Libraries and the future of (social) reading

What’s the future of social reading? What is the role of the libraries? In this conversation, Nina Klein and Luis González discuss how to innovate digital reading through R&D projects and by developing new partnerships between a library and a publishing start-up.

NINA KLEIN: You say Twitter and Facebook are not the best tools for social reading; but that vertical social networks inside e-book platforms are better. Can you explain what you mean by that? Can you give one or two examples?

LUIS GONZÁLEZ: Through our research, GSR Foundation has learned that combination of the work of a librarian as mediator and ‘social reading’ processes in book clubs produces positive effects on reading comprehension, intensity and motivation of the reading experience. These findings led us to focus on all the factors that influence the success of social reading. This outcome has been significant for the GSR Foundation because it has had a crucial influence on designing our digital-reading strategy in libraries (research Project
Territorio eBook 2009/2015).

In 2009, when the research started, we applied the same methodology used in on-site book clubs, but expanded it by implementing a mixedmode: face-to-face meetings and dialogue through a blog. The conclusion of these first experiences (with readers over the age of 55 in a rural library) is that mediation was not considered a reading-experience. In other words, the work of the library (mediation) was carried out from the outside, from the ‘text periphery’, trying to enrich readers’ experiences (by meetings with the author, excursions to the setting of the novel, theatrical performances and cinema). This made us create some kind of confusion through a fragmented experience that meant two different kinds of products: the text on the one hand and the conversation on the other. The final report found that readers considered the entire conversation through the blog as something completely different from the novel. Furthermore, the interventions that readers carried out while reading the text were lost because they could not be saved. That meant we had created a dissociated reading experience and the tool was also inappropriate. When we worked on the same pilot project with teenagers, we used Tuenti, a famous social media in Spanish-speaking countries, which they use to chat with their friends. The conclusion was similar to the previous case: the conversation had nothing to do with the reading itself and became something irrelevant due to its artificiality. This effect worsened because of a mistake we made in designing this stage of the research: providing activities even more external to the text than we had provided for the age group of over 55 year-olds. We switched our focus onto a group of children, aged 8 to 13, and our work became much better thanks to improvements in another field (direct link to the text, through a weekly project designed by the team of librarians in collaboration with the author and illustrator: always related to a challenge facing one of the characters and their meaning within the whole narration). However, the conversation was still dissociated from the reading experience itself. This new dynamics had a certain degree of inefficiency because readers had to log in and sign out from the device in order to try to share their opinions and experiences. This meant that we had to remind each of the participants that they should participate in the blog activity based on the reading instead of leaving the text aside and engaging in independent off-topic conversations. We also had to struggle against the fact that they often chose a different device for each activity.

Working group

Thus, we realised that we needed new tools to reinforce conversation in the digital reading experience as well. The next stage consisted of creating a Facebook group, since we had already seen that certain companies were using this system to launch and
promote certain titles and authors. Moreover, we linked this scheme to the use of the Readmill app (which has since been closed) to mitigate the drastic difference between reading and conversation, since it enabled intervention of readers on the text of the novel.

In this case, the problem was that readers invaded Facebook, oftentimes disturbing the conversation in the book club: as it is well known, publications are arranged by the last comment or ‘Likes’. Participants stopped sharing their opinions in Readmill, in order to not disturb the conversation on Facebook, and eventually the whole conversation stopped. We also used Twitter with another novel and, as a result, the librarian as well as readers got lost in the conversations because of the large number of threaded conversations and their vague nature.

The conclusion is that linking tools that are unrelated to the reading device and the personal context of reading of a text is not the best solution for effective ‘social reading’, according to librarians and participants in the focus group sessions. This is why it is necessary to create social media for readers within the e-book platforms. In order to explain this clearly, it is fundamental to mention an innovation which we have achieved in the framework of the project: as we have already stated, we think libraries can be leaders in ‘social reading’ processes, so it will not come as a surprise that we tried to apply our innovation strategy in book clubs at libraries. We decided to test if our hypothesis regarding the positive impact of conversation amongst readers was interesting by including it in the process of borrowing e-books on the interlibrary lending service.

At present, e-lending systems are causing conflict, as the book industry and libraries have not found a compromise yet. The selected procedure consists of integrating the solution for social reading in the design of the library platform for reading e-books. To that end, we have reached an agreement with a Spanish startup (Odilo). As a result, we are testing a platform ‘to measure’ which contents (e-books) as well as reading clubs are integrated. Users read e-books from an application that has tools to share fragments, comments and notes.

