MLA Conference 2014, Day Two (Thursday)

Screen shot 2014-05-08 at 8.53.24 PMHarvard Library Innovation Lab: Pop-Ups, Prototypes, and Awesome Boxes

Annie Cain, Matt Phillips, and Jeff Goldenson from the Harvard Library Innovation Lab  presented some of their recent projects. Cain started off by introducing Awesome Box: the Awesome Box gives library users the opportunity to declare a library item (book, audiobook, movie, TV show, magazine, etc.) “awesome” by returning it to an Awesome Box instead of putting it into the book drop. Library staff can then scan the “awesome” items and send them to a custom website (e.g., where anyone can see the “recently awesome” and “most awesome” items. Instead of librarian-to-patron readers’ advisory, it’s patron-to-patron/librarian. Cool, fun, and easy to use! “Awesome” books can also be put on display in the library.

Phillips talked about the idea of “hovermarks,” bringing favicon-style images to the stacks by placing special bookmarks in books. Patrons or librarians could place a hovermark in a book to draw attention to local authors, Dewey Decimal areas, beach reads, favorites, Awesome Box picks, or anything else. It’s a “no-tech” way to “annotate the stacks.”

Goldenson floated the idea of a Library Community Catalog, inspired by the Whole Earth Catalog. The Library Community Catalog could contain real things, ideas, speculations, interviews, or other articles. It could be “hyper-local,” in print and/or online.

Of the three ideas presented, Awesome Box is definitely the most developed, and Harvard, which “isn’t necessarily known for sharing,” is eager to get it into public libraries. Contact them if you’re interested in setting it up at your library!

Libraries are Keeping Readers First: An Update on the National Initiative and How You Can Participate

Readers First is “a movement to improve e-book access and services for public library users.” Kelvin Watson from Queens Library and Michael Santangelo from BookOps presented an update on this initiative, explaining the work that’s been done thus far and how far we have to go. The more people (and libraries) sign on, the stronger the team, the better ability to effect change. Already, said Santangelo, Readers First represents over 20 million readers.

Screen shot 2014-05-09 at 3.57.31 PM

It’s worth going to the Readers First site (link in the previous paragraph) to read their principles. The two main challenges regarding e-books in libraries are availability and discoverability/access. Availability is an issue with the publishers; the issues of discoverability and access can be taken up with the vendors. Because libraries are only indirectly connected to publishers, but directly connected to vendors, Readers First decided to focus its efforts on the discoverability/access challenge.

Santangelo said that Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science applied to e-books also (save the time of the reader, (e)books are for use, etc.) and that libraries have a responsibility to ensure open, easy, and free access to e-books the same as we do for print books. However, the e-book experience now is fragmented, disjointed, and cumbersome, creating a poor user experience. This is where the four Readers First principles come in: readers should be able to discover content in one comprehensive catalog; access a variety of content from multiple sources; interact with the library in the library’s own context; and read e-books compatible with all e-reading devices.

A Readers First Working Group sent a survey to vendors in order to create a guide to library e-book vendors. This guide will help librarians who are choosing an e-book vendor for the first time, or moving from one to another; it will also help vendors design their systems and decide what to prioritize.

Watson said that libraries should see vendors as partners, and challenge them to “do the right thing.” Librarians should hold all vendors accountable to the Readers First principles, with the end goal of a seamless experience for the user. The long-term objective, said Michael Colford of the Boston Public Library, is to “have the discovery layer be the platform.” Until then, we’re relying on APIs. “We can make things less complicated, but we can’t make it easier,” said Santangelo.

Readers First is working with the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) to develop standards for e-books, but according to Watson, the perfect format hasn’t been invented yet. (Other than PDFs, most e-book files are proprietary formats, wrapped in DRM and not usable across devices.)

MA E-Book Project

Deb Hoadley presented an update on the Massachusetts E-Book Project on behalf of the Massachusetts Library System. I was already familiar with the project because Robbins is one of the pilot libraries, but it was good to review the history, see where the project had hit snags, and hear from other librarians at pilot libraries (Jason Homer from Wellesley and Jackie Mushinsky from WPI) about how they had introduced the project to patrons.

