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The How and Why of Recommendations

Post by Duncan Smith
Posted September 10, 2014 in NoveList Plus, Readers' Advisory News

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Over the last few months, we’ve explained how NoveList creates recommendations. It starts by describing the ‘who, what, where and when’ of a book (‘cozy mystery with a woman caterer who is an amateur detective and lives in Colorado’).  Then, we add in the appeal terms that describe the feeling (‘upbeat and witty’). From there, we create recommendations -- both hand crafted and algorithmic -- based on all those descriptive elements we added. [If you missed any of our series on recommendations, check them out below.]

So we’ve described the ‘how’, but what about the ‘why’?

Why this one?

The first question that anyone (librarian or reader) asks when they are presented with a list of recommendations is why this one and not another one.  In some cases, a reader might have heard of a suggested title and have some thoughts about whether or not it is right for them.  In many cases, however, the reader is confronted with an unfamiliar, unknown item and may or may not have a context for determining the connection between a suggested title and the one they have just read or placed on hold.

Supporting readers in making the connection between a book they know and one we suggest is one of the reasons we provide a rationale for our recommendations (i.e., the ‘why’).  For example, a fan of Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldy Bear mysteries may not have heard of Claudia Bishop’s Hemlock Falls mysteries but NoveList contributor Derek Keyser makes the connection for the reader when he writes:

These charming and upbeat cozy culinary mysteries contain delicious blends of small-town eccentrics, loving descriptions of gourmet food, witty dialogue, and plucky female protagonists whose culinary expertise helps them to solve food-related crimes.

Derek’s rationale helps a Davidson fan understand why they “might” learn to love Bishop’s Sarah as much as they do Goldy.  It also helps a staff member unfamiliar with cozy mysteries address the raised eyebrows of the reader standing in front of them. 

This approach also works when our rationale refers to a recommendation provided by our algorithm.  For example, when we recommend Claire of the Sea Light  by Danticat for Tartt’s The Goldfinch,  the suggestion is made because of the similarities outlined below:

These books are Haunting, Lyrical, and Character-driven, and they share: the genres 'Psychological fiction' and 'Literary fiction' and the subject 'Loss (Psychology)'.

In some cases, a recommendation may not work for a given reader, but with the rationale given, that reader can make an informed decision.

The Real Reason Why

This is the real reason “why” of recommendations, after all: we want readers to be informed about all of the authors, titles and genres that we have on our shelves and how these books relate to the reading experiences for which they are searching.  We want readers to learn  more about themselves as readers by understanding what they like and what motivates them to take an unknown author or title or a new genre home.  And, importantly, we want readers to view the library not only as the place where they go to pick up the books they placed on hold, but as the place where they learn about exciting new books.

And it's also the reason why NoveList does recommendations the way we do -- so that you have the tools you need to successfully serve your readers.

If You Missed The Series

As mentioned above, here is the entire series of articles on recommendations: