Readers’ Advisory, or, What do I read next?

For my summer class, I’ve been working on designing an evaluation of readers’ advisory services at a public library. “Readers’ advisory” is the library-speak term for suggesting books that people will like, either directly (through a conversation or “readers’ advisory interview”) or indirectly (e.g., displays).

I’ve been doing this for family and friends for years without realizing it was a “service” – we just called it talking about books. But it is definitely something that people expect from libraries (and from bookstores), and of course now there are online tools as well, from Amazon’s “If you like this, you might also like…” feature to social networking sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing to the subscription-based NoveList.

Whichbook is a site I learned about recently, and it’s unique in a number of ways. First, it’s incredibly browsable – I got pulled in right away. I don’t think any online experience can really replicate the experience of wandering around in a bookstore or library, but this comes closer than anything else I’ve found.

You can manipulate a number of factors (see below) to get results, and you can also look through lists (“weird and wonderful,” “bad luck and trouble,” “a terrible beauty”), or search by author.


Whichbook’s About page explains that all of the books are fiction or poetry, written in or translated to English, and published within the last ten years. They focus on “books people won’t find for themselves,” not bestsellers, and have a wide range.

The site is British, and once you’ve found a book that interests you, there are links to borrow from a library or buy through Amazon. If you’re not in the UK, there’s a link to WorldCat, so you can find a copy of the book in a library near you. I’ve played with the variables a lot, and the results are promising: a few books that I’ve already read and enjoyed came up, as well as a number of titles I hadn’t heard of before but that looked good. Try it out!

Wikipedia in Higher Education

July is just flying by. Earlier this month, I attended part of the Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit. I knew from the Reference class I took last fall that Wikipedia is about as reliable as other encyclopedias, but the idea of incorporating it into the classroom – professors assigning students to edit existing pages or create new ones – is somehow revelatory. Most reference sources are one-way – you consult them, they don’t consult you (unless you’re an acknowledged expert in your field). Wikipedia is a two-way information source, in that you can consult it and contribute to it. This is becoming legitimized and encouraged in academia, and it’s exciting.

I’ve collected a few articles around this topic here, in reverse-chronological order, with links and snippets. It’s worth noting that David Ferriero, the archivist of the United States (and a GSLIS alum!), spoke at the summit, supporting Wikipedia in higher ed. (Ferriero also had good things to say about the National Archives’ “Wikipedian-in-Residence” – a GSLIS student).

Read on – and please add any relevant links in the comments.

July 11, 2011, “Wikipedia Aims Higher,” Inside Higher Ed
Late last week, the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the encyclopedia, took another step toward assuming the mantle of an accessory of higher education: it held an academic conference. The first-ever Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit convened professors who had incorporated Wikipedia into their teaching, as well as others who were considering doing so, to talk about pros and cons of assigning students to improve the publicly edited online encyclopedia.

May 1, 2011, “For More Students, Working on Wikis is Part of Making the Grade, New York Times
Although wikis, with their collaborative approach and vast reach online, have been around for at least 15 years, their use as a general teaching tool in higher education is still relatively recent. But an increasing number of universities are now adopting them as a teaching tool.

February 5, 2011, “Web-Dominated Web Site Seeking Female Experts,” New York Times
Today women earn 57 percent of the bachelor’s degrees, 61 percent of the master’s degrees and, as of 2009, a majority of doctorates in the United States. It is inconceivable that this well-educated majority should be largely absent from the world’s most popular interactive encyclopedia project.

January 30, 2011, “Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia’s Contributor List,” New York Times
In 10 short years, Wikipedia has accomplished some remarkable goals. More than 3.5 million articles in English? Done. More than 250 languages? Sure. But another number has proved to be an intractable obstacle for the online encyclopedia: surveys suggest that less than 15 percent of its hundreds of thousands of contributors are women.

September 7, 2010, “Wikipedia for Credit,” Inside Higher Ed
Some professors believe Wikipedia has no place in the footnotes of a college paper. But could it have a place on the syllabus?