150x71-MA-EbooksYou can read about the project’s history, the RFP, and see updates on the website, so I want to use this space to draw a parallel between the MA E-Book Project and Readers First. Although the pilot consists of three different vendors (BiblioBoard, Baker & Taylor (Axis 360), and EBL) with three different models, the end goal is a single e-book platform that offers integrated and seamless discovery. Any Massachusetts resident would have access through this user-friendly platform to e-content that is owned – not licensed – by Massachusetts libraries; local content would also be hosted and discoverable.

Although we are far from this goal right now, “Our vendors are listening to us,” said Homer. He said that participating in the pilot project has enabled him to start conversations with patrons about how much we spend on e-books now and why we need a new model. Mushinsky, who added local content through BiblioBoard, said that we need to ask, “Will this resource be of value to us? Can we add value to it?”

I came away from these two sessions (Readers First and the MA E-Book Project) convinced that we have the right goals, and dedicated people working toward them, but a little depressed at how far we have to go. Slowly but surely…

Teaching the Tools: Technology Education in Public Libraries

Clayton Cheever live-blogged this session; his notes are posted on the Teaching the Tools site.

Anna Litten from Wellesley did an excellent job moderating this informative panel. Litten and the other panelists (Michael Wick, Theresa Maturevitch, Jason Homer, and Sharani Robins) built a website called Teaching the Tools: Libraries and Technology Education, which they hope will serve as a resource going forward. To borrow from the site: “All reference librarians are technology trainers, educators and instructors these days.  But what does it really mean to teach technology topics in public libraries?  What can and should we teach?  How does technology instruction fit into our broader mission and core responsibilities?  What resources are available to use and to our clients?  How do we become better presenters and instructors?”

The panelists addressed these questions during the session. They all teach in their libraries, but the teaching takes different forms. “I teach to whatever question comes to the door, in whatever way the learner can understand it,” said Wick. Maturevich talked about printed brochures, online resources, and videos; Robins talked about beginner classes, one-on-one sessions, and “Wired Wednesday,” when patrons can drop in for tech help. Robins has also had reps from Barnes & Noble and Best Buy come in to help people with e-reading devices, and she often uses the resources at GCF Homer teaches intermediate classes in the Wellesley computer lab, and other Wellesley staff teach beginner classes. Clearly, there are many approaches, and flexibility is key.

Litten suggested taking the time to read instructional design blogs; most librarians don’t have a background in instructional design, but the field does exist and there’s a lot we can learn. “We have to focus on what’s going to work,” she said. “If it’s not working, abandon! Abandon!”

What to do when you offer a class and no one shows up? Wick and Litten talked about forming partnerships in the community. “We can be really useful to you in ways you didn’t even realize,” said Litten. “Listen,” Wick encouraged. Ask people, “What do you want? We’ll give it to you.” As for whether teaching technology is part of the library’s mission, Wick said, why wouldn’t it be? “We help everybody with everything else. Why aren’t we helping them as much as we can, more than they’re asking?” Find your audience first, said Wick, then design your classes.

Some library staff are reluctant to teach classes, but that isn’t the only kind of teaching. Nor do tech teachers have to be experts; in fact, said Wick, good teachers can be just one step ahead of their students. Knowing the librarian/teacher is not an expert but a fellow learner can put patrons/students at ease. Confronted with a question she doesn’t know the answer to, Maturevich often uses the line, “I don’t know either, but this is how we find out.”

“Good instruction depends on having good goals,” said Litten. “We’re already doing these things, we just need to do them a little bit better.”


That’s all, folks! If you missed it, you can read about Wednesday’s sessions here (part 1) and here (part 2).

See the whole MLA conference program here [PDF]


We interrupt this broadcast…

Another post or three about MLA still to come, but first: May 6 was International Day Against DRM. Please go read what Sarah (a.k.a. the Librarian In Black) has to say about this, and follow all her links (especially check out Defective By Design).

librariansagainstDRM“Consumers, and libraries by extension, should have the right to access eBooks on any technological platform, including the hardware and software we choose.” -Sarah Houghton

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

LibraryThing vs Goodreads, redux

Back in April I wrote about transitioning from Goodreads to LibraryThing after Amazon bought Goodreads. The transition was a bit halting, but I have now more or less stopped updating my Goodreads account (though I still contribute to my library’s account for readers’ advisory purposes) and shifted all my activity over to LibraryThing.

