Is this going to be the way to deal with the problem of assessing what to read next in a digital world where every book ever published is available and there are no gatekeepers in sight? Gigaom’s story of 24 March tells how the New York Library is setting up such a system with the help of Zola. The system is based on Bookish, a project started by publishers, without too much initial success. Rather than the Amazon/Goodreads methodology of searching through reader recommendations, Zola’s system relies on subject metadata — another reason why we all have to focus on this outwardly rather boring aspect of book publishing. Of course, getting metadata for all those old books is going to take for ever. Wikipedia’s article provides technical information about recommendation software.

I think the response of Fast Company (sent via Book Business) to Brooklyn’s competing system, Book Match (powered by individual librarians not just algorithms) is a bit too negative. Combining the mind of a real librarian with some algorithmic search seems like a pretty good way of increasing the “productivity” of librarians, and one hopes, the value of the recommendations. If you really want to talk face to face with a librarian, then just go to your library!

But do we want/need such services? I can scarcely credit claims that people unable to find the book they are looking for will just buy another one, any other one. If I was wanting to read The Zone of Interest and failed to find it in the shop I had visited, I cannot see how I’d be willing just to pick up The Book Clocks and buy that. If I had wanted to read both — of course. But if it was The Zone of Interest I wanted to read, then substitutability doesn’t seem (for me) to enter into it. I’m neither delighted nor disgusted to be offered lists of books that others like me have liked. I do tend to look at them, but I’m not sure I’ve ever acted on the algorithmic suggestion. But accepting that there are people who just want “a read”, it seems to me that algorithmic recommendation systems cannot but be a boon.

All this horror at a future where we’ll not be able to find our way through the Borgesian library created by every book ever written being potentially available to us, seems nutty. I think it was Francis Bacon who was the last person able to claim to have read every book, but of course he was wrong. Nobody can today, so why worry about tomorrow. The best we can each hope to do is scratch the surface: that this will be the case forever doesn’t seem to be a real problem. So the algorithmic recommendation system didn’t deliver absolutely everything you might have been interested in? Who cares? And how do you know anyway? Just read one at a time.

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