For a while, I’ve participated in #AskALibrarian on Twitter on a weekly basis. This event offers readers guidance on what to read next based on information the reader provides along with the hashtag from 12 to 1 p.m. ET on Thursdays. It can be a great way to get flooded with options, but it’s not the best method for collecting book recommendations if you want something accurate to what you’re seeking, especially if what you want is specific. This is true of any recommendation on Twitter, but it’s especially easy to notice when observing the activity on #AskALibrarian. You’d think, with the pros involved (after all, it is Ask a Librarian), you’d be guaranteed to get good suggestions. Here’s why, even when librarians are doing the suggesting, Twitter is so bad at recommending books.
Depth, Time, Environment, and Circumstances on Twitter
Librarians who earned their master’s degree in library science (and often those who didn’t, too) have been trained in what’s called a “reference interview.” The idea behind the reference interview is for the librarian to respond to questions by asking questions in order to supply the best possible resource. Frequently, this is really useful because people will ask for the kind of information they think the librarian can find, rather than what they actually want. In an environment like Twitter with character limits and especially in the context of brief, timed events like #AskALibrarian, this kind of depth is difficult to offer and come by. Rapid fire recommendations have their uses, but they are less likely to be good recommendations. The nature of Twitter just doesn’t typically allow for in-depth interviews so that those recommending books can determine the perfect one.
Unlike recommending books in person, Twitter also doesn’t have the same benefit of real time feedback. In a bookstore or library, requesting readers are likely to have the opportunity to take the book in their hands and assess it while, at the same time, the proposer can observe the requester’s reaction. This gives the person suggesting the opportunity to adjust recommendations based on small body language (or other) details that don’t translate online. Or, in more direct scenarios, a reader may simply say they aren’t interested in a given title (as opposed to a more likely and quick like-and-ignore approach on Twitter), enabling the recommender to suggest something else on the spot.
You can’t blame an author for publicizing their book, but it does sometimes get in the way of good book recommendations. More than once, I’ve seen readers ask for a particular kind of recommendation only for an author to drop in with a link to their book that has nothing or little to do with the kind of book the reader is seeking. Sometimes, these suggestions are accompanied by an acknowledgement that the book doesn’t quite fit what the reader is looking for. Authors will add, for example, “It’s not about a day in a dog’s life, but it does follow life as a cat!” Depending on the reader and the request, maybe this is okay, but often these kinds of suggestions mean that the book misses the mark. Authors aren’t the only ones who do this (I’ve done it myself when it’s the best I can offer), but from my own experience, they are more likely to do it. With the book market as tough as it is, it’s easy to see why!
Twitter is a vast place. It’s easy to miss other tweets, even when you think you’ve been careful to read through all the responses to a tweet. What does this mean for book recommendations? In a word, repetition. In 2021, readers asking for a book that, for example, includes Arthurian legend, are likely to get many responses recommending Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn. While the book certainly deserves all the hype, it’s not necessarily useful for the requester to see the same book come up again and again. Repeat recommendations might be useful for suggesting how confident the reader might be in the suggestion, but there comes a point where the reinforcement is just crowding out other potential recommendations.
What about other online resources beyond Twitter?
It’s true that other places online have different structures and can avoid some of the issues that come up with Twitter book recommendations. With Reddit, for example, the character limit isn’t so much of a challenge. Plus, tracking conversations around a particular recommendation can be easier with the more standard forum format. Meanwhile, Facebook also has the benefit of a much larger character limit than Twitter. A back-and-forth in Facebook comments may be slightly easier to follow compared to Twitter, but it depends on the settings of the post and how comments are displayed. On either site, book recommendations interactions still aren’t as good as they could be.
While it’s true that the average reader could certainly supply an excellent reading suggestion for anyone asking, like with anything, requesters are more likely to get a solid recommendation from a professional. In-person interactions for these kinds of requests are great for the added information we get through things like body language and the natural flow of a reference interview, but plenty of libraries, for example, also offer reading recommendation services by form or email. We do something similar here at Book Riot with TBR.
There is always a possibility the perfect book just isn’t out there, too, no matter what anyone suggests. In that case, you may just have to put fingers to keys and write the book of your dreams yourself.