Though both Goodreads and LT are social reading sites, they are different in a number of ways. For example, let’s look at the messages on their home pages, before sign-in. Here’s Goodreads:


And here’s LibraryThing:


Goodreads (“Meet your next favorite book”) is encouraging readers to find new books to read, through lists (“shelves”), ads, and other users’ reviews. LibraryThing, on the other hand (“A home for your books…A community of book lovers”) emphasizes its cataloging quality and its user community.

There are a variety of uses for social reading sites (and by no means are Goodreads and LibraryThing the only choices), but my primary uses are (in descending order of importance):

  1. Keep track of what I’ve read and what I want to read.

  2. Write and store reviews and notes on the books I’ve read.

  3. See what my friends are reading and read their reviews.

I also appreciate the chance to get the occasional early review copy (I’ve gotten one or two from Goodreads over the past six years, and at least four from LT over the past year), and the serendipity of connecting with authors (more than once, authors on Goodreads have contacted me after I’ve written a review of their book: one ended up attending a book club meeting, and another gave a presentation at the library).

So, how do the two sites compare? Let’s go point by point.

Keep track of what I’ve read and what I want to read. I’m certainly able to do this on both sites. Goodreads has “read,” “currently reading,” and “to-read” shelves, whereas LibraryThing has “to-read” and “currently reading” collections (everything else is, by default, “read”). I like Goodreads’ “date added” sorting option, but I like that LibraryThing offers different display styles.


Write and store reviews and notes on the books I’ve read. One of LT’s aforementioned display styles includes reviews – so you can see all your reviews at a glance, rather than having to click into each book’s record. You can also click directly into the review to make any edits. There is no way to skim all your reviews in Goodreads.

See what my friends are reading and read their reviews. Goodreads has a clear advantage here, because most of the people I know who are on a social reading site are on Goodreads. I’m not that interested in reading strangers’ reviews, but I do like seeing what my friends are reading. Fortunately, I still get e-mails from Goodreads with updates that include friends’ reviews.

goodreads_greenbuttonIn terms of function, then, the sites aren’t all that different. Though I’m committed to LT now, I still don’t find it as intuitive or user-friendly as Goodreads (though, like most LT users, I’m not a fan of Goodreads’ dreaded green button).

LibraryThing organization

Even after a few months of using LibraryThing, I still don’t navigate it effortlessly. The font is absolutely tiny, which leads to a cluttered appearance. Searching within your library takes a second or two longer than I’d like to return results (yes, I’m impatient). The organization also takes some getting used to – the Home tab shows your most recent books, but if you click into a book’s record from there, it just shows metadata and other users’ reviews, not your review or when you started or finished the book; that information is under the Your Books tab (this is where you can choose your own display style).

There’s a separate tab to Add Books, and when you search, there’s usually only one edition of the book, whereas Goodreads lists all of them (hardcover, paperback, mass market, audiobook, various publishers, etc). However, if you put in the ISBN of the specific edition you’re looking for, it will show up.

The other tabs – Groups, Talk, Local, More, and the mysteriously named Zeitgeist (“more information than you require,” indeed, though it’s probably useful/interesting for some) – I don’t use often, though I probably should look at the Local tab more often to see what’s going on. It’s customizable too, so you can choose your favorite bookstores, libraries, or other literary venues to see what authors might be in town. The More tab includes the link to Early Reviewer books.

Stats are accessed from the Home tab; I don’t look at stats that often, just a few times a year, but LT presents them pretty creatively. For instance, my library (which, to be fair, includes books on my “to-read” shelf as well as those I’ve read and am currently reading), if stacked book upon book, would be slightly taller than the Great Pyramid, slightly shorter than the Washington Monument. The value of its weight in gold would be $22,173,471. Goodreads data, on the other hand, is a bit more straightforward – number of books read in a calendar year, number of pages read, etc. I wish LT had these types of numbers as well.

Overall, I’m not thrilled with LibraryThing, but I’m going to stick with it because it isn’t owned by Amazon, which means my personal data isn’t being harvested (at least not so rapaciously and overtly). Perhaps some of the things that irk me about it will change, and more of my friends will join over time. Till then, it does what I need it to do.

Google redesign: from one click to two clicks

Not a long post, just an observation. It used to be that when you had Gmail open, all your menu options for other Google tools (calendar, etc.) were listed across the top of the page, like so:

google_menuSorry the image is so small; click to enlarge, or perhaps Google hasn’t forced you over to the new look yet.

