or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk




New(ish) Reading Suggestion Websites

   January 6th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Here are a couple reading suggestions website I came across recently that I liked:

The first is TheBookCalendar.com, which is simply a book-a-day online calendar. It shows the cover, a description (and sometimes author video), includes an Amazon link, and also has email and rss options. via lisnews.org

ReadingTrails.com logoThe second one might not be all that new, but I just learn about it a few weeks ago. ReadingTrails.com and provides a reading suggestions by linking related books into a chain.

Sound odd? I first heard of this form of readers advisory during an RA workshop in the SLIS program at Kent State University. The idea behind it is to identify one theme from the book that the reader likes, then find another book that contains the same theme. Next, pick something from that second book the reader likes and, based on that second criteria, link it to a third book that has that criteria, and on and on and on in a long chain of connected books.

An example: for someone who liked the magical aspect of the Narnia books, you might suggest they read Harry Potter. Then, since the Harry Potter series is based in England, you could link it to Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere.

Sort of like a six degrees of Kevin Bacon, but for books. It's a neat idea, but tough to do mentally - which is why it's a perfect task for a database. Or, in this case, "an innovative new social network for book lovers." They say:

Reading Trails is a wonderful way to discover books to read, meet new people, and most importantly, to share your reading experiences with friends by creating trails. In particular, Reading Trails is a great tool for book clubs....

Because a book can appear on more than one trail, trails intersect. The result is a network of trails that can be browsed to find unexpected reading pleasures.

I checked out the site, and it seemed typical of new and innovative ideas - it's a great idea, and I got some useful information from it, but the site doesn't always work the way I expect.

It can be used without signing into an account, which is good. And you can search for books or themes, and from there scroll up and down the "reading trail" of that book to find other reading suggestions. Great.

Other good things:

  • Fairly easy to use, and the trails are visual and useful and pretty cool
  • Lets people write reviews of the books
  • Provides links to Amazon to buy the book and WorldCat to find the book at a library
  • Provides widget code to embed into your website, like this:

A few technical glitches I noticed:

  • On the search results page, each book had a little checkbox next to it, and I couldn't figure out what that was for
  • Each book also had an odd little box under it, which only becomes useful when you are logged in (if it's not useful, it shouldn't be shown)
  • For the searches I ran, the bottom of the screen would say something like "Viewing 1-7 of 7 matches" and yet there would be twelve books displayed. None of the searches I performed displayed a number of books that matched what was listed on the bottom of the page
  • Some of the trail themes I searched for did not exist (Vietnam, Iraq, poverty, aliens) but most others did
  • There doesn't seem to be a way to view details of any book - just see where it falls in various trails
  • They don't seem to explain why books are linked in a chain - I'd be curious to see what theme connects them

Most of these cons are probably due to the newness of the website, and will likely be improved as the site grows.

I don't think I'll use these much on a personal level (unlike LibraryThing), but I will keep both in mind for readers advisory at the reference desk.



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Resources for Book Suggestions

   February 14th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Last week's Reference Question was about me finding a new source for suggesting good books for patrons - the Mass Book Awards.

Liz's comment on the post was a good one, and I thought it warranted a bit of research and a full post devoted to answering it. She said:

There are a few websites which allow you to enter some of your favorite bands and it pops out suggestions of similar bands you might like - wouldn’t it be awesome if they had a site like that for books?...

Here are some resources I found that let you search for a book/author you like, and then link from it to similar books:

  • WhatShouldIReadNext.com - search for a book to see recommendations
  • reader2.com - search for a book to see recommendations; also shows tags associated with each book
  • AllReaders.com - search for a title or author, and similar books are listed at the end of each book description; also allows searching by plot, setting, or character
  • StoryCode.com - lets you search for a title or author and suggests similar stories (based on user data); also has other features
  • LibraryThing.com - offers book suggestions based on user-entered tags; you can also browse tags for books on a certain subject, or use their unsuggester to find books unlike a particular book
  • GoodReads.com - seems a lot like LibraryThing, but puts more emphasis on recommendations of people in your friends network rather than cumulative data
  • NoveList - the old standby, but you probably need to go through your local library for it
  • Amazon.com - it is Amazon, so it's primary focus is to sell book, not recommend them, but it does offer suggestions based on what people purchase and search by topic (as it were)

There are lots of other sites devoted to book suggestions. A few others I found that didn't fit above but that are also useful are:

  • Listal.com Books - search (hidden in upper right corner) for books and link to others via tags (seems to focus more on social connections)
  • FictionFinder from OCLC - offers Subject cloud (like tag cloud) to find similar books; also allows searching, and each book has links to see other books with the same subjects, genres, characters or setting
  • Find a Good Book from Hennepin County Library - search for an author to find recommended reading lists where that author's books appear (plus links to other listings and resources)
  • Staff Recommendations from the Skokie Public Library - search for a subject to find books their staff has reviewed and recommends

And here's a few resources that are list-based - you click the subject you like, and you browse the list of books in that subject:

I'm sure there are tons of others - even my library also has a readers advisory webpage. If I missed one of your favorites, please share it with a comment below.