The advantage is that socialisation is immediate and everything can be integrated by the work of mediators and the activity of the rest of the readers. I think that this difference is remarkable and its consequence is twofold: the mediators’ work is more inclusive and readers’ experience does not dissociate from the reading through the active and participative aspect of the social sphere, which is so significant for us at this time.

NINA: Mediators are necessary for an enhanced reading experience: that is the finding that surprises me most. So in order to help digital literacy and general comprehension, we need mediators for the social reading process? What competences do these mediators need – and do you see a way of rewarding those competences financially?

LUIS: Teachers, mediators and librarians are called ‘reading mediators’. In the case of libraries, their functions are very diverse yet they have an essential mission, which they share with schools: enabling the access to books for people who, for whatever reason, don’t have access yet. This function of providing content should not be forgotten in the digital context, although it is becoming less necessary for the majority of society. This social work on achieving equal opportunities has a scientific justification in several studies that indicate the decisive influence of household conditions on literacy, such as the famous ‘Bristol study’, carried out by Gordon Wells from 1971 to 1984. I would like to ask Fiona Bradley, manager of Development Programmes at the International Federation of Library Association and Institutions (IFLA) precisely about the mission of the libraries within the digital context. WILDCARD to @Fiona_Bradley!

If we take the task of achieving social equity seriously, a new challenge arises for mediators. It is not enough to merely provide access to books; it is necessary for the library to take over an ‘educational’ role, a work which strengthens citizens’ reading skills. From this perspective, work done in our Foundation for the last five years suggests that a more proactive position of librarians in general is needed.

Within the framework of the research on the digital field, we asked a group of university experts for help regarding a reading comprehension assessment (University of Salamanca). The experts were surprised to detect a noticeable difference in the depth of participants’ reading experience in the project regarding the Control Group members, in particular in terms of the degree of comprehension of plots and characters. At the time, it was found that people, who were assisted in the reading process by teachers or librarians, were able to understand better, and also enjoyed themselves more. It seems obvious, but researchers are not used to identifying so clearly correlations between a librarian or teaching activity and the impact on reading comprehension. When we examined the charts produced by researchers to explain the major and secondary storylines as well as each character’s role, we realised a very sophisticated work had been done to compare each reader’s version, and thus, assessing the degree of reading comprehension.

We then thought that, if we were able to obtain a ‘thermometer’ of reading comprehension, it may be worth asking certain questions, such as: Could we use this model for the creation of a quality reading experience rather than a mere diagnosis? What would happen if the book club’s coordinator had this analysis at the time of preparing his or her strategy? What if we had a blueprint for each novel in order to stimulate the reading comprehension of plotlines? At that time, we decided to revert the process: instead of using some tools developed to assess information on the reading comprehension levels on narrations, we would use the same tools at an earlier stage, that is, in preparing the coordination activities of the book club. This unconventional idea implied that the librarian team would have to develop new skills and, ultimately, have a new mission. From a theoretical point of view, we may say we would aspire to the idea of ‘text appropriation’ by Paul Ricoeur. That is to say, the personal and reworked hermeneutics of the text by each reader will be used to extract what the text means to them and how they identify with it.

This approach is the start of a new value proposition of libraries. In it, cultural promotion is more important than public access to books. It has more to do with leadership in community than preservation of a bibliographic collection, and it is bound to require new professional skills. The new skills required have much to do with exclusively human competences. I think it is a natural and logical response of a society, when traditional tasks become subject to automation with digital tools, to look for growth in other more ambitious and creative areas, thus producing a greater added value. These new skills are related to marketing, knowledge management, ‘viralisation’ of digital content, and partnership management. These skills are also linked to your question about financing of this new value proposition.

Nowadays, people who own contents are more likely to support these initiatives instead of readers themselves, as today’s companies are becoming aware of the MVP (Minimum Viable Product). This means that they have to test their new services or products in the real world and be able to adjust their strategies without losing their business vision. In this process, readers would be central, as they could help in a decisive way when companies need to know if they have to pivot their initial idea, if the readers’ behaviour shows that some of the prior assumptions – about the elements or components of the value proposition they would pay for – were wrong. This is one of the questions dealt with in my brief article about partnerships between libraries and publishing start-ups. I think that libraries are drivers of innovation but remains the question of innovation within libraries and here I would need the help of Dimitris Protopsaltou, founder of Future Library and peer in our programs with Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. WILDCARD for @dimproto!


