Predicting our literary future: Recommender systems for libraries

The whimsically named “Book Psychic” seeks to solve the problem faced by library users when they enter the library: too much choice. Book Psychic uses the patron’s previous reading choices and ratings of library material to select the perfect book. The more it is used, the more the selections will reflect the patron’s specific tastes.

Like the ibeacon, the Book Psychic is an example of technology created for a retail setting that has been adapted for use by libraries. Book Psychic is an example of a ‘recommender system’. Lev Grossman’s 2010 Time article How Computers Know What We Want — Before We DoTwo explores the ubiquitous spread of the recommender system to all corners of the web, with computer algorithms helping users select from an infinite number of choices in everything from music to movies. Two very common examples can be seen when Netflix suggests a movie based on your previous selections, or when Amazon suggests a book based on what you last ordered.

Book Psychic was launched in 2012, and is produced by “library thing for libraries” an organization that produces technology to enhance the functionality of the existing library catalogues.

The site, which can be accessed via a link on the participating libraries’ website only recommends books from within that particular libraries catalogue. It is compatible with similar systems that the patrons may be using, so that if they have already used a site such as Good Reads, they can import and build on their existing information.

According the Book psychic website, only Wellington public libraries and Masterton District Library have subscribed to Book psychic so far. Both being public libraries, it would be interesting to see how the technology works in an academic library like ours, which would have a very different selection of books to the average public library.

One issue that could be raised with the recommender system is that when you are being recommended books based only on what you have read before there is a risk of being blinkered by your previous selections. While patrons obviously do not have to use the recommendations, only being shown books of a certain type or genre to the exclusion of other new material could be an annoyance to some.

With academic libraries, however, this fine tuning and honing in on your research interests and subjects of study could be an enormous asset to students, which I believe would make the site well worth the subscription cost.


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