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Reference Question of the Week – 2/3/08

   February 9th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Massachusetts Center for the Book logoThis week's question is one heard often:

"do you have any suggestions for a good book?"

Librarians either love of hate this question. I've talked about various readers advisory tools (and the old standard, NoveList), but I learned of a new one this week.

On Thursday, I went to the Massachusetts State House to attend the presentation of the 2008 Massachusetts Book Awards (photos).

Each year, the Massachusetts Center for the Book evaluates hundreds of entrants in the categories of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and childrens books, and selects a winner and two honorees in each category.

Part of the criteria is that the author is a Massachusetts resident or the work in some way is significant to Massachusetts. Their website has the list of this year's winners as well as winners from past years, and I think this is a great resource for readers advisory. This year's books included Nathaniel Philbrick (Mayflower), Noam Chomsky (Failed States), and Martín Espada (The Republic of Poetry), among others, so these aren't local interest-only works.

What I also liked is that the Massachusetts Center for the Book is part of the Library of Congress' Center for the Book program. Which means, not only can I refer patrons to these few Massachusetts, but there are 49 other state programs, all evaluating and highlighting significant books.

I've used the Center for the Book for other things, but never the award winner lists for readers advisory. So not only was it a fun trip to Boston, but I learned something, too.



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Patron Book Reviews Tool

   September 27th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Chili Fresh logoI was asked by a company called Chili Fresh to take a look at a new tool they're creating. It is designed to allow book reviews written by patrons to display right in the catalog (similar to reviews on Amazon.com showing up right on the item details page).

I agreed, and have spent some time on this, because I really like the concept - integrating useful data right into the library catalog. One of the biggest problems with library resources is that they're too complicated to use. The databases we subscribe to are great, but if using them requires patrons to jump through hoops, then the patrons are not going to use them.

As an example: NoveList is one of the best databases libraries can offer. Its readers advisory information is unmatched. But, because it's a stand-alone tool (the proverbial "information silo"), it's just that much more difficult for patrons to use.

Counter to this is LibraryThing for Libraries, which provides readers advisory information right in the catalog - you know, where our patrons already are. I don't think the suggestions provided by LTfL are as good as NoveList (yet), but its ease of utility makes it a far more practical tool.

And this is what caught my eye with Chili Fresh. Patrons-created book information, right along side the library's book information. That's great. Just like comments on a weblog, getting patrons involved and interacting with the library is going to enrich both the tool and the experience.

I've spent a few hours this week playing with the Chili Fresh tool (my test page), and sending emails back and forth to the developers. They readily admit this tool is still in beta, and has a ways to go, but they are open to comments and have already incorporated a few of my suggestions. I encourage anyone interested to set up an account and play too, and let them know what you think. The more input provided by libraries, the more this will be shaped into a useful tool.

It seems a bit clunky right now, because the examples are all outside of a library catalog. But they're definitely on the right track, and the idea is worth some attention. You can sign up on their website for a test account, or contact them Scott Johnson (jscott [at] chilifresh.com) for more information.

A note about their website: you'll notice that many of the pages are blank. I asked about this and was told that, since the product is still in beta and is changing, they are limiting the amount of information available.

book review, book reviews, chili fresh, chilifresh, libraries, library, patron, public libraries, public library, readers advisory



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Readers Advisory Ideas

   August 14th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Photograph of a Stack of BooksReaders Advisory has been quite the topic for me lately, and the fun continues.

There's a current thread on ME-LIBS about what libraries do to connect books with readers, and I thought I'd pull together some of the examples provided (please excuse any editorializing on my part - I was trying to just pull out the highlights, so any mistakes below are mine):

Molly Larson, Rockport Public Library

  • We have a "Rockport Readers Recommend" display that is ongoing and we encourage patrons to recommend titles...[and] write a comment in the notebook. We also post this list on our website including patron comments
  • We also have "BookLovers Cafe"...an informal gathering on Saturdays once a month when patrons can just come in and talk about what they're reading. [Staff] compiles the list of recommended books and we also provide the list at the book display
  • [Staff] created a handy series book that is right at the Circ desk. Patrons like this because they don't have to look it up in the OPAC or somewhere else to find the next title in a series (popular adult fiction)
  • We have various themed displays that change regularly. Patrons love the different displays
  • In our monthly newsletter...staff members will contribute "good reads" suggestions. I've seen patrons bring in the list of recommended reading and look for the books
  • We have done "if you like" lists on occasion as bookmarks
  • Ongoing display of new children's books and Maine Student Book award books
  • I use NoveList almost on a daily basis and offer to print article from that for patrons

Kathy Foss, Camden-Rockport Middle School Library

  • A series "notebook" which we used to have in hard copy but now have at our website
  • A set of shelves just for what I call "Foss Favorites" in the school library which kids can browse as they know I've read each title and recommend it
  • A variety of reading lists on our website so that if a student wants another book, for example, with animal main characters, they can browse these and print out the lists that interest them most by clicking on Foss Favorites on that page
  • We also use Novelist all the time
  • This fall we plan to start encouraging our students to podcast their own book reviews so that other kids can hear them

Barbara L. Keef, Windham Public Library

  • Our patrons love eye-catching displays, especially if they are in a bit of a hurry to grab a couple of books for their vacation time (the popularity of a display is easily judged by the amount of time you spend in re-stocking those titles)
  • Some successful display ideas from our library include:
    • "Most checked-out book lists" from Library Journal to showcase the popular fiction and non-fiction titles
    • A display of "what we read last summer" (the NY Times Best-sellers from the summer of 2006)
    • A "Read, White, and Blue" display of -guess what- books with red, white and blue covers
    • A "Get a Life" display for biographies
    • Read-alike display (right now it's Jodi Picoult)
    • Other Popular Author display (at the moment, it's Clive Cussler)
  • We also have created read-alike bookmarks as well as a list of what our Book Group has been reading/discussing
  • There are also displays in our Teen Area for new titles and other popular subjects (pirates, for example)
  • Novelist is a valuable tool along with all those other lists found on public library websites. It is fun to hear what other libraries are doing for Reader's Advisory and it helps to browse websites and visit bookstores to get ideas

I don't know why, but it was kind of funny to see that everyone mentioned NoveList (I use it myself, and patrons seem to enjoy NoveList after I demonstrate it). I also liked that these libraries dedicate displays to younger readers; I know that depends on staff and space availability, but it's a group that shouldn't be ignored.

In my library, we rely heavily on displays, read-alike bookmarks, informal staff suggestions, and our Readers Corner webpage. We also use NoveList quite a bit, as well as BookLetters. My concern is trying to present all of these suggestion sources in a coherent and useful way.

Another source for ideas is the Readers Advisory section of the Library Success: Best Practices Wiki. If your library has found something that works well, please share.

books, libraries, library, public libraries, public library, reader advisory, readers advisory, reading, recommendations, suggestions



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Book Review Search

   August 9th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Google Custom SearchI've been trying for awhile to come up with a good way to use Google's Custom Search, and I think I found one.

I created a search for online book reviews. It can be a reader's advisory tool, help librarians with selection, or aid book groups in looking for information on their current selection. Give it a try:

Search for Book Reviews
Google Custom Search
(hint: enclose book titles in quotes to improve results; i.e.: "Cat's Cradle")

Despite my Very Large Skepticism of Google in general, the tool itself is very easy to set up and is potentially extremely useful (especially for librarians). Basically, it lets you limit searching to a select group of websites - in this case, book review websites. In fact, my biggest problem was in choosing which websites to include in the search (see below for my initial list).

One complaint I do have is that I can't control how included websites are ranked. For instance, I included amazon.com on the list, because it has a variety of reviews. In almost every search amazon.com shows up first. I would rather see them ranked below the non-commercial review websites, but Google's search algorithm always puts amazon.com on top [update: see comments below].

So, let me know what you think, and which very obvious websites I forgot to add. I've also embedded this search in my Library's Reading Room web pages, and plan on maintaining it as a readers advisory tool.

Thanks to Kate for pointing out this tool in the first place.

List of domains searched:

book, book review, book review search, book reviews, books, google, google custom search, library, public libraries, public library, reader advisory, readers advisory, review, reviews



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