Toward Reader Participation in Book Discovery

By Amy Wickner — February 05, 2013 11 min read
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As I recently wrote in a post about the changing role of reference books, discovery plays a major role in how students use libraries, even when it comes to research. Popularly and more recently, however, “discovery” has come to refer to the experience or process of coming across new things online, a vague but easily marketable description. Beginning with social bookmarking tool (now and browser plugin StumbleUpon, countless Internet entrepreneurs and creators have tilted at the windmill of the ultimate discovery engine built on user feedback—tagging, in some cases, and a simple thumbs up or down in others. Could such tools for exploring the worlds of digital and print books be useful resources for teaching and learning?

A number of sites and start-ups have, over the past several years, thrown their hats in the ring to be the next big book discovery tool. The level of input capability available to users of these tools may have implications for their success and for new directions in book discovery. The ease with which students, teachers, and librarians—in addition to other key user groups—are able to navigate and personalize each discovery system will determine whether the system catches on in K-12 settings. Two in particular offer examples of how book discovery sites can capitalize on user buy-in to both build critical audience mass and continually improve their offerings. Creative use of each site can help educators muster leverage for teaching- and learning-specific features.

Social Cataloging For Books

Social cataloging web applications for books have been popular since the mid-2000s, when sites like LibraryThing, Goodreads and Shelfari launched. Users of each site add, tag, rate, and review books of interest to them, and share this information with other users (generally referred to as “friends”). Relying on user-generated content means patterns emerging from these sites can be unpredictable. User-contributed metadata can be full of idiosyncrasies—one term often used for this kind of cataloging is “folksonomy,” in contrast to the formally designed “taxonomy"—but can also create unexpected opportunities for discovery.

Think of trending topics on Twitter: Certain hashtags rise to the top from day to day. Many of these topics reflect major news stories of the day (or hour); in plenty of instances, however, they’re the result of memes that, through their humor or absurdity, can create strange and surprising connections across social networks. The folksonomies produced through social cataloging applications can have similar cross-cutting impacts.

Goodreads: Owning the Discovery Process

While the recommending algorithm for Goodreads—the company acquired book recommendation engine Discovereads in 2011—is still a work in progress, Goodreads staff have begun experimenting with existing metrics to see what the current, basic cataloging tools have to say about how discovery works on the site.

Otis Chandler, Kyusik Chung, and Patrick Brown of Goodreads used site activity surrounding The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg (a title mentioned several times on BookMarks) to illustrate how internal site promotions and external media coverage can combine to cause jumps in interest among readers. Their metric of choice—People who added book to “to-read”, a shelf in Goodreads—is meant to approximate discovery by combining awareness of and acknowledged interest in a title.

As with any list of goals, the To-Read shelf can be purely aspirational; the Goodreads presentation does not suggest that a majority of the users tracked here will ever crack the spine on The Power of Habit. Still, simply knowing when the book sparked users’ interest and where said users were on the Goodreads site when they marked the book “to-read” (follow the colored bands across each graph to see this information) may bolster an argument for Goodreads as an effective and versatile tool for discovery.

Goodreads’ ease of use means students and teachers can create themed personal shelves and connect with other users reading or interested in the same books and themes. There are book trivia quizzes designed by Goodreads and users both; groups for discussing particular genres or titles; author interviews (goodreads voice); and a regularly refreshed list of recommendations for each user. In addition to cataloging books by shelf, readers can create lists both individually and in collaboration; highlights from this user content appear on a page called listopia.

While cataloging and discovery features abound, teachers may find the book reviewing feature to be just as valuable for encouraging students to respond to what they read. Goodreads users assign one to five stars to books and can write reviews of up to 20,000 characters. HTML tips and special markup formats are provided so reviewers can embed links to other books and authors. A student’s body of work on Goodreads—from clear and creative cataloging to rich use of reviewing, linking capabilities—could result in an assessable portfolio and extendible learning opportunity. For more ways in which Goodreads can find a place in classrooms and school libraries, see Travis Jonker’s helpful primer at The Digital Shift (a School Library Journal blog).

Having built a site around readers, added an official author program for writers wishing to expand their online presences, and even created a Librarian function with its own forum dedicated to correcting cataloging errors, Goodreads now appears to be turning its attention to publishers and literary agents. Informal blog “book tours” are already popular, and Goodreads may use its author Q&A feature to formalize this model and establish itself as a key stop on any online book tour, the 92nd Street Y of internet book promotion.

Small Demons: Building A Database

While the Goodreads community thrives on sharing reviews and personalized cataloging, Small Demons has a different objective: to build a database to “connect all the details of books.” The idea for Small Demons began with founder Valla Vakili’s curiosity about the geographic settings and cultural hallmarks in a novel set in Marseilles, France. As Vakili told the Sacramento Bee, his curiosity led to a week-long immersion in Marseillaise culture, then to the conviction that “many of the best experiences we can find are within books. And that if we could gather them all up and put them in one place, we could unlock a world of pretty incredible discovery.”

The result of this brainstorm, a literary database whose goal is “a complete cataloging of all things in all books,” connects titles, characters, places, and other information from books to facilitate the kind of down-the-rabbit-hole experience that many love about books, libraries, and (admit it!) Wikipedia.

Literary, scholarly, and pop-culture references are included as well. One frequently cited example is High Fidelity by Nick Hornby: The many songs and albums mentioned in the novel are linked to the book. Curious about how a reference-heavy novel like A.S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale might look? Every reference to a philosopher or historical figure, from Empedocles to Jacques Lacan, is connected to the book and appears on its profile page. Hover over the image of each figure, and a pop-up window quotes text from the book where references occur.

There is no indication, as yet, of how the site might handle quotations of fictional writers—in a book like Byatt’s own novel Possession, for example—or stylistic, rather than explicit references. Distinguishing between metaphoric and literal language, standard and nonstandard Englishes, and explicit and implicit arguments are all key elements in the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts (See CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.4 and CCRA.R.5). Still, there’s a world of nested narratives, unreliable narrators, and retellings (of fairy tales, history, and so on) that may push the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading to their limit, and a site like Small Demons may not be prepared to handle them either.

The classification system can already be awkward and funny. A search for The Hobbit, for example, brings up a page on Hobbits, in the category “Ethnic Group.”

The site’s current catalog can make complex literature accessible for maturing readers, although it’s not specifically intended for youth. Joyce Valenza at School Library Journal has more details of Small Demons’ forthcoming YA-friendly features, which include a dramatic expansion of indexed books by adding the back catalogs of major publishers and independent imprints alike. A Jan. 15 press release announced that Small Demons would sign a deal with Penguin to add that publisher’s titles to its catalog. Simon & Schuster, Random House, HarperCollins, and Hachette are the other major publishing houses currently working with the site.

The cooperation of publishers is necessary to the viability of Small Demons, as issues of copyright and fair use are broadly and dramatically misunderstood. Small Demons avoids the challenges faced by other databases like Google Books and Hathi Trust by working directly with publishers. It’s likely that the prominent Buy button on every book profile helps the cause as well.

Participatory options for students and teachers don’t stop at getting lost in the site. Frequent users can create accounts and start building collections by adding books to sets of personalized shelves. Each book page offers Share options for connecting Small Demons to Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, and other social media. Finally, users can contribute to the site by submitting corrections and additional references, a crowdsourcing process that Small Demons appears to be in the process of gamifying. While it’s unclear what bar users must clear to begin editing the database, they’ll earn points for every contribution once they received permission to get involved. In theory, contributors must work toward expertise or consistency in order to achieve successive levels of authority on Small Demons.

It can be difficult to strike the right balance between personal organizing and site-wide cataloging on Small Demons, since any changes to book data must be approved by moderators. Unlike other social cataloging tools, Small Demons users don’t review the books they work on. Still, teachers and students may find the sharing and collection-building features sufficient for exploring books and topics in curriculum, particularly when it comes to following the Common Core’s close reading requirements in creative ways.

Is Reader Participation Make-or-Break?

While Small Demons has gathered a considerable following, a few more recent forays into book discovery platforms leave something to be desired according to reviewers. Laura Hazard Owen at wrote a tongue-in-cheek (and mostly dismissive) review of BookScout, a new Facebook app from Random House. She found the app’s suggestions wildly off the mark, the connections it made between titles and authors laughable. Still, there may be hope for BookScout as a social cataloging tool: Its algorithm mines Facebook’s Open Graph search but will also absorb ratings and sharing data, among other user input. If BookScout achieves sufficient user buy-in, its recommendations may begin to make more sense.

Briana Boyington of Education Week Commentary, who guest blogs here at BookMarks, found the Twitter-based book recommendation app BookRX to be not quite ready for the spotlight either. BookRX is a recommender algorithm. Visitors enter their Twitter handles and the algorithm returns lists of thematically organized titles based on frequently recurring keywords in the account’s archive of tweets. As Boyington found, not only did BookRX appear not to grasp the essence of several user names tested, but the connections between suggested titles and highlighted keywords was obscure. So far BookRX offers no avenue for users to respond and tweak what the app produces; unless plans are made for user feedback, it may be doomed to remain a curiosity, or a one-trick pony.

With so many options for book discovery available to readers today, the long-term viability of online and mobile tools may depend not on the specific technology used, but on each tool or site’s ability to generate and maintain user buy-in. Easy access to book information and editing capabilities may draw many to Small Demons, but site quality may suffer if the process of collective editing isn’t appropriately managed. And users contributing content may not be enough to keep a site going: Without publisher or retailer tie-ins to leverage and expand its user base, Goodreads may not survive in the long-term.

The lack of educator- or student-specific programming on each site leaves these audiences to find their own way. Small Demons and Goodreads have been free to use so far, and look to be so for the foreseeable future. If teachers and librarians are to ask more of either site, they may push for easier (secure) connectivity to learning management systems—the way Goodreads Connect currently works with e-commerce sites—common core-specific resources, and curriculum guides.

That said, it’s currently possible to shape new resources from existing features, and to share pages and shelves created within Goodreads and Small Demons with an audience of non-users. For the more intrepid and code-savvy, Goodreads also offers options for building a variety of web applications with its API. Teachers, students, and librarians who take advantage of these developer tools can create custom discovery and cataloging engines while helping improve the overall Goodreads project—crowdsourcing again, in a different form.

Ultimately, it seems that managing a successful discovery system is about much more than the simple act of discovery. Shared discovery is what best helps online book communities thrive.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.