The Marriage of the Librarian and the Algorithm

When I was five or six years old I started accompanying my grandmother to work on the weekends. She would steer her Ford Pinto along one of the few paved roads in town for the ten-minute ride from her house to the library. It was a small building, much smaller than the few houses we passed on our journey.

Each Saturday I sat at a table built especially for children, with chairs that wouldn’t make it to your knee. I read the works of Beatrix Potter and later solved crimes alongside Encyclopedia Brown. When my classmates visited I would recommend a few of my favorites, taking into account their feedback on previously checked out books.

I learned to listen from my grandmother. She would hold court with each resident that walked through the door and ask them what they thought of the last book they read. Then she would reach for a stack of novels behind her desk. She knew which volumes they would enjoy, even if they didn’t yet.

Several times a year I would wake especially early. This was when the bookmobile would come to town, arriving before the library opened its doors. I would climb its aluminum stairs and run my fingers down the long shelves built into its hull. We were its first stop of the day with only an hour to make our selections.

I began pulling and stacking books that I wanted to read alongside my picks for the other children in my school. I had a fairly solid track record among the grammar school’s leading readers and before long my grandmother stopped assisting me when I raided the mobile library. Soon I was solely in charge of selecting the books for the few dozen children in town.

I took pride in my knowledge of the reading habits of the library’s youngest patrons. The tiny building had become a living entity, breathing in children eager for stories and exhaling young brains filled with knowledge. It ran purely on sensitivity to tastes and reading habits.

I am reminiscing because I just took a stroll through a new offering from some of the largest book publishers in the business. It’s a site called Bookish and it promises to tailor book selections to your tastes based on an algorithm that combines your feedback and purchases with details provided by the publishers and authors. It will advise you solely on your input rather than the popular method of showing you what others chose or tapping into your social media links to see what your friends are reading. In essence, it will pay attention to you.

Those who created Bookish have said that the algorithm will take time to learn your reading tastes and adjust its recommendations based on your continued interactions. It’s a plan tailored to the reader and it feels appropriate.

It reminds me of those conversations my grandmother had next to her desk with each patron that walked through her door. Before long it will anticipate what you want before you ask.

This post first appeared on Medium.


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