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

Reference Question of the Week – 12/12/10

   December 18th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Lead-Gold tattoosHere's a good example of why having some readers advisory background is very helpful when doing reference - and how not taking shortcuts can save the patron's time.

A young patron came to the desk and says,

I'm looking for a book - I borrowed it from a friend of mine, but only got like 25 pages into it, and then he took it back. Can you find it for me, because I want to finish it.

She couldn't remember the author, but she was sure the title was The Alchemist.

No problem, I thought, as I walked her down to Y/Fic/Coelho - but after skimming the first few pages, she said it wasn't the right book. Then I took her to Y/Fic/Scott, thinking she might have meant The Alchemyst instead of The Alchemist, but that wasn't the right one either. Nor was it Fullmetal Alchemist.

So we walked back up to the desk to search the catalog, and on the way she told me what she remembered from the story: a guy walks into a private detective's (or a psychiatrist?) office and tells her his life story, and that he has been alive for hundreds of years. Since she'd only gotten twenty pages into the book, the only real detail she could remember is that the guy was described has having very engaging colorful eyes, that changed color sometimes.

She texted her friend to ask him who the author was, while I searched our catalog for The Alchemist. However, she didn't recognize any of the covers and the book records didn't include descriptions.

Since she kept talking about the guy telling his life story in the office, I thought we might hit on it by searching the internet. We tried searching online for things like "the alchemist" detective "life story" and alchemist "life story" -Coelho -fullmetal and "life story" book eyes change color but weren't getting anywhere. She was interested and engaged in the search, so I probably continued with web searching longer than I should have.

Eventually, (finally) I switched to Novelist to just see a list of books called The Alchemist and read their descriptions. #26 on their list was one by Donna Boyd, with this description:

As Dr. Anne Kramer listens to Randolf Sontime, who is confessing to a horrific crime that has shocked the world, she is drawn into his story and transported back to the House of Ra, an isolated oasis in the Egyptian desert of an ancient time.

She said that sounded promising, so we looked it up on Amazon for additional description, and then she was sure it was the right one. Yay.

I then searched in our catalog for the author's name, and found that we did indeed own the book - but it was "Lost." Of course it was. I apologized, but she was happy with just requesting it from another library in the consortium.

I also apologized to her for taking so long to find this book - it was a good ten minutes from when she walked up to when we placed the request. I think this would have been cut down to about two minutes if I had just taken the time to search on Amazon for the books in our catalog that didn't have descriptions. I don't know what that didn't occur to me up front, so I subsequently took a very roundabout path to the answer. This girl didn't seem bothered in the least, but it really bugs me to make such a dumb and time-wasting mistake.

There are also two postscripts to this story:

  1. Quite literally the very second I clicked the "submit" button to request the book for her, she got a text back from her friends saying that author of the book he had was Donna Boyd. That even made her laugh.
  2. I know there's nothing to stop an author from titling their book the exact same thing as a very famous work, but it sure makes finding the less well-known works difficult. If I ever write a memoir, I think I shall call it, Harry Potter and the Three Cups of Tea of the Da Vinci Code.

    Actually, slightly related to this is that I've sort of considered writing a biography of the author Saul Bellow, but only because it could be published with the exact same cover as one of his novels:

    Herzog, by Saul Bellow book cover

    Aren't I clever?

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Online Readers Advisory Service

   August 7th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Maine State Library Outreach ServicesThe message below was posted to ME-LIBS last week, and it caught my attention - but then, most anything tagged "Online Reader Advisory Service" will:

Date: Fri, 29 Jun 2007 09:24:53 -0400
From: Melora Norman
Subject: Online Reader Advisory Service

Dear all,

We were inspired by a program presented at the 2006 Public Library Association conference to establish a reader advisory service for Books By Mail patrons which is accessible both online and in paper form. Please feel free to imitate (as did we!)


For more information on the original concept, please see *Looking for a Good Book?: Developing an Online Reading Suggestion Service*, a program presented in Boston 2006 by staff of the Williamsburg Regional Library:


(It is # 310 on the list)

Best wishes, and enjoy!


Melora Ranney Norman, coordinator
Maine State Library Outreach
64 State House Station
Augusta, ME 04333-0064

I like both the readers advisory aspect of this program, as well as the books-by-mail aspect. Way to go, Maine State Library.

books by mail, libraries, library, maine state library, online reader advisory, online readers advisory, public libraries, public library, reader advisory, readers advisory

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,