It was just one click to get to your calendar, drive, groups, etc. As an avid user of the calendar and drive features, this was handy for me.

Now, all those menu options are stored almost invisibly over in the upper-right-hand side of the page. You have to know to click on the icon that is made of of nine squares:


In what language does “square of squares” mean “menu options”? To me it looks like a waffle.

Now, instead of taking one click to open my calendar, it takes two clicks: one click on the squares, which opens up the following menu, and a second click to choose which feature to open.


Aha! Here they are.

Why make these items harder to access, when the principles of usability call to minimize the number of clicks it takes to accomplish a task? I don’t know.

The number of clicks is the more annoying part of this, but the vague icon is also bothersome. This isn’t Google’s only vague icon, to be sure. There’s also this:


Three horizontal bars. I know that’s an I Ching trigram, but what does it mean in a web browser?

Google Chrome users will recognize the above image from the upper-right corner of the browser. The light blue parallelogram shape opens a new tab; its location is indicative of what it might do, so that’s okay. Minimize, maximize, and close are all standard icons. Clicking the star will bookmark whatever page you happen to be on. Three horizontal bars…? Oh hey, here’s the menu we’re used to seeing all the way over on the left: save, print, find, settings, etc. (Let me tell you, this confuses the less tech-savvy library patrons no end, and why shouldn’t it? There is no natural mapping.)

Speaking of icons, I remember reading one or two excellent articles (with examples) in my Usability and User Experience class at Simmons, but they were either saved in Google Reader (RIP) or Delicious (to which I am trying to regain access). If I’m able to dig it/them up, I’ll post them here; meanwhile, feel free to share any links about good design in the comments.

Edited to add (10/8/13): Found it! Thanks to the responsive team at Delicious, I was able to access my old account. The article, from UX Movement about two years ago,  is called “9 Rules to Make Your Icons Clear and Intuitive.”

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman

“Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible, serving us without drawing attention to itself. Bad design, on the other hand, screams out its inadequacies, making itself very noticeable.”

The above quote is from the preface to the new edition of The Design of Everyday Things, which will be published in November (the preface is already available). If I’d known a new edition was coming so soon, I might’ve waited a few months, but as it is, the 1988 edition holds up fairly well. The examples are outdated, but the principles remain sound, and Norman even predicted certain technological advances (the smartphone, for example).

Norman’s principles of design truly do apply to everything that people make and use, from the simple (doors) to the advanced (computers). Though technology has improved since 1988 (now, of course, computers are everyday things), some of the same design flaws persist, and Norman’s decades-old observation still holds true to some extent: “[D]esigners of computer systems seem particularly oblivious to the needs of users…” Designers, who know their products well, often fall into the trap of thinking that they are the typical user, when in fact, they usually cannot predict the type of errors that users will commit.

So, what are these principles?

Visibility: Is it clear from examining the object in question how it can be used, or what should be done with it? For example, is the on/off switch in the front, or hidden around the back? I thought of an example of poor visibility right away: at our library, we have a coin box where patrons pay for their print jobs. This box is designed so that coins go in a slot at the top. The machine also accepts $1 and $5 bills, but the slot for the dollar bills is placed on the front of the box but very far down, near the floor. Patrons frequently come to the desk to get change for a bill, and we show them that the machine does in fact accept bills. A lot of them apologize for bothering us and blame themselves for not seeing the bill slot, but really, it is a bad design: the bill and coin slots should be grouped together.

Natural mapping: Essentially, does the way a thing works make sense? A joystick or a mouse employs natural mapping: forward=up, backward=down, left=left, right=right. Likewise a steering wheel in a car: turn right to move right, and left to move left. The opposite would be counterintuitive, confusing, and frustrating, and would lead to frequent error.

Conceptual model: Norman writes about three aspects of mental models: the design model, the system image, and the user’s model. The design model is the designer’s mental map of how their product works; the system image is what the product shows to the user; and the user’s model is a mental map of how they think the product works. In the preface to the 2002 edition, Norman writes, “Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.” Because the designer and the user don’t communicate directly, the user’s only insight into the designer’s mind is through the system image. Therefore, the designer must “explain” through the system image how the product works, and guide the user to perform the correct actions for the task they want to complete – not an easy feat. However, Norman writes, as a rule of thumb, “When instructions have to be pasted on something…it is badly designed.” Things work best when the designer and the user have similar conceptual models.

