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?


8 Comments

  1. Brenda Ferber
    Posted March 24, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Wow. I don’t like that at all. I think the problem is the prominence given to the stars and the fact that you don’t know how many people have rated it. I’d like to go in and give 5 stars to all my favorites, just to help them out. Do I need a Wilmette library card for that?

    • Lisa Jenn
      Posted March 24, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      I’m not sure, Brenda! I don’t think your town library is part of our system, so you’d probably have to register your card with WPL first. Then you could rate to your heart’s content. :-)

      It’s certainly giving me pause when I want to rate books myself. Should I be giving my personal opinion or my professional opinion? Those may be two very different things. Should I only rate books highly or not at all? Should I stop rating books entirely and stick to tagging (which is a feature I do enjoy)?

  2. Posted March 24, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    This is so timely. I registered for Bibliocommons through my library just last night. I thought the emphasis on user ratings was a little strange. I definitely didn’t read it as the library staff’s opinion, but I can see how someone might make that mistake.

    Still, it feels very Amazon-y to me, and I felt a little unsettled. I like a catalog to be a catalog! Then I realized that I had found some books I wanted to read on Amazon, including checking out ratings, before I went to Bibliocommons to put them on hold! I’m going to have to think a little more about the difference between a library’s and bookstore’s catalog when it comes down to it.

    • Lisa Jenn
      Posted March 25, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      My guess is that many people will understand that the ratings are user-generated. But not everybody… and especially not children, who generally have less experience/more difficulty determining the credibility of information on the Internet.

      I’ve been trying to figure out why I feel like it’s okay for Amazon to have ratings but not for a library to do so. I think it comes down to the issue of maintaining neutrality. Ratings introduce the bias public libraries usually work so diligently to avoid.

  3. evan
    Posted March 25, 2011 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Thanks, as always, for the well written post Lisa. Reading about the user ratings getting such a high prominence on your search site made me a bit sick to my stomach (maybe because of my cold) but it left me feeling cold after everything you had described above.

    You made me curious tho, and yup, my library system also does the same thing. That is a shame. It is one thing for goodreads to do that, but you know there that it is all user generated content. At the library, I assume that patrons will assume that you guys had something to do with it.

    Can you get those turned off or at least hidden away? Knowing programmers, I doubt it, but I hope you can. That sounds sad.

    • Lisa Jenn
      Posted March 25, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      So far the software folks have been pretty restrictive in terms of customization, so I do have my doubts that anything will change. (Honestly, I don’t even know how my library director feels about it.) Sigh.

      I’ve been thinking about the importance of knowing the ratings are user-generated. That’s my primary concern, but it would still impossible to know the who/how/why of them. Like anything else on the Internet, are people putting real thought into their responses, or are they just dashing them off? Does a low rating mean the book was of poor quality, or simply that it wasn’t up that reader’s alley?

      And are users really better off basing their judgments on a star rating than on professional reviews (also available, but far less prominently)?

  4. Laura
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Our library uses both star ratings and user comments but many patrons just assign star ratings without giving a rationale. A star rating alone is kind of meaningless without a rationale given behind it. I see some great books getting low ratings with no rationale behind it. There’s no statistics given as to the number of people rating a book. It could just be one dissatified patron but it makes me wonder how many patrons see that rating and choose to pass up a potentially great read because of that.

    I think there should be some disclaimer posted saying that the star ratings are from patrons and that are by no means the library endorsing certain books.

    • Lisa Jenn
      Posted September 20, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

      I agree about the disclaimer. I confess that I am guilty myself of sometimes assigning star ratings without leaving a review. I’ve been totally sucked in and corrupted!

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