The Readalike Conundrum: What Netflix Can Tell us About Predicting Predilections
Fond as I am of podcasts, I do have a tendency to view them as conveyance systems for blog fodder. I plug in my earphones, walk home from work, and get ideas for posts. That’s the hope anyway, but nine times out of ten a podcast is just a podcast. Even the most inspirational ones (which, for whatever reason, seem to be science podcasts from NPR) yield bupkiss more often than not.
Not so the other day. Invisabilia touts itself as the podcast that hopes to look closer at “Unseeable forces control human behavior and shape our ideas, beliefs, and assumptions.” As a longstanding RadioLab fan, this was an instantly appealing idea. The episodes have evened out over the years from their early herky-jerky ways, and I was enjoying one the other day about patterns. Ostensibly, the podcast episode was about whether or not patterns of human behavior are true indicators of future misbehavior. If you fall into bad patterns in your youth, are you doomed to repeat them while old?
What does this have to do with children’s books? In the course of the discussion the subject of computer programs that can predict what a consumer may want came up. We’re familiar with this when it comes to Amazon (Customers that bought [blank] also looked at [blank]) and, most notably, Netflix. Netflix, in fact, went so far as to offer a prize for (and here I’m quoting Wikipedia), “an open competition for the best collaborative filtering algorithm to predict user ratings for films, based on previous ratings without any other information about the users or films, i.e. without the users or the films being identified except by numbers assigned for the contest.” It was called The Netflix Prize.
Now any librarian working in the field of Reader’s Advisory is going to be able to tell you that a cornerstone of the profession is Readalikes. This is where a patron comes up, says they liked one book, and wants recommendations that are “like that”. Remarkably, there is no quick fix for this kind of a question. No replacement, really, for a knowledgeable librarian familiar with their field. And I say this as someone who has to fill in on the Adult R.A. desk pretty regularly. So that “collaborative filtering algorithm” that Netflix uses starts to look pretty darn good. Can we get some of that on the book side of things, please?
This is not to say that we don’t have some Readalike recourse. My library, like many, subscribes to the database NoveList. Your library probably does too, for that matter. If it does, then you can see that it’s an effective method of coming up with a list of readalikes. I say “effective” because what NoveList does is provide you with a list of books. The list will have justifications for each inclusion written by real people who sign their names. This is good because each person likes a book for a different reason. With this list, you’re able to find the books that speak to you the most.
Novelist is not, however, foolproof. Many times it will recommend overly well-known titles in lieu of something a little more creative. That’s why I supplement my NoveList searches with Kirkus searches. As I’m sure you are already aware, for every new review Kirkus provides, way down on the lower right-hand side of the page are “Readalikes” provided by its reviewers. A good idea, if a haphazard one. Unlike NoveList, you never really know why one book or another is included.
The other day I was handed a unique challenge: Come up with a list of ten books for children that would act as natural companions to Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen. Basically, I wanted a list of socially conscious books for children, unafraid to face the question of race in America in the 21st century. Now, if this list was supposed to be for YA readers I could have whipped up something immediately. As it stood, I had to really wrack my brains. I would come up with a good title (like Can I Touch Your Hair?) and then look around desperately for anything like it. I tried NoveList. I tried Kirkus. And ultimately I just had to sit down and think long and hard about the books I’ve seen over the past few years.
To date, there is no go-to Readalike search engine for children’s books. Nothing to replace the brave librarians in the field that man their desks every day, prepared to do battle with the kids that come wielding The One and Only Ivan, asking for something “like this”. But while I don’t want to put us out of a job, I feel like there’s some solution out there. Maybe that’s the next step with all the book recommendation apps we’ve seen crop up over the years. Maybe Readalikes is the next great challenge. Whatever the case, until someone sets the standard for recommendations, we’re going to see a lot of piecemeal recs over the years.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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