The Lessons of Goodreads for Public Historians

The book sharing and cataloging site Goodreads has unexpectedly become an important part of my social media use over the last couple of years. Having always been a voracious reader, I initially saw little use for the site, because I wasn’t sure what it could add to my reading experience. I decided to give it a shot on a whim in 2013, however, and nearly three years later I’m still a regular user. In this post I’ll briefly sketch the history of Goodreads and offer some thoughts both on why I’ve found it useful and on what it might have to offer to public historians.

Goodreads was founded in 2006 by entrepreneurs Otis Chandler II and Elizabeth Chandler in order “to help people find and share books they love.” Otis Chandler describes his inspiration for the site as a virtual version of your friend’s bookshelf, which has always sparked readers’ ideas about what they might like to read next.You can befriend or follow other readers on the site and see updates about what they’ve read recently and what they thought of it.

books-vs-computersIn 2011, Goodreads expanded the “friend’s bookshelf” model to include something more contemporary: algorithms. The company acquired the recommendation engine “Discovereads,” which analyzes the books on your lists and how you’ve rated them and offers you recommendations about what similar titles you might like–perhaps the equivalent of a knowledgeable librarian. By 2012, Goodreads membership was growing rapidly. The site reached 11 million members in October of that year, and had hit 12 million just one month later. In 2013, it was acquired by Amazon.com.

My own enjoyment of Goodreads is due to the way it combines its cataloging and organizational functions with the social angle. I use it to save books I want to read in an easily accessible place, and to keep track of what I’ve read in the past and what I thought of it. I could easily keep an Amazon wish list or my own personal journal of books instead, but the ability to share my list with my reading friends and see what they’ve enjoyed enhances the experience. Perhaps most importantly, while Goodreads offers many more avenues for participation (book clubs, writing detailed reviews, making more use of the algorithm’s recommendations), I am able to engage at the level I find necessary and pleasant, and no more.

What can public historians learn from Goodreads? Probably many things, but its dual nature as a personal archive tool and a social media site comes to mind. Perhaps museums and archives with well-trafficked online collections might consider adding some social functionality to their sites, to encourage researchers and casual viewers to engage both with the materials and with each other. Most important to the success of this or any social media site, however, is understanding the audience’s needs and how you might best meet them. Goodreads took advantage of the algorithm technology without allowing it to overwhelm its original mission, to allow users to more easily share their love of reading directly with one another.

This article relies on information from the Wikipedia article on Goodreads.

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One thought on “The Lessons of Goodreads for Public Historians

  1. Hi, Ella! I really enjoyed reading your blog post. It made me want to give Goodreads another try. I made an account years ago and then promptly forgot about it! What I found most interesting about your post was the practical use of the Goodreads interface for public history work. The idea of a “personal archives” for viewers to save the pieces that are most meaningful to them or bookmark them for future research purposes is something I personally haven’t seen a lot of on different institutions’ pages. I think more should adopt it! The New Orleans Museum of Art uses this type of feature in their “Your Collections” section of the website. After reading your post, I thought you might find it interesting! Here’s the url: https://noma.org/noma-collection/your-collection/

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