians. In this regard, writing reviews may open doors for one's career.
5. Delve Into Personal Interests
Most librarians are avid readers, but rarely do professional responsibilities grant them time to actually read a book, let alone books of their own interests. The nice thing about reviewing materials is that there are so many different types of publications that one may review. For example, if you work in an academic setting, you do not have to limit yourself strictly to reviewing academic materials; rather consider reviewing something of your own interests. Doing so will make reviewing the materials more enjoyable and will offer publications a new perspective.
Where to Find Review Opportunities
How does one get started with reviewing library materials? The simple answer is that librarians interested in becoming reviewers need to seek out available opportunities. Fortunately, opportunities to review are plentiful, if you look in the right places.
1. Publisher Websites
The first place to look for review opportunities is on a publisher's website. Most often, publishers will have a webpage with information about becoming a reviewer, including criteria for reviewers and application requirements. Often, they will be explicit in letting the public know if they are in need of reviewers or not.
New librarians need to be subscribing to listservs. There are many professional opportunities that are mentioned on listservs, including the call for reviewers. If there are particular types of materials that one wishes to review, then sign up for a listserv in that area. The American Library Association (ALA) has many listservs associated with its different sections and workgroups that new librarians will find valuable.
3. Professional Organizations
It's important for new librarians to keep abreast of trends in their ever changing profession. Consider joining professional organizations like ALA to connect with groups of professionals. There are often regional organizations that new librarians should join as well. These groups of professionals may allow you to network with individuals and will occasionally offer opportunities for various professional activities, including writing reviews.
4. Social Media
Facebook and Twitter are excellent sources for finding opportunities to review materials. Request to join professional groups on Facebook, especially ones associated with ALA. These groups will often announce professional opportunities specific to their subject areas. Also follow publishers, publications, and other library professionals on Twitter, since they will post new opportunities as they arise. It can also be helpful to follow other librarians, as they may provide suggestions if asked.
Another good strategy for finding reviewer opportunities is to ask colleagues. Often, more experienced librarians will have published a review or written an article for a publication. They might be able to offer advice and/or refer you to editors or publications. It never hurts to ask colleagues to forward any reviewing opportunities.
Most review sources, such as magazines, journals, and websites, will follow a review cycle from the time of receiving the review material(s) to submitting the final draft of the review to the editor. While the review cycle will vary depending on the publisher, the typical process includes: receiving the review assignment, reading the book or other materials, drafting your review, writing the review, submitting the review to your editor, and finally the review is published. The turnaround time for each review depends on the publisher's time frame, as they often plan the content for publications months in advance. A common turnaround time for many reviews is typically between four to six weeks. While this seems like a fair amount of time, it is extremely important to develop a plan for completing the review, especially when reviewing lengthy books. It can be easy to become busy at work and forget about the review deadline. It is important to also communicate with the editor, especially if the review deadline falls during an inconvenient time or if unexpected life events take place. Also, be patient once a final review is submitted to the editor; it may not appear in the publication or website for approximately six weeks after submission.
Write the Right Way
It may be a challenge to start writing a review. Fortunately, the more you write reviews, the easier it gets. The following tips will help make the review writing process easier.
1. Review the Publication Agreement
When you get a review assignment, you will receive the book (as a final copy or an advance copy/uncorrected proof) and a publication agreement that includes information such as the copyright and licensing policies, submission deadline and instructions, formatting content, word count, review content, and the editor's contact information. The publication agreement exists to help the reviewer understand the policies and what to include in the review. They are there to help make the review writing process smoother.
2. Take Notes
It is a good idea to take notes while reading the book. They do not need to be extensive since the review has a word limit. The key is to be succinct. You may want to include many characteristics of the book, but if the review must be a few hundred words, include the main points so that readers have a big picture of the author's intent.
3. Be Fair, Objective, and Honest
If a book does not interest you for whatever reason (slow storyline, undeveloped characters, inappropriate for target audience, etc.), state this and how it can be improved. When reviewing academic titles, it is important to justify your rationale with specific information from the text. If you believe a book is really bad, you may want to provide readers with an alternative title about that same topic.
4. Write an Initial Draft
It helps to write an initial draft and then go back and revise it. When you first start reviewing, do not be afraid to solicit feedback from colleagues or professors. The revision process should not be overlooked as other professionals will read your review. You want to showcase your best work.
After writing the review, proofread to make sure it fits the publication's review guidelines and that no grammatical and spelling errors are present. You can also ask your mentors, colleagues, or professors to proofread and offer suggestions.
Becoming a reviewer is beneficial for any new librarian. It's a step to becoming more active in the profession and provides librarians with a low-stakes publishing opportunity. Most importantly, reviewing materials is a great way to boost one's confidence and will help prepare you to take on new and exciting professional challenges.
Brandon West is the Online Instruction/Instructional Design Librarian at SUNY Oswego. He reviews books and other educational materials for the Children's Literature Comprehensive Database and for Choice magazine.
Tina Chan is the Assistant Coordinator of Reference at SUNY Oswego. She writes book reviews for Choice, Library Journal, and Children's Literature Comprehensive Database. She has also written reviews for ARLIS/NA Reviews, NMRT Footnotes, and the Asian American Studies section of Resources for College Libraries as a peer reviewer.