Feedback: Once the user has completed an action, how does s/he know whether it has worked or not? Humans generally are not comfortable with uncertainty, so a good design provides feedback to explain what is happening or has happened. “Design should…make sure that (1) the user can figure out what to do, and (2) the user can tell what is going on.” Feedback includes everything from progress bars (“Your download is 58% complete”) to descriptive error messages with helpful next steps.


While reading The Design of Everyday Things, Clarke’s Third Law came to mind: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Arthur C. Clarke). When processes become invisible, they come to seem magical and mysterious. The flip side is that “magic” is hard to take apart, fix, and put back together; cellphones aren’t like old radios. With much of today’s technology, it is difficult for users to tell what is happening, and, if something is going wrong, how to fix it. The Design of Everyday Things doesn’t necessarily help users who are frustrated with a product (except by assuring them that it likely isn’t their fault, but rather the fault of the design), but it does help us recognize bad design, think about how it could be better, and appreciate good design.

More quotes from the book can be found in my Goodreads review.

Password creation and user experience (UX)

File under: Something is Wrong on the Internet.

We have passwords for everything. We have passwords for e-mail, for online banking, for social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest…), for our phones, for our debit cards, for photo sharing sites, for online magazine and newspaper subscriptions, et cetera. Every company with a website wants you to create a login and password, so they can (a) start collecting information about you, and (b) inundate you with tailored advertising.

But I’m not writing about the necessity of these multiple login/password combinations (or lack thereof); I’m writing about the annoyance and frustration that results from each company and service having different requirements for creating a password. You know: it must be between 6-15 characters (or 8-12, or 6-20), it must be a combination of letters and numbers (or letters, numbers, and special characters), you can/cannot use spaces, it is(n’t) case sensitive…and so on.

Obviously it’s wise to use different passwords for different sites. That way, if (for example) your Facebook account gets hacked, the hackers don’t automatically have your password to your Amazon account, your bank, etc. However, remembering dozens of passwords is tricky, and writing them down or saving them someplace online presents problems too (though I’ve heard good things about the password manager LastPass).

My current approach is to use a “stem,” a combination of letters and numbers, and attach a different prefix or suffix that is easy for me to remember, depending on the site or service I’m using. Inevitably, though, a set of password requirements comes along that causes me to have to tweak my formula in a way that ensures I will not remember it in the future, and so I’ll have to send myself a password reminder and re-set it the next time I want to log in.

UNLESS, before prompting me with the “Forgot your password?” link to send that reminder, the site simply provided its password requirements (e.g. the “Password Tips” image above, which is from the Starbucks website). Then I’d be able to remember, or at least make a very good guess, as to how I’d modified my usual password, and not have to go through the process of re-setting my password again and again.

This is a tragically simple fix that would improve user experience so much, and yet almost no website does it. Yes, The Internet, that’s a challenge.


Image from Tumblr via Google Image Search. Copyright most likely held by the estate of Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) or Random House. Obviously I neither created nor hold the rights to The Lorax, the publication of which preceded my birth by at least a decade.


MLA Conference, Day One (Wednesday), Part Two

The afternoon sessions at MLA on Wednesday were just as good as the morning sessions. First up after lunch was “Library Services and the Future of the Catalog: Lessons from Recent ILS Upgrades,” with representatives from the Boston Public Library (BPL), the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium (MVLC), UMass Dartmouth, and the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC); the first three library systems had recently changed from one ILS (Integrated Library System) to another, and the MBLC had helped MVLC and two other Massachusetts library consortia with the search process and transition.

The speakers explained why their libraries wanted to change from one ILS to another and the decision-making process involved in choosing a new ILS; they also spoke about the process of the change and how it affected users and staff, pointed out some of the differences – good and bad – between old and new systems, and talked about the future of library catalogs. They touched on the differences between open source and proprietary systems: with open source, you need more in-house talent (software developers on staff), but you have more control, as well as access to the open source community; proprietary systems require less technical skill from library staff, as fixing bugs and implementing new features are outsourced.


All library systems experienced some growing pains during the change; in some cases, initial training was good, but follow-up training could have been better. “The old system never looks as good as when you’ve migrated to a new system,” one speaker said somewhat ruefully. “It’s always going to be harder than you think,” said the MVLC representative. However, when asked how they felt three months after migrating to the new system, overall everyone seemed satisfied with their new ILSs, though each had a laundry list of wishes, and much of the reporting seemed based on anecdotal evidence rather than formal evaluation of either staff or patron experiences.

