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Dean's Update: Summer Reading

August 4, 2016

[The Dean's Update is a reoccurring column introducing the Libraries' monthly newsletter In Circulation.]

'Summer must be a slow time for you' is a sentiment friends and strangers voice when commenting on working in a library. It is true that during the summer there are fewer people in the building including our staff who use the quieter time to go on vacation or attend conferences. But many of us recall summer as a busy time to catch up with that stack of professional articles or perhaps the bedside pile of deferred novels that we've been meaning to read.

Summer reading allows us to escape into a different time and place while we travel or sit on the beach. Given that I seldom read for pleasure, I wondered how people who are avid readers select what to read these days. Results of a highly unscientific investigation I undertook might offer you some ideas on how to select your next reading material during the so-called lazy days of summer.

The most often mentioned strategy I heard from those I interviewed on this topic was to check the New York Times Book Review. Since its introduction in 1896, this weekly supplement to the Times has reviewed both fiction and nonfiction books, selecting the best 20 to 30 books from as many as 1,000 submissions from authors and publishers. It appears as an insert in the Sunday edition, but also is sold as a separate subscription. Books not selected for review are sold, with proceeds going to charities.

People also select books based on word-of-mouth or personal recommendations. Aside from friends and family, hosts of book clubs routinely suggest the latest book they've enjoyed. The social side of reading and discussing a book with someone is a rewarding and often deeply bonding experience.

Serendipity browsing - in bookstores, libraries, thrift shops--is a method some people use to find a book to read. A retired librarian mentioned that, sorting donations for public library book sales, he selects interesting-looking books based on the author, a topic, an illustration, a book jacket blurb or even the size of the volume and its typography.

Those who turn to the Internet for advice on life's challenges will not be disappointed with tips and websites devoted to 'how to find a book to read.' In less than a minute, over 800 million suggested links appeared in response to this query. WikiHow to Do It has a 12-step program with pictures, and over 6 million videos match a search for those preferring visual guidance. Then there are the experience tip lists-- ask a friend, talk to a librarian, browse a bookstore, watch a film, join a club, head for the Penguin classics, check Nobel prizes in literature or other specialized lists or interact with a recommendation website. The Whichbook slider selection or the match-making BookSeer app can generate a list of books similar to your reading habits or interests--and of course there's Amazon recommendations based on related sales data.

Using social media to share opinions, reviews and recommendations led to the 2007 launch of Goodreads, attracting millions of readers that track, search and share ideas about what they read. Adding algorithms to rate and match relationships of reading habits, the site use quickly grew and was acquired by Amazon in 2013; The Digital Reader reported that this past April, over 50 million reviews were posted on Goodreads.

Parents introduce their children to both traditional and new-age strategies for choosing books. One mother described how her 4-year-old enjoys touching and feeling 'real' books at the local public library, but on a daily basis all her reading takes place on her mom's phone or a family laptop. The child's favorite app is Tumble Books where she can--all by herself--find a book that is read to her or an animated book that engages her to watch the story unfold. Colorful illustrations are her highest criteria for selecting a book.

Since the last quarter of the 19th century, librarian practice has included providing advice on what one might read. Particularly in public libraries, 'reader advisory' programs have become core service offerings since the 1920s. Advice on fiction and non-fiction was not only offered to meet individual library queries but also to provide continuing adult education, building community and 'advancing a culture of a literate population. '

This professional practice continues today with librarians organizing book displays, hosting author lectures, sharing lists of readings, publishing guides, maintaining readers' advisory blogs, including reader advice as part of chat reference services and triggering community events like 'one city, one book' reading campaigns. Librarians--as well as other professionals such as those in information science, education, sociology and psychology--have researched the topic of selecting reading materials... but that goes far beyond what you likely want to take to the beach this summer.

If you made it this far in reading the results of my informal survey on how to find a book, you likely have some time for a good read this summer. I am obliged to suggest asking a librarian for help, but clearly there are many other ways to get started with one of the unique capacities humans have - to share ideas and insights, stimulate the imagination, and enjoy memories by making sense of written words.

Enjoy your summer reads!

Danuta A. Nitecki
Dean of Libraries


[1] Crowley, Bill (2005), 'Rediscovering the History of Readers Advisory Service', Public Libraries 44 (1): 37.

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