for GSLIS 702, Professor Ned Wall
Can a librarian truly forecast what a reader will like to read next, given his or her prior reading history? EBSCO’s Reader’s Advisory tool Novelist helps to do just this by providing multiple access points to next books such as: “Find Similar Books,” “Read-Alikes,” and “Search Our Database.” This paper will select a popular novel from the New York Times best seller list and describe the process of using Novelist to find three suggestions for “next reads.”
Tess Gerritsen ’s novel The Mephisto Club was selected randomly from a list of best sellers in the Sunday, October 15th New York Times Book Review. The plot is described in the Best Sellers column as follows: “A Boston medical examiner and a detective must solve a series of murders involving apocalyptic messages and a sinister cabal” (2006, Oct 15, p.26). What three books should a librarian recommend to a reader who liked The Mephisto Club?
Of course for the best results, an RA interview is highly recommended. Ross, Nielson, and Dewdney, among others, note that an RA interview is just as indispensable as any other reference interview (2002, p. 166). The notion of a “good book” is obviously totally subjective, and the librarian needs to get a sense of who the reader is, and what he or she finds appealing, and what is an immediate turnoff. This exercise will unfortunately not be able to simulate this important first step. Instead, it will focus on how a variety of Novelist’s access points can be used to find possible “next reads.”
For a new user of this tool, the initial urge is to come up with some search criteria to “feed into” Novelist. From the New York Times description, it is clear that The Mephisto Club is a detective story: it deals with medicine, it has a supernatural twist to it, it is dark, and it is sinister. And it was written by Tess Gerritsen. An RA tool is not necessary to search for other books by Tess Gerritsen’s. The New York Times blurb does not reveal the book’s length, but it is easily to find that out from any OPAC: 355 pages. Also of interest are the subject headings: “Medical examiners,” “Satanism,” “Serial murders,” and “Boston”. And “Rizzoli, Jane, detective (Fiction)”. Is this a serial? Another click in the OPAC confirms that Gerritsen also uses Jane Rizzoli as a character in her 2005 novel, Vanish.
But is all this forethought and strategizing necessary? Novelist should be given a chance to shine. A “Quick Search” from Novelist’s home page allows access by author, title, series, or keyword. When “Gerritsen” is entered, Novelist shows a summary screen of all books written by Gerritsen (including one by Paula Gerritsen) that can be sorted by author, publishing date, popularity and relevance. The user can see that Tess Gerritsen has written nineteen books, and it provides up to five stars for “popularity”. A click on any of the nineteen books provides a plot description and a view of the book cover as well as the “Find Similar Books” and “Author Read-Alikes” hyperlinks. Also, each book is assigned a reading level, and some are assigned a “lexile” rating. All of Gerritsen’s novel’s are rated “Adult,” and three of the nineteen are assigned a lextile number between 650 and 730 (the rest are labeled “N/A”). A quick click on “Help” explains that a lextile is a “scientifically based measure of how hard a book is to read.” It ranges from 0 to 2000. (Smith, 2006).
If the user scrolls down and clicks on The Mephisto Club, the detail screen also shows the twenty-one searchable subject headings Novelist assigns to this book, as well as three book reviews. All the information may be printed, e-mailed, or added to a list. The user can clearly see that The Mephisto Club is the sixth (and latest) in a series of Jane Rizzoli detective novels. The next two sections will describe what happens when the user clicks on “Find Similar Books” and “Author Read-Alikes” from this screen.
Find Similar Books
When clicked, the “Find Similar Books” screen re-displays the list of subject headings, each with two checkboxes, labeled “Required” and “Desired.” Additional limiters below include reading level (adult, young adult, children and easy), lextile rating, number of pages, format (audio, hard cover, paperback, large print), and publishing date. (These limiters, as well as the required/desired checkboxes would be especially useful if an RA interview was conducted. An important note: the “required” checkboxes must be used carefully as they severely filter a search’s results.) A quick search using the defaults (all subject headings checked as “desired”) provides a summary list of 16,321 hits, in the now familiar Novelist format, with The Mephisto Club listed as the first book, and three books in the series listed next. Clearly, a person who has read The Mephisto Club would probably have already read (or at least be aware of) the previous books in the series, so these will not be selected. The sort default is “relevance,” but among the next two choices, the “popularity” rating is quite different. Both relevance and popularity are very important for the purposes of this study, so a high rating in both is clearly desired. Clicking on several likely novels reveals another issue: the similar books found are also books in a series, and it would be difficult to recommend that a reader begin in the middle of a series, even though the plots seem right. (The whole series might be recommended, though some of the first books don’t seem to be an exact match.) Finally, on the second summary page, a good selection: Denial: A Novel by Keith Ablow. It is also in a series, but is fortunately the first book. “A psychological thriller pits a forensic psychologist against a homeless schizophrenic who confesses to a grisly murder” (Smith, 2006). This seems to be a good first suggestion.