Summer InfoLink

Still a bit backlogged with more New Orleans posts to come, as well as a post about the Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit; meanwhile, here’s a short piece I wrote on GSLIS After Dark for this summer’s issue of InfoLink. I’m also in the “Summer Reading” article.

Speaking of summer reading, I just finished Ben Nugent’s American Nerd: The Story of My People, and would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the evolution and psychology of the nerd. It’s a great blend of well-researched history and the author’s personal experience.

And for those who are looking for a tech-heavy young adult novel set in a dystopian but not-too-distant future (lots of people are looking for that kind of book, right?), try Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. The main character is well-written and compelling, and you will learn a lot about technology, privacy, and security in a painless way. Warning: it may make you a little paranoid.

Wikipedia and Sue Gardner

One of my favorite programs at ALA Annual was Sue Gardner‘s talk on Wikipedia. Gardner is the Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit behind Wikipedia, and she is an incredible speaker: dynamic, enthusiastic, and prepared. She answered questions in a direct manner (and she’s quotable).

We are getting to the point in academia where Wikipedia is becoming accepted as a reliable reference tool. It is a great jumping-off point. You wouldn’t cite it in a paper – but then, you wouldn’t cite any other encyclopedia in a paper, either, after about third grade. Its value is in its currency, relevance, and most of all in its citations.

Gardner said that Wikipedia is an “inherently radical” nonprofit, supporting the idea that “people have a right to access to information.” She described the “virtuous circle, by which participation leads to quality, which leads to a broader reach, which leads to greater participation. There is “no such thing as perfect accuracy” – even recognized authoritative sources such as Britannica have errors, and those can’t be corrected as quickly as Wikipedia can, and they aren’t as widely or frequently monitored, either.

Wikipedia is a “credentials-neutral environment – some people need to be anonymous.” However, unlike communism, which looks good in theory but breaks down in practice, some problems for Wikipedia are theoretical rather than practical: “Wikipedians are fierce defenders of editorial integrity,” so while self-serving articles are a concern in theory, they are not so much of a problem in practice.

One of the main goals of Wikipedia, said Gardner during the Q&A, is “to get information to people so they can make informed decisions about their lives.” Gardner – former director of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s website and online news – also encouraged questioning the nature of “authority” – “Is Fox News a ‘reliable source’?”

Journalism, Gardner said, “is not really a profession, it’s a job for curious people.” Also, it seems, a job for students and librarians: part of a recent public policy initiative encourages teachers and professors to assign students to write for Wikipedia. There are over 100,000 Wikipedia editors worldwide; these editors work for free, because they enjoy it and believe in it. The average Wikipedia contributor/editor is 25 years old, a STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math) grad student – and male. Wikipedia contributors skew male; librarians skew female. Gardner’s message was clear: “We want you as Wikipedians.”

It was a galvanizing talk – read the American Libraries write-up here – and I’m excited to be attending the first Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit tomorrow.

Books: How they work.

This post is not related to the ALA Annual Conference, except in that probably a lot of people who were there would agree. I just wanted to share this image, which someone sent to me and which I have described to many people:

Here’s a larger image from the original source.

Stories for a Saturday Evening

Storyteller Elizabeth Ellis told a wonderful story wherein a friend introduced her to someone else, saying, “Elizabeth used to be a librarian.” Elizabeth to the audience: “Nobody used to be a librarian.” (Apparently “Once a ____, always a ____” is true of a lot of careers.)

This is the second time I’ve been under the spell of a professional storyteller as an adult, and I highly encourage you to take advantage of the experience if you ever get the chance. Check out the National Storytelling Network calendar of events for events in your area.

This event, sponsored by ALSC (Association for Library Services to Children), was a perfect end to a long day.

HarperCollins Book Buzz and Modernist Cuisine

Lumping two events together so as not to be a complete commercial for either. The HarperCollins Book Buzz consisted of a panel of HarperCollins marketing people talking about upcoming HC titles (including The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson, galleys of which they distributed at the event). They also mentioned several readers’ advisory-type blogs (all quotes below are taken from the respective sites’ About pages):

NetGalley is a “connection point for book publishers, reviewers, media, librarians, booksellers, bloggers and educators…Professional readers–reviewers, media, journalists, bloggers, librarians, booksellers and educators–can join and use NetGalley at no cost.”