NINA: Is this a value proposition that readers or someone else would pay for? Since you also argue that libraries could be communication hubs and potential partners for start-ups in just-in-time learning, it seems that digitisation could free ‘mediators’ from unnecessary tasks, allowing them to focus more on their core functions. Do you see a place in this new value network for publishers, editors, translators or booksellers (i.e. the larger publishing ecosystem)?

LUIS: This question you raise about who will pay for these new functions is extremely relevant – and also challenging. At first, I think we still operate in a R&D field and I think it is more likely that these functions would be paid for by a publicly-funded budget (I mean, taxpayers). It is in the innovation stage where I put a great deal of emphasis on the partnership between libraries and book publishing companies. Our theory is that libraries create a large, high-quality audience through this intensive programme – if we are talking about the type of readers and consumers who are favoured. And so, I must return to the gym metaphor once again: highly dedicated readers would be trained and very effective as leaders in social media and creating fan clubs. My idea is precisely that libraries can transform their cultural leadership in the community via solutions for the book ecosystem, the delivery of quality reading experiences, ‘virilisation’ of content and creation of reader communities. We should realise that these are not replicable or ‘piratable’ experiences, much like a live performance (theatre, concert). This is already interesting for the content-creating industry in a digital context, where the unit price of copy is equal to zero. I think it is time for libraries and start-ups to start looking after their mutual interest.

My opinion on the need of financing during the first stages of this type of innovation via the public sector may be justified on two grounds, which have an unequal implementation in Europe and the United States: firstly, the degree of prevalence of public funding for innovation of speculative or basic research; and, secondly, the role and development of open data policies.

On the one hand, there is a classic focus on support policies for innovation in Europe in early stages of research. I think this should be applied in the case of social reading and the role of libraries. There is simply no source of funding for basic research in this field, other than the public sector – any research concerning a cultural and educational sector is so far away from achieving immediate profitability that attaining other sources of funding, such as venture capital strategies, seems very unrealistic or even impossible. To put it simply: venture capital schemes are based on the fact that the majority of ideas and businesses actually fail, but those failures are financed by the large profit gained by the few successful cases, which are the minority. Beginning the innovation phase, an alliance becomes feasible provided there is funding as a result of a partnership between libraries and companies (as I try to suggest in my text). I do believe that the nature of reading and publishing sectors make a proactive position of national governments and European Commission advisable: we need more innovation support and public funding, because we are talking about a public reading service and I think that there are potential synergies for budget appropriations for libraries in relation with research programmes and evaluation of new projects.

On the other hand, I’m adding a second idea based on a concept which is more developed in the United States than in our countries: considering a responsibility of the public sector to ‘open their data’ in order to help start-ups develop new business models consisting of a completely new service offered to citizens. The Obama Administration launched this smart idea, which is also at the heart of the book on Big Data by Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier. I find it very likely that this notion may be transferred to the case study of libraries.

Well, if we apply these principles to the library environment and go back to the gym comparison, we can say that library-goers have a high profile, a sort of excellence in their commitment to reading, which is similar to those who regularly go to a sports centre. This relationship with reading, as with people engaged in sports, is above average, as the people you can find at a gym have stronger commitment with sport activities than the general population. In libraries, there is a great gathering of committed people who interact with professional librarian teams. The task of those teams is to create quality experiences around books and content in general. In this regard, libraries offer two great opportunities to new publishing companies: on the one hand, mediators create those quality experiences (previously mentioned) which are capable of creating communities and boosting opportunities for a book on the market. Although our publishing sector has never clearly seen this role of libraries, I do believe it is going to be regarded as highly valuable for content marketing companies in the coming years.

On the other hand, a library is a place of learning about reading and readers’ (and consumers’) behaviour, which is of great value for a startup, since this is the ‘high performance centre’, where readers gather together. This centre can collaborate as an experimental laboratory for ‘Just in time learning’, which Eric Ries discusses. In this case, the term ‘laboratory’ means that readers and mediators form a team without any guinea pigs, but rather with a community focused on an innovative experience in reading.

This interview was originally published in the e-book ‘Start up of the book’ by Luis González (FGSR) and Nina Klein (Frankfurt Book Fair).

The complete e-book is available for download here.

To follow the discussion on Twitter, the hashtag is #publishing_startups

One thought on “Libraries and the future of (social) reading

  1. Pingback: Biblioteki i przyszłość czytelnictwa (społecznościowego) |

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