Clicking on “Author Read-Alike” from The Mephisto Club page takes the user to an article about Tess Gerritsen, written by Joyce Sarricks (a well-known author in the RA field), which describes the author’s career and her books in general, especially noting their tone, believability, and the authority Gerritsen imparts to them as a former physician. Sarricks categorizes Gerritsen’s work under two genres: “medical thrillers” and “suspense,” and provides, in prose form, various “Read-Alike” suggestions. Each novel and novelist is hyperlinked, making it extremely convenient to look for more specific details about the recommendations. From Sarricks’ article, Peter Clements’ first novel in his “Kathleen Sullivan and Richard Steele ” series, Mutant was selected. It is described as follows: “As a powerful corporation uses genetic research to create disease-resistant super crops, Dr. Richard Steele is recruited to examine the hazards of genetically engineered foods, but he discovers that the controversy over the food is hiding a deadly plot.”
Search Our Database
One of the six main tabs on the Novelist homepage, “Search Our Database” allows the user to access the RA tool’s pool of information six different ways: “Find a Favorite Author,” “Find a Favorite Title,” “Find a Series Name,” “Describe a Plot,” “Boolean Search” and “Article and List Search.” The first three are just slightly different ways to access what may be retrieved via the homepage’s “Quick Search.” The sixth is a different way to access articles about authors which attempt to categorize them into genres and construct read-alikes, as described in the Joyce Sarricks article. (Interestingly, a search on “Gerritsen” here finds nothing, but a search on “Tess Gerritsen” finds seven “documents.”) This following paragraphs will focus on “Describe a Plot” and “Boolean Search.”
The “Describe a Plot” screen has a single find box, along with the previously described limiters (reading level, pages, lextiles, date, format, etc.). The find box allows the user to “describe” the plot in a free-style format. Suggested criteria for this keyword searching are the familiar who, what, when, and where. A search for “detectives medical suspense” came up with four or five Gerritsen novels, as well as some other possibilities. “Current medical detective suspense” significantly winnowed the results. There is also a link to browse by subject headings which takes the user out of the keyword plot search.
The “Boolean Search” screen provides five find boxes, linked with Boolean operators. Rather than the free-style searching of “Describe a Plot,” “Boolean Search” provides a much more exacting method of retrieving information. Each of the five boxes has a criteria drop-down (i.e. title, author, contents, publisher, subject, etc.). The previously described limiters are also available at the bottom of this screen. A link for free-style Boolean searching is also available, presumably for experts with a clear memory of “field codes” who feel constrained or slowed down by the five criteria/search boxes.
Although the “Boolean Search” screen showed promise, for the purposes of this exercise, it was found to be only slightly better than the “Describe a Plot” screen. This was primarily due to the criteria drop-down field selectors, which do not really make much sense for a “next read” type of search. Essentially the subject criteria are really all a user can search for, given the restraints of this exercise. None of the other criteria seem to pertain. So for the third suggested read, the subject criteria were selected, and again “detectives,” “serial murder,” and “satanism” or “medical” were entered. The results appeared to be much the same as the “Describe a Plot” search. From the list, Leah Ruth Robinson’s The First Cut was chosen as the third suggested novel. The plot is described as: “Calmly observing the handiwork of a serial murderer known as the “Babydoll Killer,” ER resident Dr. Evelyn Sutcliffe throws herself headlong into the case when she loses a close friend to the killer, a psychopath who had once targeted Evelyn herself.”
In their book, Reference and Information Services in the 21st Century, Cassell and Hiremath visualize what an ideal RA tool would look like. It would have to be digital, and have “multiple access points, be linked to a library or a library’s holdings, and be indexed by those factors that most appeal to readers.” Ideal search categories would be by pacing, characterization, genre, setting, historical period, and gender or occupation of the protagonist. And finally, the tool would allow flexible searching by “a combination of both natural language and a controlled vocabulary” (2005, p. 259). Though not perfect, Cassell and Hiremath give Novelist the highest rating of the RA tools they review.
This paper has taken Novelist out for a test drive. It has selected a popular novel from the New York Times best seller list and has found three “next read” suggestions. While not providing searches by pacing or characterization, Novelist nevertheless allows the user to search by many other useful criteria. This exercise has shown that Novelist is a powerful and versatile RA tool that should be used by reference librarians and readers alike. Relieving “librarians of the anxiety of having to talk about books they may not have read” (Sass, 2004, p 43), it provides accurate and well-balanced recommendations for future “reads.” How well it performs with older or less famous novels and more complicated plot lines is beyond the scope of this study.
Best Sellers. (2006, 15 Oct). New York Times book review. New York: New York Times Publishers.
Cassell, K.A. & Hiremath, U. (2004). Reference and information services in the 21St century: An introduction. New York, N.Y.: Neal Schuman Publishers, Inc.
Ross, C.S., Nielsen, K. & Dewdney, P. (2002). Conducting the reference interview. New York, N.Y.: Neal Schuman Publishers, Inc.
Sass, R. (2004). An interview with Duncan Smith, creator and product manager, Novelist. The Charleston Advisor, 6(1), 42-44. Accessed December 10, 2006 from www.charlestonco.com/features.cfm?id=160&type=np
Smith, D. (2006). Novelist. Ipswich, MA: EBSCO Publishing. Retrieved December 1, 2006, from Novelist (EBSCO).