A completely new way to find the book of your choice

Libraries are treasure chests full of stories waiting to be read. However, do we as librarians succeed in offering people the story which is just right for them? Until now librarians have catalogued and classified books accor-ding to the rules but what about all those people who have no idea which author or literary genre is the right one for them? What about all the new and as yet unknown stories?

My meeting with

In 2002 I attended a conference in Iceland for children’s librarians – and there I saw the light! Rachel Van Riel, a brilliant communicator from the company ‘Opening the book’, had so many ideas on how to bring all these fantastic stories, now simply waiting on library shelves, to the attention of actual readers. “There is a reader for every book”, she said. I felt much the same emotions as, I imagine, those who heard Martin Luther King declaring “I have a dream”. Rachel was talking about Here there are no limits to what one can search for and combine with the criteria available to find precisely ‘your’ book. The fundamental idea shines clearly through that “There is a reader for every book. It may not be you, but there is another reader who will like what you don’t”. Here nothing is right or wrong. Only your own wishes and combinations count. Once the criteria have been established, you receive several suggestions for books which meet your wishes – and that’s it! As if that isn’t enough, there is also a cunning link directly to the library where you can find ‘your book’. Simply incredible.

So I thought to myself that now – NOW – we had a golden opportunity to do something great, new and exciting for the promotion of literature in Norway. It seemed to me that a Norwegian version of Whichbook was a concept that the Archive. Library and Museum Authority could successfully develop. Only a strong, national organisation (together of course with many capable and committed librarians) would be able to ensure the voluntary effort required to carry out such a large project. Nothing but win-win-win situations.

I returned home from Iceland with stars in my eyes but was initially unable to persuade anybody to finance such a project. Eventually, however, after Rachel had presented Whichbook on several occasions in the Nordic countries and also in Oslo, the ball started to roll. Now not only I myself but some 40 librarians throughout the country had witnessed this fantastic woman’s presentation and her new ideas about disseminating literature in a way which places the reader in the centre. By 2005 the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority with the help of Arts Council Norway had obtained the necessary financing and we were able to start.

A combined effort

After intense training we now have 60 library employees who can regard themselves as ‘Ønskebok-readers’. It has been a laborious process. Each librarian has dealt with at least seven books during one-day gatherings, where we conducted thorough discussions of two ‘benchmark’ books. These are books which set the standard for where the line of classification is drawn and against which we measure other books of a similar or associated type. After training is completed, each reader is ‘approved’. This makes it possible for them to access the programme and to place on the web site the books they have read.

The readers have to classify each book in 12 categories and select an extract which is typical, giving a ‘taste’ of the book. In addition they are required to write a short commentary, summarising the plot and content of the book and presenting their own reactions as a reader. This may seem a simple enough task but in fact it is far from easy to be brief, concise and to offer a personal opinion of a book in only 350 characters. This requires committed readers with a wide knowledge of literature. Finally they have to offer the person searching for a suitable book three parallels which will help to illustrate the atmosphere and appeal of the book. Since the ‘Ønskebok’ programme is a tool for reading pleasure, we offer at least two parallel works of fiction, while the third can be something else.

From to ø

It may appear that we have simply translated the concept from English without any opinions of our own, but I can assure you that there have been intense discussions on the wording of the classifications and the various search categories. We turned for help not only to the Norwegian Language Council but also to the Norwegian organization for gays and lesbians and to Afrikan Youth in Norway (AYIN), the latter two in order to ensure that Ønskebok avoided being offensive or racist. Whichbook, for example, has a category entitled ‘race’, which we initially found problematic with regard to the Norwegian concept. We were doubtful about including this category at all but since Afrikan Youth thought it was a good idea, we kept it. So now you can search for the type of person you wish to read about and can choose from ethnic origins such as African, Asian, Mixed or European. You can also select from among other ethnic groups, such as indigenous peoples, or even fantasy figures.

Target groups and universal design We started out with 11-16 year olds as our target group but after a while it became obvious that the programme was too sophisticated for 11-year-olds. We therefore decided to cater mainly for adolescents with particular emphasis on literature for pupils at upper secondary school level.

We have given priority to new Norwegian fiction from 2001 and onwards. This means that the foundation of Ønskebok consists of books published in Norway through the Art Council’s Purchasing Programme for Contemporary Literature. In this way the project places books with a limited potential readership on an equal standing with the bestsellers. Both Whichbook and Ønskebok conform to universal design, offering a pure text version for the visually-impaired. We consider it extremely important that the whole concept should be available to everybody.

The way ahead

Ønskebok is like the genie in the lamp, ready to grant your wishes. When we launched the programme in 2007, there were about 600 books in the database, just enough to make the programme functional. Now the number of books available for search is more than doubled, giving better and more accurate hits and offering users a greater variety of interesting combinations. The Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority is proud to have trained some 60 librarians during the project period 2005-2009 and to have succeeded in getting Ønskebok up and running.

The Archive, Library and Museum Authority has had editorial responsibility for ø during the project period. When, however, in 2009 the programme was put into operation, control was handed over to the Aust- Agder library and cultural centre under the supervision of Marit Senumstad Hauge. In addition to the 60 professional readers throughout the country, she has with her an editorial staff of nine persons, all librarians with long experience of promoting literature and working with text production.

Eva Haga Rogneflåten
Adviser, Norwegian Archive, Library
and Museum Authority and project leader for ‘Ønskebok’ in its development phase.

Eva.haga.rogneflaten AT

Translated by Eric Deverill

Adviser, Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority and project leader for ‘Ønskebok’ in its development phase