ILStweets2Every ILS has usability issues, and usability testing with patrons would likely identify areas in need of improvement for each ILS; developers don’t always develop with real users in mind. (As Aaron Schmidt pointed out in Library Journal, most library catalogs are designed to prioritize the collection, not the people searching the catalog.)

The last session I attended on Wednesday was “Loaning eReaders to the Public: Legal and Strategic Challenges,” where Anne Silvers Lee and Jamie Wilson from the Free Library of Philadelphia and Melissa Andrews from the Boston Public Library spoke about the lessons they learned in the process of developing programs to circulate e-reading devices: the Free Library lent B&N nooks, and the BPL will be lending iPad minis starting next month.

This was a fascinating session that started off with some startling statistics. E-readers, Ann said, are “not a cutting-edge thing anymore”; forty percent of libraries loan e-readers. Why did the Free Library want to lend e-readers? They considered the digital divide (the gap between those who are familiar with technology and those who don’t use it; in Philly, 41% of the population of 1.5 million does not have internet access at home), patron demand, innovation, and transliteracy.

The library obtained a grant to purchase e-readers and hire part-time staff to help train patrons on how to use the devices. They chose nooks because B&N offers institutional accounts for invoicing and batch wifi delivery of new content; they were also aware that Amazon had already sent out at least one cease-and-desist letter for lending Kindles. Jamie referenced copyright experts Mary Minow and Peter Hirtle of and Cornell University, respectively, whose opinions the Free Library sought to determine the legality of their lending program. He summed up their response as “We’ve looked into this, we think it’s all right,” with Hirtle less sure than Minow (who also included a long list of caveats).


During the Q&A at the end of the session, I suggested that B&N and Apple’s cooperation in helping the libraries set up their devices for lending implied consent, but apparently it’s still a “gray area.” However, Ann said, “If [device manufacturers] don’t want us to do it, [they] better lawyer up.”

ereaders2Jamie explained the Free Library’s system for lending: the program was limited to patrons fifty years of age or older, all of whom had to have a library card and a valid ID. There were steep late fees in place (though fears that the devices would be stolen proved unfounded; none went missing), and all users had to take a training class. All of the nooks circulated from the senior center in the Main Branch, and all were pre-loaded with the same selection of fiction and nonfiction bestsellers and classics. Because they weren’t buying content through a third-party vendor like OverDrive or 3M, they could purchase titles from all “Big 6″ publishers.

Results once the program launched were somewhat disappointing, with lower use of the devices than they had anticipated. In response, the library lowered the age requirement for borrowing, expanded the availability to other locations, dropped the training requirement (while providing even more training classes), and eventually repurposed some of the nooks for staff training.

Then, of course, there was the lawsuit: the National Federation for the Blind sued the library because the nooks were not accessible. The lawsuit was resolved, but it stands as a cautionary tale, and the BPL accordingly proceeded with caution when planning their own e-reader lending program. The NFB had sent a letter to the mayor of Boston stating that it was an ADA violation to lend nooks or Kindles; only iPads were appropriately accessible (more than just text-to-speech capability is required for a device to be considered accessible).

The BPL purchased 70 iPad minis with a grant, and worked with Apple to ensure that users’ personal data was protected and that any content a user had added to the device was wiped between checkouts. The iPads are preloaded with 40 high interest titles as well as some apps; they will circulate for two weeks at a time, and patrons will be able to place holds on them through the catalog (though Melissa anticipates long wait times due to their popularity). The iPads will show up in the results list when patrons search the catalog for books that have been preloaded onto the iPads; this is something that the Free Library staff thinks would have boosted circulation of their devices, which only appeared in the catalog if you searched for them by device name.

Overall, this was an informative session. All three speakers were well prepared and articulate, and the learning curve was evident in the changes that the Free Library made to its own lending program as well as how the BPL developed its lending program. As I’ve said before, libraries are all about sharing, and learning from each other’s experiences is one way of doing that. For any library that is considering implementing an e-reader lending program, I’d definitely recommend consulting these folks’ resources.

