It’s a question that librarians, booksellers, and others have heard often, perhaps even more so at a time when the output and availability of the written word has never been higher. And it’s a question that new book-recommendation sites such as Bookish and BookScout are trying to answer, joining a plethora of communities and services already trying to navigate the tricky task of helping you decide which book to pick up next.

The problem of wading through so many options is not confined to books, of course; Netflix famously challenged developers to improve its movie recommendation engine, Amazon suggests products based on previous purchases, and Pandora builds personalized “radio” stations with tracks it hopes you’ll love.

But when it comes to books, at least, the majority of Americans turn to their friends and family to decide what they’ll read next. According to last year’s e-borrowing report, the majority (64%) of Americans ages 16 and older said they get book recommendations from family members, friends, or co-workers. Another 28% get them from online bookstores or other websites, 23% hear about books from bookstore staff, and 19% get recommendations from librarians or library websites.

Of course, the various ways people find and share books are often quite complex, involving several or all of those sources. “If I hit on a genre I like,” one reader told us in an online questionnaire, “I’ll go to, look up a book I’ve read and enjoyed, and then look to see what other books Amazon thinks is like the book I just looked up. I also use social networking book sites, like Goodreads, to get ideas. I also use recommendations from Facebook friends as a place to start.”

Another aspect of the process that many people mentioned in focus groups and our online panels is the serendipity of the found book. Many people love to browse at bookstores, and ogling other people’s bookshelves is a time-honored pastime among bibliophiles. And when we asked people what they do at libraries, one of the top activities for all patrons was simply browsing the stacks — as popular an activity as borrowing print books.

Browsing gets a little trickier in the digital sphere, however, with the rise of e-reading — 23% of Americans ages 16 and older read an e-book in the past year — and its issues are compounded for e-book borrowers. In our earlier report on e-books at libraries, many e-book borrowers lamented that their only browsing option was to scroll through page after page of titles, with few useful ways to sort through the catalog.

Instead, several of the patrons in our panel said they had developed a workaround using commercial interfaces, which often include reviews, recommendations, and other ways of discovering new titles: “I will sometimes go to Amazon to find titles I might like, then search them in OverDrive, since Amazon’s interface is so much more reader friendly (tells you what else you might like, etc.),” one wrote. But over and over again, people told us that they wished they had more help finding the gems hidden in their libraries’ online catalogs.

A natural solution might be to simply ask a librarian. After all, readers’ advisory is not exactly a new service for public libraries; as one librarian in a focus groups said, suggesting books for patrons to read has always been part of “the job of the librarian. [Patrons] came up to the desk and said, ‘I like to read Tom Clancy. What am I going to read now?’”

But the crux of the e-book quandary is that the search takes place in the patron’s home, far away from the reference desk. Instead, many people (including both e-book and print borrowers) told us that they would like their library account to offer personalized recommendations based on their previous borrowing history. When asked, 64% of Americans say they would be interested in personalized online accounts that provide customized recommendations for books and services based on their past library activity, similar to the recommendations offered by commercial sites like Amazon.

Librarians did point out, though, that this option presents many potential problems, including some very basic privacy issues. One wrote:

“Customized recommendations also mean retaining records of what patrons have checked out in the past, which we do not currently do because of privacy issues. We are heading towards a system where patrons can ‘opt in’ to have their borrowing record available, but the default will still be to not retain.”

Some libraries that have integrated book recommendations into their system deal with the privacy issues by requiring patrons to explicitly opt in to the service, as noted above. Others avoid the issue altogether by posting general lists of recommended books, or directing patrons to third-party services such as Novelist or Goodreads.

Ultimately, many librarians argued that the best solution might be somewhere in the middle. “We have an online Reader’s Advisory form,” one wrote, “but I usually end up chatting with the person after we give them the list we develop and get a much better sense of what they want. Digital services should be in addition to, not in the place of, face to face services.”

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