It should go without saying that public libraries are all about promoting literacy. In my department, we’ve discussed how this should be reflected in our staff book blog, reading lists, and readers advisory. Namely, we have asked ourselves the question: When we, as professionals, comment negatively on a book, do we risk discouraging literacy among our patrons?
We have basically decided that yes, we do.
Public libraries take an egalitarian approach to patrons—whoever you are, follow our rules while you’re within our walls, and we’ll do what we can to assist you—but also, to a large extent, to books and other materials. I’m a big fan of Ranganathan’s five laws of library science, the third of which is “Every book its reader.” We do place judgment on materials prior to purchase—there simply isn’t the space or the money (or the need) to buy everything, so we make acquisition decisions based on professional reviews and patron demand—but once the items are in the library, the judgment stops.
At least, that’s the goal in my department: No bad-mouthing books. Bad-mouthing a book means bad-mouthing the patrons who might be interested in reading that book.
What we do instead is promote books—selectively. If we like a book (or, more importantly, see its potential appeal to our patrons), we blog about it. We put it on a suggested reading list. We talk it up to our patrons when they need ideas for a book report or pleasure reading.
(There are few times that I try to discourage a patron from choosing a particular book, and then it is almost exclusively when a parent has chosen a developmentally inappropriate book for a child. Maybe I’m weird, but I don’t think To Kill a Mockingbird is the best choice for a third grader, no matter how strong a reader that third grader is. In those cases, I suggest something I think would be better. And I always make clear that this is just my opinion and that the patron is free to give it a try and make up their own mind.)
This is all background to talk about my library’s new online catalog system, Bibliocommons. Bibliocommons is a catalog with social media components. Patrons can rate and review books, make book lists to share with others, and follow other people’s recommendations.
I mostly love it. It’s very easy for patrons to use. The keyword search behaves like Google rather than depending on exact spelling and Boolean connectors. You can perform the type of “faceted” sidebar search you experience on Amazon. The search results page lists item location and availability so you don’t have to click in as deep for details. Professional reviews are readily available for each item. And the social media components are fun, too.
But there’s one thing that really bugs me: the prominence of user ratings. Remember, once books are in our library, our philosophy they’re all good…right? Yet Bibliocommons puts each item’s average star rating at the very top of the item information page—on equal footing with title and author—as well as on the search results page. Worse, the star rating isn’t labeled as user-generated, nor does it state how many ratings were compiled to compute the average.
Basically, to the uninformed eye, it looks like the library is rating books.
The catalog has been in place less than a month, and I’ve already heard a number of times, “Oh look, honey, this one got four stars!” or “That one only got two.” My supervisor’s first run-in with this issue was with the book Stuck in Neutral, by Terry Trueman, an award-winning young adult novel. A patron had been all set to check it out—but balked when she saw that it had only received one star on Bibliocommons. One star, probably given by one individual…affecting who knows how many other patrons.
I expect these ratings will even out the longer Bibliocommons is in place. Right now, a great many items have no ratings at all, and those that do are skewed toward the high or low end. But regardless, should user ratings have such a prominent place in our library catalog? Should they have any place at all?
To me it feels like a violation of public library philosophy. I have less of a problem when the rating is average or high because I assume it encourages patrons to check out a book they are already considering. But when patrons see a low rating on a book in our catalog, especially a rating not attributed to an individual patron, it appears that our library is bad-mouthing the book…and that discourages, rather than promotes, literacy.
And that, dear readers, is not how we roll.
What do you think: Are libraries right to jump on the book-rating bandwagon, or should catalogs be a judgment-free zone?