Next: the Thursday sessions at MLA were also fantastic. Stay tuned for not-so-concise summaries of four more sessions (probably in two parts, probably tomorrow or early next week). The Twitter hashtag war continues, so make sure to check #mla13 and #masslib13 (I was mostly using the latter).

Goodreads shelves

[Note: if you don't use Goodreads, and never plan to, there is zero need to read this post. Scroll down to read about Banned Books Week, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, and other things instead.]

I’ve been using Goodreads, a social networking site for readers, since 2007. I started using it as a way to keep track of books I’d read, as well as to keep an actual (as opposed to mental) “to-read” list. I’m still using it that way, and now I have a personal database with five years of data that I can consult anytime someone needs a recommendation.

Not only can I sort books by self-created categories (“shelves”), such as young adult, mystery, history, or science, I can also look back on my own ratings and reviews, and see friends’ reviews as well. Friends’ reviews count for a lot: research has shown that a recommendation from a friend is likely to be more influential than a professional review, a bookstore or library display, or an auto-generated Amazon suggestion.

Overall, Goodreads’ usability and user experience (how easy and how pleasant it is to use the site) are pretty top-notch. The only problems I’ve ever had are (1) when the site is getting too much traffic and I’m not able to access it for a few minutes; this message is accompanied by an elegant line drawing of a woman sitting in a chair reading a book, and (2) creating a fourth permanent shelf for “partially-read” books, in addition to the three automatic shelves: read, currently-reading, and to-read.

This is such a small thing, but I’ve had conversations with other Goodreads users, and it’s come up for most of us. Though a book can be on as many of your self-created shelves as you want, it must also be on one – and only one – of the three original shelves. But what if a book is neither read, currently-reading, or to-read? What if you read the first few chapters and put it down, never to return? (There’s no guilt in that.) Many people have created shelves for these books, such as “partially-read,” “abandoned,” or “unfinished,” but the book still had to be on one of the original three.

This is no longer the case, I’m glad to report. I wrote to Goodreads about it, and a Customer Care Representative got back to me overnight to inform me that I could make my partially-read shelf “exclusive” by going to the Edit Shelves page and checking a box. Which I did. And it worked. I’m not sure how long that’s been an option – it wasn’t in 2007, I don’t think, but I could be wrong – but it is now.

So, big points to Goodreads for creating a great site and being responsive to its users. This is how it’s done.

Recommended Recommenders

A recent blog post on the Boston Globe site highlights seven “book recommendation websites” people can turn to for reading suggestions. I was already familiar with four of the seven, but decided to explore the rest for comparison’s sake. If I’ve made a mistake, feel free to correct me in the comments; conversely, if you are a devoted member of one of these sites and want to sing its praises, please feel free to do that as well!

This is a site I use every day; I’ve been a member since 2007, and have over a thousand books on my “shelves.” Goodreads offers a great way to keep track of what you’ve read (including when you read it, what you thought about it, your rating – out of five stars – and who recommended it to you), what you’re currently reading, and what’s on your to-read list for the future. You can create more shelves in addition to these three – historical fiction, for example, or biography – and you can see what your friends have read. Goodreads will recommend books for you based on your shelves, and you can see others’ lists, take quizzes, and sign up for giveaways. There are also many “Goodreads authors,” published authors who participate as members. One of my favorite features of the site is that it combines personal recommendations with crowd-sourced ones, so I can see what my friends thought of a book as well as what everyone else of Goodreads thought of it. Great usability, too – the interface is pleasant and intuitive, you can sort your lists by author, title, date read, date added, rating, etc., and you can get some nice descriptive statistics too.

LT is similar to Goodreads in many ways: you can create your own shelves and tags, see your friends’ books, create a profile, get recommendations, and participate in giveaways. LT offers richer metadata, including Dewey Decimal Classification and Library of Congress Classification (DDC and LCC). The interface isn’t quite as user-friendly, but it’s a robust site, and if Goodreads didn’t exist, I’d happily use LT as my primary books-and-reading website.

Shelfari is powered by Amazon, which means two things: (1) it is designed to get you to buy books, preferably from Amazon, and (2) the design is beautiful and the user experience (UX) is fantastic. I remember an earlier version of the site, which was kind of clunky – maybe why I chose Goodreads instead of Shelfari five years ago – but it’s clean and colorful now. Shelfari rates high on content and interactivity; like Goodreads and LibraryThing, it’s a social networking site for readers (or in their words, “a community-powered encyclopedia for book lovers”). The front page pushes books that are already popular, including New York Times bestsellers and Amazon bestsellers, but if you dig deeper into the site, you can narrow by category or subject. One of the most useful features I discovered was the Series tab, where you can see all the books in an author’s series, in the correct order – definitely helpful at the reference desk.

