Sunday, September 4, 2011

Library Lagniappe --- on the subject of BookLamp

Library Lagniappe Today on Library Lagniappe:  get ready for the rant.......

So, there I was, reading the Huffington Post Book section, and I came across this interesting little article about a new service called Booklamp, which offers reading suggestions, much along the lines of how Pandora recommend music.   And, I was curious.   After all, as a librarian, and someone who does Reader's Advisory at times, I was curious to see how Booklamp worked.

So, I went on over to Booklamp and typed in a title to see what it would recommend.   According to the Huff Post article, Booklamp says "Unlike other such services", Booklamp says that it compares book content (which they dub "StoryDNA") rather than previous purchases or author popularity.
The company attempts to help readers find new books that they will enjoy, based on the writing style and themes of books they have enjoyed in the past. The service claims to examine not only the style, but the pacing, perspective and dialog of the text when recommending a book."

I typed in Kraken by China Mieville, and here's what came up:  The City & The City by China Mieville.  No surprise there, since it's another book by the author.  Next one suggested:  Un Lun Dun by China Mieville.  Actually, a bit of a surprise, since although this book is by the same author, it's completely different from KrakenUn Lun Dun is a book written for younger readers, and while it has elements that are similar, I wouldn't say it's quite what I might recommend to someone.   And then, things turn a turn down Wackadoo Lane.   The next book suggested by Booklamp was The Bad Mother's Handbook by Kate Long.  Huh?

Looking at the "Story DNA" on Booklamp, here's what it says for Kraken:
Death & the Dead/Postmortem
Old City Infrastructure
Police Involvement
Docks & Warehouses

The "Story DNA" for The Bad Mother's Handbook says:
Features of the Body
School Environment
Brunch/Social Gatherings

Here is the summary of The Bad Mother's Handbook (courtesy of BookList): This charming, funny first novel has propelled its author to the top of the best-seller charts in the UK. The narrative alternates between the voices of three generations of the same family: bright 17-year-old Charlotte, whose pregnancy threatens her plans to go to university; her bitter mother, Karen, whose pregnancy at 16 ensured that her own dreams would never be realized; and Karen's sweet mother, Nan, who is starting to show signs of dementia. Karen is consumed with frustration at the thought that her family seems doomed to replay the same dismal themes of abandonment and restricted opportunities, and between caring for her increasingly infirm mother and worrying about Charlotte, she's exhausted. Meanwhile, Charlotte, unable to get her baby's father to take responsibility, falls in with seemingly nerdy Daniel, who soon proves to be extraordinarily helpful and an extremely proficient lover. These very appealing women do, of course, work everything out, leaving a trail of hysterical one-liners in their wake.

What about this book makes it a good suggestion for a reader who likes Kraken by China Mieville?  No idea.

The other 2 suggestions in the list from BookLamp were My Best Friend by Laura Wilson and Yeats is Dead by Joseph O'Connor.   I don't know what these books have in common with Kraken, either.   Looking at the "Story DNA" didn't make it any clearer.

What I find a bit puzzling is that this service seems to bill itself as being very, very innovative.  After all, BookLamp doesn't base suggestions on social feedback and bias (unlike, it implies, Shelfari, LibraryThing, Amazon, and other sites).   They state on their site that "Enjoyment is our goal. We want you to glimpse the same world of possibility when you arrive at our site as you would walking in the front door of the largest, oldest, most mystical library you've ever seen."    That's very cool.  However, this statement: "The last thing we would want is to walk into a library, and have a person standing there that shoves a book into your hands and says, "You can go home without looking any more. This is the best book for you.""  Not cool.   Actually, I was a bit offended by this.

As a librarian, part of what I do is Reader's Advisory; basically, I help people find what they would like to read (or watch, or listen to).  And I never shove one book into someone's hands and say "You can go home without looking any more."   The whole point of Reader's Advisory is to talk to a person and discover what they liked, or didn't like about what they read.  Maybe they've read Stephenie Meyer and want something new.  But do they want vampires?  Do they want a book that has a love triangle?  Would they prefer werewolves?  Do they just want a romance?    Maybe this person has read everything that Stephen King has written, everything that Dean Koontz has written -- they want something completely new, but still really scary.   But what kind of scary?  Psychological-scary? Gory-scary?   And no, I don't badger people with questions -- I ask enough so I can find a few suggestions I think they'll like.

As you can see, helping someone find a good book is actually a combination of some skills: we need to ask the right kind of questions, we need to listen to what the person is saying, and we need to be able to point them towards a couple of selections to look at.   And no, we don't know every single book or author in the world.  Some of us do know a lot of books or authors or series or genres, especially if we select books in the library.  There are people who specialize in Reader's Advisory, and who are absolutely amazing at it.  Joyce Saricks is one of those people, and she's written some of the authoritative books on the subject, in addition to writing for BookList (and doing some other cool things).  When we're not sure what to give someone, we turn to one of the coolest tools in the world: Novelist. 

Novelist is a database/service provided by a company named Ebsco (so it's something your library would need to subscribe to, but you can't get a personal subscription).  Novelist provides book suggestions based on all sorts of factors, appeal being one of them, but also provides author information, read-alikes for books and authors, series information, and much more.    While it's not perfect (because nothing really is.  Except China Mieville.  I believe he's perfect), it's a great tool and sometimes, a real life-saver when I can't come up with a suggestion.

I can see where BookLamp would be interesting, because it definitely recommends things that you wouldn't think of.   You don't have to come in to a library, or speak to anyone, to see recommendations and find books.  However, I don't think it's really quite up to speed for making good recommendations yet (they do admit that they are still adding in books and authors.  I looked for some classics, like The Grapes of Wrath, and found nothing).  And, I don't think it can beat a good Reader's Advisor - although I'm looking forward to checking back on it in a few months.

And that's the lagniappe for now.    Comments are always welcome, as well as suggestions of topics for future Library Lagniappe posts.


Anonymous said...

I think it's difficult to recommend books based on just a title. There are lots of sites that try to do it but, like you said, you can't tell from a title what someone liked about a book. It might be easy to suggest a similar type of book or author but to be completely sure you need to know more. Maybe a recommendation service based on a list of books would be better, if the service could then look at what similarities those books had and find other books with those aspects.

Sounds complicated though

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Not a site I'm familiar with, thanks for the information.

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