September 2, 2016 by Sharee Cordes

Readers Advisory – Amazon vs the Library

Following on from our very interesting twitter chat on readers advisory, I thought it would be interesting to do a service review with a difference – Amazon vs the Library!

The Amazon advisory service was easy to access at any time, whereas a search for any online or out of hours advice from my local library proved fruitless.  However, I then spent an hour browsing through the recommendations on my Amazon site not really finding anything that I felt like reading.  It seemed to be quite heavy on light romances, but having just finished The Water Diviner, I was really feeling like something a bit more historical.  Amazon’s recommendations are generated based on what other customers who read the same books as me are reading, but don’t take in to account how satisfied people have been with those books, or how I am feeling at any particular time, so they are very generalized.

The next day I visited my local library.  I was a bit nervous about asking for assistance as I didn’t want to be a nuisance, but I soon found a staff member and she was very happy to help me.  I explained what I was after, and she immediately pulled out a copy of “If you liked this author, you’ll also like…”, scanned through for some historical fiction authors, asked me a couple of questions, scanned some more,  then lead me back to the stacks.  After about 5 minutes I came out with an arm load of books.  While looking through the stacks I spotted some more things that caught my interest, and the librarian mentioned a non-fiction book that she enjoyed that I thought sounded interesting too, so my ideas were extended.  I went home with two different books to try from the selection and lots of ideas for new authors to keep an eye out for.

If you liked this author, try...

If you liked this author, try… Image by Sharee Cordes

Before this exercise, I was thinking that all libraries should adopt a system like Amazon, but after comparing the two, I think there are some distinct advantages to the personal system.  For a start, it was really nice to make contact with a real person, we had a chat while she was helping me and the interaction left me with a good feeling afterwards.  Research by Sandstrom and Dunn shows that these type of interactions can lead to increased well-being and sense of belonging. The Ontario Public Library Association stress the need for library staff to be proactive in starting these conversations as they also see the added benefit of enhancing the library’s profile in the community.

Another thing I liked about the personal service was that the recommendations were more specific to how I was feeling at that moment, so even though it took time to go in to the library, the selection of a book was actually a lot more efficient than it had been using Amazon.  I also felt that my ideas about what to read were expanded by the experience.

While I do still think that patrons should have the option of having Amazon like recommendations generated for them based on their past borrowings, there are definite benefits in having a personal readers advisory service as well.  The proliferation of websites offering book reviews and similar author recommendations may lead to a decrease in demand for these services, but I think it is well worth us remembering just how valuable those personal interactions can be for many of our patrons, and going out of our way to develop innovative ways to ensure they continue.



#Amazon#community engagement#conversations#mental health#public libraries#readers advisory#reading lists


  1. Kylie Burgess
    September 2, 2016 - 10:19 pm

    Hi Sharee,

    Interesting turn in your thinking as a result of your readers’ advisory experience! I really do think having that personal interaction can be a wonderful thing (my experience wasn’t as useful as yours, so I’m a bit jealous!). I also think RA is a little undervalued – a good experience can really make people want to keep returning to the library for advice and during these interactions librarians can ‘up sell’ events relevant to the reader’s interests like genre-relevant book clubs or ‘meet the author’ events.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Sharee Cordes
      September 3, 2016 - 11:02 am

      Great idea about using it as an opportunity to upsell – this is what we need to be thinking about to keep our libraries vital!

  2. Katie Ferguson
    September 3, 2016 - 2:55 am

    Hey Sharee, what are your thoughts re: traditional bookshops and library RA? Bookshops have an in-person service for recommending books, as well as blogs, emails, social media etc (good bookshops, that is). I find well-curated bookshop recommendations can be great, especially if I’m looking for a new release title.

    • Sharee Cordes
      September 3, 2016 - 10:42 am

      Hi Katie,
      It’s funny because I often ask for recommendations in book shops but I don’t think I’ve really ever done it before in a library! Usually the book shop people are right there (I go to small bookshops!) and have made contact with you when you enter the store, so it’s sort of natural to continue the conversation to talk about what books you are looking for, whereas in libraries everyone always seems to be rushing around looking busy and sometimes it is hard to know who is the right person to ask. I think that the Ontario library are right in the their comments mentioned in my post – libraries need to be more pro-active at making that conversational contact, even if it’s not always in a ‘reader’s advisory’ role.

  3. maddy
    September 3, 2016 - 6:30 am

    Hi Sharee,
    Thanks for a very interesting read! Though there’s a place for Amazon, nothing replaces the personal service at libraries 🙂 You’re right – we don’t always feel like reading Amazon recommends based on our history, I quite often ends up choosing something other at the library than I’ve intended.

