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


Reference Question of the Week – 12/30/12

   January 5th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Amongst White Clouds DVD coverThis has been a heck of a holiday season for some reason, and I'm still trying to get caught up. So, this is just a quickie reference question - although it's more like "readers advisory gone wrong."

One of our patrons submitted a purchase suggestion through our website for the DVD Amongst White Clouds, a documentary on Buddhism and monks. Since it wasn't already owned by any libraries from which it was easily requestable, I looked it up on Amazon to check it out, read reviews, and see if it was worth purchasing.

Most of the reviews were positive, which is good, but sometimes the bad reviews are more informative. This time though, one of them made me laugh out loud:

After reading the documentary description and several rave reviews, I was anxious to watch this movie. It provides a lesson in Buddhism, but not the one I was expecting. ... I got more wisdom from watching Kung Fu Panda with my son, than I got from this movie.

Pretty harsh, but funny. One of my favorite features of professional review journals is when a reviewer says a book isn't very good, and then provides titles that are better. But in this case, I don't think my patron would have been happy with this Amazon reviewer's alternate suggestion.

And actually, after reading about this DVD, I really want to see it now - thanks for the good suggestion, patron.



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Navigating NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books

   October 25th, 2011 Brian Herzog

SF Signal presents A Guide to Navigating NPR's Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy BooksThis isn't new, but I read on Slashdot last week that NPR listeners voted for the top 100 science fiction & fantasy books of all time.

But the website SF Signal saw a problem: the 100 science fiction & fantasy books were from all over the genres, and had basically no rhyme or reason. So they created a readers advisory flowchart, to help readers select which of the 100 they'd be most interested in reading by answering a few questions.

A 100-book flowchart graphic is massively huge (see below), so they also made an interactive version - it's great, and worth a look:

Flowchart for choosing science fiction and fantasy books

Does anyone know of other interactive "choose-your-own-adventure" type readers advisory tools out there?



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“Readers Advisory” on Hulu

   September 9th, 2010 Brian Herzog

I was watching a show called The Book Group on Hulu recently, and got a taste of how they recommend other shows to people.

The bottom of every show page always has a "You Might Also Like" section, recommending similar shows, which I have used that in the past. But because a couple of the episodes of The Book Group were rated TV-MA, and required me to log in, during one of the commercial breaks I got this ad:

Hulu ad

Which I read as,

Brian, not only are we violating your privacy, but we also think you have bad taste.

I'm sure the "27x more fans" thing is just to induce me to watch the other show (Peep Show, which I did watch a few episodes of and didn't really like). However, requiring me to log in and then using that to track me and "personalize" suggestions does feel like a violation. A different ad seemed more reasonable:

Hulu Ad2

This conveys the exact same message, but doesn't also imply a deficiency on my part. So, I guess a word of caution to anyone providing readers advisory or viewing suggestions on your website - careful how you word the message.

Also, this got me thinking about two types of suggestions: item-oriented suggestions and person-oriented suggestions. Item-oriented is like NoveList or LibraryThing for Libraries - basically, providing suggestions based on the characteristics of an item.

Person-oriented suggestion is more like a personal shopper, or saying, "based on our monitoring of your behavior, we think you'd like this" - providing suggestions based on the preferences (or past behavior) of a person (or people). Amazon's "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" or "Frequently Bought Together" sections are like this, as well as their "Recently Viewed Items." Which isn't a bad thing, unless the person being monitored don't know about it, or has no choice about it.

Hulu might be genericizing the data of what other people are doing, but it seems like they're still tracking what individual people do on their website, and I will always feel uncomfortable with that.



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Reference Question of the Week – 6/21/09

   June 27th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Twitter @bloglinesThis week's reference question is one of my own. I use Bloglines to read rss feeds, and a couple weeks ago they changed their interface.

I didn't like the changes, so I used their Contact Form to express this and ask if there was an option to change it back. This was two weeks ago, and I still haven't gotten a reply.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps Bloglines used Twitter, and maybe I could ask them that way. I found an @bloglines user, but even though he's using the Bloglines logo, he indicates it's not an official Bloglines account.

I asked him my question anyway (noticing he was fielding the exact same question a lot lately), and got a reply in 5 hours. And best of all, his suggestion worked perfectly, and now I'm back to using Bloglines happily, the way that suits me best.

But this experience got me thinking. It's easy for organizations to let email messages slide, because only that one person knows they sent it in. But Twitter is public, and if someone is questioning or complaining, ignoring it won't make it go away.

Unofficial or not, @bloglines did exactly what I would have expected an organization to do - respond quickly and helpfully.

This is what librarians do, and it reminded me of Kate's post about their library suggestion box. I like that she's publicly displaying suggestions and answers, because in this case, one-to-many communication seems better than one-to-one.

So I thought, why not encourage patrons to use Twitter as a suggestion box? Being public, the library has to address patrons' concerns, but it also means all patrons can benefit from the answer, rather than just one.

I know a public forum isn't appropriate for every issue, and anonymity can be necessary, so I think traditional suggestion boxes (whether physical or online form) are still useful. But I bet there are some libraries already doing this very thing. I know I came late to Twitter, but it really is turning out to be a very useful tool after all.



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Simple Book Suggester: BookSeer.com

   June 23rd, 2009 Brian Herzog

bookseer.comMy library started a new readers advisory program this summer, so I've been updating our reading suggestions webpage. A neat website I just added is bookseer.com.

Bookseer is like many "what should I read next" websites, except it is impressively simple. Just type a title and author into their fun interface, and it gives reading suggestions based on Amazon.com and Librarything.com data.

Of course, the suggestions will only be as good as the data. But I like that it's building on something already available, and automatically updated, rather than relying on manual edits. And it's simple, free, creative, and doesn't require an account.

via @EchoYouBack, MELIBS-L and LifeHacker



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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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