Despite the rise of recommendation engines on every online bookstore site, readers’ advisory services still persist as a basic function of public library reference operations. Since 1991, Gale (http://gale.cengage.com) has published its What Do I Read Next? series in print; since 1997, it has offered a web-based subscription service of the same name. Now, under the management of a new owner, Cengage Learning (www.cengage.com), Gale has replaced the former online service with the launch of a major revision called Books & Authors. The service distinguishes itself from competitors primarily with its integration of author information from other Gale reference publications. An open web version of the service (http://booksandauthors.wiseto.com) offers curtailed content to anyone and links to libraries that offer the full service.
The former online product already offered a solid array of features. Content included more than 100,000 fiction and 30,000 nonfiction titles recommended from adult, young adult, and children’s collections. It also contained more than 62,500 plot summaries, titles picked from 561 major book and literary awards, and some soon-to-be-released titles. Entries provided title, author, publication date, series names, descriptions of characters, time period and geographic setting, story type, descriptive annotation, selected books by the author, and similar books by other authors. Eight major genres—inspirational, mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, horror, Western and historical novels, and general fiction/classic fiction/nonfiction—are broken down into thousands of subgenres. A team of 21 genre experts at Gale currently constructs the underlying taxonomy, selects books, and writes descriptions and plot summaries.
The new Books & Authors online service will replace the old and will expand the content significantly. Marc Cormier, Gale’s product manager for literature, art, and the humanities, expects the new service to reach 150,000 by the beginning of next month. It will also incorporate all content that appears in the still published print version, as opposed to the 10% to 15% missing in the previous online service. With more than 5,000 library subscribers now, Gale has no plans to cancel the print service, which Cormier describes as "wildly popular."
The new service will also carry book jacket art, book reviews from 30 sources (e.g., Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Wordsmith, etc.), and author information from the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Contemporary Authors, and other biographical encyclopedic sources. The author information is usually lengthy, up to 20,000 words, according to Cormier. At present, there are no links to websites or blogs by authors or their fans, but Cormier expects those to come. A "My Reading Room" feature lets individual patrons create their own reading and search lists. Users can also input their own reviews to the system, submit bibliographies, and link to social networks such as del.icio.us, Newsvine, furl, and digg. The new service will also update daily or monthly for proprietary content, as opposed to the 6-month update schedule for the print product. Books & Authors will continue to support author, title, and series searches as well as author, title, and genre browses, award-winning book lists, an "If you like … " search for discovering new themes and genres, and other advanced search configurations. An innovative visualization lets searchers use a form of Venn diagrams to evolve sophisticated searches tapping the Who (author), What (theme/genre), When (time period), and Where (geographic setting) of books.
The service will also link to library holdings upon finding a match. Though the system does not link to public domain editions of classic books now, Cormier says Gale "absolutely" plans to link to full text in the future. At present, the service provides a Dial-a-Book audio feature for reading the first chapters of some current titles. By February, according to Cormier, it will carry a section for new arrivals and titles coming soon.
Cormier described Books & Authors as having distinct differences from previous offerings. "We took a different take on the user interface design, one for end-users and library patrons who want a simple search box. But it also has a number of options—a browsing index, seasonal suggestions, spotlight boxes. It shows the genre indexing on the side and one click will reach the full collection underneath the genre listings. A middle of the screen box is new and unique. It has different changing monthly specialties, monthly highlights that are automatic or customizable for an individual library’s use. We offer eight templates for librarians to populate the site with their own links to events in the library. Individual library patrons can write their own reviews, create themed author lists, save rankings, etc. These are all completely navigable by the account holder and completely customizable by librarians."
This is only the beginning for the service. Cormier expects that in time "users will be able to share content, search on favorite reviewers by handle or user ID. Now they can email reviews. We have a number of things in discovery to enrich the service with Web 2.0 applications." By late March, he expects completion of the search alerts integration. Users will be able to define the frequency for receiving alerts in their own individual user accounts. Librarians will be able to set their own alerts by title, author, and genre.
The inevitable final question: How much? Cormier says that smaller libraries (based on the FTE or public served) would pay $1,000 a year ($899 as an introductory offer). Larger libraries or buying groups, such as library consortia, would pay more, of course.
There Is a Need
Will the new service succeed? The answer could depend on a lot of factors, including the actions of competitors such as EBSCO’s Novelist and its online companion Nextreads.com, as well as the success of recommendation engines on ecommerce bookseller sites. I asked Steve Coffman, vice president of product development at LSSI (Library Systems and Services, LLC), for his assessment. He replied in his typically controversial manner:
I don’t have any definitive answers, but what I can say is that readers’ advisory services are becoming increasingly popular at the 65 libraries LSSI manages—now the 5th largest library system in the United States. And if the demand for readers’ advisory continues at its present rate, it could easily surpass basic reference enquiries—which have been declining for some time now—in the not too distant future. However, I have some real questions about whether readers’ advisory in libraries can be effectively performed by the software programs now on the market or whether you really need well-read human beings to do it right. Certainly, the success of the collaborative filtering approach at Amazon suggests that good software does have a role to play in this area, but I question whether any of the programs currently available for libraries have reached that level of sophistication or utility. My experience to date is that most of these programs get little use—and I think that until these programs introduce true collaborative filtering, that’s unlikely to change much. We’ll continue to rely primarily on our staff to make the connections between people and books.
Even if patrons find readers’ advisory services less than attractive, as Coffman surmises, it would seem that librarians would need the services to handle the growing demand.
And then there’s the Universal Competitor … the web itself. An open web version of Books & Authors has also launched as part of Cengage Gale’s new WiseTo collection of "trusted, authoritative and well-organized" content. The WiseTo site (www.wiseto.com) launched with WiseTo Social Issues, a collection of content surveying all sides of "today’s hottest and most divisive topics." A pared-down version of Books & Authors will have basic information, including recommendations, and a link to local libraries that carry the full service. An open web product also enables search engines, such as Google’s, to reach the service. Cormier says, "We not only want to drive up usage of library resources, but also reading in general."
At present, Books & Authors content is not available to ecommerce sites, but Matthew Hong, vice president and general manager for Open Web Markets at Cengage Gale, says that, in time, the company will add the ability for web users to buy books "but not in the library product. We don’t want to sabotage library customers. For library customers, we’re focused on what Gale can do to get them more patronage or increase the interaction with libraries. One of our use cases in designing Books & Authors was what we can do to help a library make connections with a person who hasn’t been in a library for 10 years."
An interesting challenge to library market vendors everywhere.