NoveList, an EBSCO Information Services company, is in the business of readers’ advisory—matching the right books with the right readers. Duncan Smith, the co-founder and general manager of NoveList, explains the value of this service and how it keeps libraries connected with their communities.
Developing NoveList: Necessity Is the Mother of Invention
In the late 1980s, Smith was a librarian hosting continuing education workshops for public libraries on how to help patrons when they asked, “What’s a good book to read?” He showed videos of readers talking about books, modeled how to conduct a readers’ advisory interview, and worked with the participants on how to understand what patrons were looking for and how to suggest books to them.
The participants often brought up the same problems: They couldn’t read quickly enough to keep up with all of the books that were coming out, they didn’t read the same books that their patrons wanted to read, they knew patrons didn’t have a lot of time to spend browsing in the library, and their patrons wanted books that were easily available at the library. “This litany of challenges usually ended with, ‘We need a resource to help us answer this important question about what to read next,’” Smith says. At that time, fiction titles in a library’s catalog (the most frequently used resource) weren’t marked with subject headings, meaning that it couldn’t help librarians answer this question. For example, libraries could use the catalog to find To Kill a Mockingbird by searching the title or author, “but you couldn’t find another coming-of-age story set in the South that was lyrically written, thought-provoking, and moving with a father-daughter relationship at its heart,” he says. Librarians couldn’t necessarily come up with a book similar to Mockingbird off the top of their head. The answer couldn’t depend on one person’s knowledge, as valuable as that could be.
In 1990, Smith, Roger Rohweder, and John Strickler set out to change this by creating NoveList, an electronic database that would help libraries keep track of books to recommend to patrons. They developed subject headings to provide in-depth coverage of adult fiction. “Rather than spending time looking through the few print resources that were out there (and were probably out of date), they could quickly search a comprehensive database of fiction titles using several access points to find books that were just right for the reader—whether the staff member was familiar with the title or not,” says Smith. The first copy covered 20,000 titles and contained 1,200 reviews. EBSCO Information Services acquired NoveList in 1999. Today, it has 60 employees, half of whom are librarians, and more than 50 contributors, who work under the motto, “We Transform Lives Through Reading.” Its About page states, “By helping libraries help readers, NoveList empowers libraries to engage and inspire their communities.”
Readers’ Advisory: Becoming Part of the Reading Landscape
Smith cites Wayne A. Wiegand’s Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library to explain the importance of readers’ advisory services. The book describes three pillars of library service: provide useful information, support commonplace reading, and serve as a gathering place for the community. Readers’ advisory supports commonplace reading (reading for relaxation or to pursue an interest). Even if books are not picked out with the intention of helping the reader grow and learn, Smith firmly believes they have the power to change people—if they are properly matched to their needs and interests.
Smith also cites Catherine Sheldrick Ross, who has studied commonplace reading, in his article “Readers’ Advisory: The Who, the How, and the Why”: “Readers told Ross that books they read for pleasure had awakened them to new perspectives; provided role models that supported or validated their identity; gave reassurance, comfort, and confirmed the reader’s self-worth; provided a connection to others and conveyed an awareness of not being alone; gave them courage to make a change; and increased their acceptance of themselves and others.”
NoveList has a series of questions that librarians can ask patrons to start the readers’ advisory process, such as “Can you tell me about a book you’ve read and enjoyed?” and “Which of your favorite authors or series do you wish had a new book?” Titles are indexed by elements—comprising the book’s “appeal factors”—such as the following:
- Pace (whether a story unfolds rapidly, gradually builds momentum, or unfolds slowly)
- Storyline (e.g., action-packed, character-driven, or issue-oriented stories)
- Tone (matching what a patron is in the mood for—such as books that are angst-filled, darkly humorous, heartwarming, or scary)
- Character (for readers who love fiction because of the characters, whether they are courageous, flawed, snarky, and/or unreliable narrators)
- Writing style (elements such as the language complexity or level of detail—for example, dialogue-driven, gritty, lyrical, or witty stories)
Smith says if you’re looking for a mystery featuring a flawed yet courageous female detective that is set in Seattle, NoveList would help locate a book with those parameters. Librarians can search for titles using terms such as “atmospheric AND creepy” or “dialogue-driven AND gritty.” NoveList focuses on deep, rich descriptions and the experience the book will likely provide for the reader. Its controlled vocabulary has been tested and validated by libraries in the field.
The NoveList team reviews and tracks books that are due to be published in about 2 months, and publishers will sometimes send them books, but there’s no formal relationship with any publisher. When libraries set up NoveList, they can add catalog links within its databases and link to their local holdings collection so patrons can see in NoveList which titles the library owns. To advertise the service, libraries can use a NoveList button to link to it on their website and add a NoveList search box on their homepage.