I’ve already written about Whichbook; I like it very much. It isn’t nearly as robust as Goodreads, LT, or Shelfari, but it isn’t meant to be; it’s less a social networking site for bookworms and more of a reader’s advisory site. It’s whimsical, with its sliding scales (optimistic to bleak, funny to serious, safe to disturbing) instead of a traditional search box, and it does a good job suggesting off-the-beaten-path books rather than the most popular books. There are lists as well, in categories such as “Bad Luck and Trouble” and “Weird and Wonderful,” and you can also create your own lists. Whichbook promotes libraries over Amazon: the “borrow” button is ahead of the “buy” button.

What Should I Read Next?
WSIRN, as it’s called, is one of the most basic sites in this collection. You can create two lists: like and dislike. You can get recommendations based on any title on your list; however, these recommendations are based “purely on collective taste.” That is, books on the same list become associated with each other. This might work fine if everyone liked only one genre, so all mysteries were associated with each other, all romances associated with each other, etc., or if users were able to create and name multiple lists (e.g. “favorite biographies”), but that’s not the case. I have read and loved many books that were wildly different from each other, and the only thing they had in common was that I liked them; I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them both to the same person. That said, WSIRN is a simple, quick tool, and the developers may add functionalities in the future.

The Staff Recommends
The Staff Recommends is, as far as I can tell, McSweeney’s editor-at-large John Warner. (Supposedly also his “team of readers,” but all the reviews I read on the site were written by John.) TSR calls itself “an advertorial publication,” meaning they do get paid for recommending books, but they only recommend books they like; furthermore, proceeds are donated to a nonprofit, so I feel confident that the recommendations are honest. So, if you happen to have the same taste as John and his “team of readers,” you’re in luck! Whether you agree with him or not, the reviews are thoughtful and well-written. As of today, there are eight current selections and a few lists (e.g. crime novels) consisting of shorter reviews of more titles. TSR offers fewer points of view and less content than most of the other sites in the article, but it’s worth bookmarking nonetheless.

The main appeal of this site is the “literature map” that it creates when you type in the name of an author. However, there’s no information as to how the relationships between authors are determined. I want to know why Author A and Author B are considered similar: is it the subjects they write about? Their writing style? Hard to say. You can also get recommendations based on authors you like (I tried it; results were pretty accurate, but there were only three). I probably won’t use this regularly, but I do like that it’s author-centric rather than book-centric.

Decisions, Making

Two seemingly unrelated bits of news/opinion in this post, but both have to do with decision-making on some level. To start, one of the first articles I read this morning was Ann Patchett’s op-ed in the New York Times about the Pulitzer Prize Board’s failure to select a fiction winner from the three finalists. As Patchett points out, this is not only disappointing for the authors (“It’s fine to lose to someone, and galling to lose to no one”), it’s also a letdown for readers and for booksellers. Here are the past winners.

Another article I read today is from ASIS&T: Thom Haller wrote on the topic “What happens when architectural questions are not asked?” (architecture, here, is information architecture, or IA). He used Facebook as an example, and it’s a good one: who hasn’t been confused by Facebook’s changing structure, or its hierarchy and organizing principles (or lack thereof), not to mention its always-in-flux privacy policies? The problem Haller discussed was that of labels (or lack of labels) for “content clusters,” and it’s something that would probably come up in a basic usability test; right now, it’s not really clear what the difference between “public” and “all” is, unless there is a label for each group of options (there isn’t).

For such a huge site, there are some surprising difficulties in terms of navigation and settings. I almost have to assume that these difficulties are planned, or at least unresolved, on purpose; it seems like Facebook wants certain actions (privacy settings, unfriending) to be difficult.

So as not to end on a negative note, please enjoy this list of fake Massachusetts town names from McSweeney’s. And may I also recommend Jenny Lawson’s (a.k.a. The Bloggess) just-published memoir, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened? Read a snippet here. (Unless you’re at work, because most people’s work doesn’t usually provoke hysterical laughter, and this might. You’ve been warned.)