EarlyWord is “a Blog and Web site on a mission — to give libraries the earliest information possible on the books their customers will be looking for, so they can stay ahead of demand. By giving readers what they want, when they want it, we believe libraries can increase their circulation and their support.”

The Book Report Network (BookReporter) provides “thoughtful book reviews, compelling features, in-depth author profiles and interviews, excerpts of the hottest new releases, literary games and contests, and more every week.”

And now for something completely different…(except in that it is a book, or more accurately several volumes)…

“In Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet—scientists, inven­tors, and accom­plished cooks in their own right—have cre­ated a six-volume 2,400-page set that reveals science-inspired tech­niques for prepar­ing food that ranges from the oth­er­worldly to the sub­lime. ”

Maxime Bilet himself was at the What’s Cooking at ALA? stage, demystifying Modernist Cuisine. I have actually had the opportunity to browse through it, and was completely overwhelmed, but Bilet helpfully pointed out that recipes for superior macaroni & cheese and caramelized carrot soup can be found in Vol. 3, and that recipes for beurre blanc, pistachio gelato, and chocolate mousse can be found in Vol. 4.

And for those who are wary of “modernist,” scientific cooking, Bilet says, “Cooking relies on science…Healthful cooking is flavorful cooking.” Another helpful tip: you can oxidize wine in a blender.

Now you know.

Keep ‘Em Coming – Fiction Series Creators Talk Shop

I may have left this one off the list originally because it wasn’t one I had planned to go to. However, it was a really interesting panel: authors Lauren Myracle, Jonathan Stroud, Dan Gutman, and author/editor David Levithan. Of these, I had only heard of David Levithan previously (he wrote The Lover’s Dictionary, which I thought was unique and poetic and just generally wonderful. Read it!) He has also, it turns out, written a whole bunch of young adult (YA) novels, and has edited over 300 YA series books, including many of the Babysitters’ Club books. (“I was the 19-year-old male reading The Babysitters’ Club on the subway…with a highlighter.”)

One explanation for the popularity of series books among teens, Levithan said, was “the love of story, the love of wanting to know what happens next, wanting the story to continue.” When kids – and adults, I would contest – find a book they like, they want more of it. However, speaking as an author rather than as an editor, Levithan said that sometimes, “There’s a reason I ended the book there – the story’s over.”

Other bits of wisdom from the panel:

Lauren Myracle: “Middle school is painful. Writing is painful. But writing about middle school…surprisingly cathartic!”

“Every book must be a game-changer.” I forget who said this – Stroud or Gutman, I think – but they were emphasizing the need for something to happen in each book in the series that caused the character to grow. The story may have its arc, but each book must have an arc of its own as well as be part of the larger story.

Jonathan Stroud talked about the importance of building a brand, which is easier with series books than with stand-alone novels.

Lauren Myracle: “Series are born in different ways.” Sometimes a story might be conceived as a series from the beginning; other times reader response might prompt a second book, and then a third.

Though there may not be the proliferation of series fiction for adults as there is for the YA group, adults are likely – speaking solely from experience here and not from any particular data – to develop loyalty to certain authors. The characters may not be the same from book to book, but one can have confidence in the quality of writing, character, and story.

“Books are magic”

Dan Savage was the opening session speaker at ALA Annual. He writes the Savage Love column for the Seattle Stranger and is the founder of the It Gets Better Project. At ALA, he spoke primarily about the evolution of the It Gets Better Project (the goal of which, for those who haven’t heard of it, is to show gay teens that their future can be better than their present), and why, despite the massive popularity of the videos, he wanted to make a book as well: “I’m a print guy and I think books are magic.”

Well, that went over well in a crowd of librarians. But beyond a simple love of books, he said, “We also did the book to challenge school libraries and school librarians.” Some kids may not have internet access, but most have access to libraries, and over 1,500 copies of the It Gets Better book have been donated to libraries.

Overall, I enjoyed his talk very much; he’s an articulate and funny speaker, and a champion of libraries. Got the conference off to a great start!