    • Sharee Cordes
      September 3, 2016 - 11:00 am

      Thanks for your comment Maddy. I think partly it depends on what sort of a ‘book selecting’ style you have too – I am definitely a ‘go in and browse the shelves until you spot something interesting’ sort of person so I end up with all sorts of different things when I go to the library, whereas my husband is a ‘this is the book I want and why don’t you have it’ kind of person! There is no way he would ask for help from a librarian!

  4. Karen Eyre
    September 3, 2016 - 8:26 am

    This is very persuasive, Sharee, I may even give it a go (even though I rarely need a book recommendation as most people I know give me books all of the time so my bedside table is always full). I didn’t know there was a “if you liked this author, you might like…” so this is the new thing I have learned today – thanks!

    I agree with your point about relationship building. As someone (fairly) young, mobile, working full time with disposable income (well, no, but comparative to a lot of other people out there) I take for granted that my physical, social and emotional needs are met. But today I spent time in not one but two BCC libraries – Carina, to review the First 5 forever program then Stones Corner to work with Nura on our assignment.

    What struck me about some of the other patrons is that they were not just there to get something then leave. Several patrons had a long, lengthy chat with the library staff. A lot of the staff knew the names of who they were talking to. Libraries really are about the community, not just the books and information.

    • Sharee Cordes
      September 3, 2016 - 10:55 am

      Hi Karen,
      Yes, I’m sure the students who already work in libraries would all know their regulars – I know we had quite a few regulars when I worked at the museum who just came in for a chat and often didn’t even go in to the exhibitions! I think creating space for those people to have thOse social interactions is really important. David Lankes, in his book The New Librarianship Field Guide (and lots of his other writing), describes the librarian’s mission as “to improve society by facilitating knowledge creation in their communities”, and I guess every conversation we have with a patron is really doing that!
      Thanks for your comment.

      • Sharee Cordes
        September 3, 2016 - 11:03 am

        PS. I have usually found the bookshop recommendations very good, except for my local bookshop which specialises in self published titles and I have found these can be a bit hit-and-miss!

  5. Jen
    September 4, 2016 - 1:24 am

    Hi Sharee,
    I use iBooks for most of my book recommendations these days- I really like the rating system and reading reviews written by other readers. Being able to see what people did and didn’t like about a book helps me to decide if I would like to read it myself. Usually people leave reviews right after reading the story – lots of reviews are unhelpful but there are usually a number of reviews that are detailed and insightful – what do you think about the benefit of numerous reviews to help you select a book?


    • Sharee Cordes
      September 4, 2016 - 8:41 pm

      Hi Jen,
      I have decided that I don’t like the reviews anymore! I used to love reviews, but now, when I go to look for a book online I seem to be continually finding books that I think look good, then I’ll have a look at the reviews and they will turn me off, so it’s back to the drawing board – it is just taking me soooo long to select the book that I want lol. I guess part of that is that when I look at reviews It is usually when I am purchasing a book – I have an Audible subscription that gives me 1 book per month so I want it to be really good!! Maybe I should try some other online review sites to help me find books to borrow from the library and see if that is different.

  6. amrit
    September 4, 2016 - 11:01 am

    hi sharee, I really like your idea about the importance of personal reader advisory services. In my opinion, personal reader advisory services are more beneficial for the users than the online advisory services. I think services provided by the librarian help to create good relationship between the users and the librarian. thanks

    • Sharee Cordes
      September 4, 2016 - 8:44 pm

      Hi Amrit,
      I did find one library that was offering a readers advisory service by email – you could fill out a form with details of some books that you had read and what you liked about them and then they would email you back with some recommendations. I quite liked that – it’s like an online service for people who don’t like going in to the library and talking to people face to face, but could still be more personalised than an algorithm generated service. What do you think of this idea?

  7. Lisa Hetherington
    September 4, 2016 - 11:24 pm

    Hi Sharee. I think that it’s an interesting issue you raised between the quality of help provided and people’s comfort levels with online, impersonal help vs directly speaking to library staff. For the most part, I think people want a quick fix (be it getting the best books to suit their needs or anything else for that matter) and will use the most convenient means for them to get it. For most, a trip into the nearest library is not that convenient and if they walk away empty handed the fruitlessness of the exercise would seem more frustrating than fruitless browsing.

    However, the great point that you made is that the personal interaction with an attentive, willing and motivated library staff member would certainly drive many back to use RA services in the library. The message needs be spread beyond those of us studying information science- “Librarians are super friendly and readily willing to help advise you on what to read!’

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