So I says to the survey

The SWON 2012 Teen Reading Challenge is up and running. Right now we have over 180 participants. Since Wednesday, they’ve reported having read a combined 16,000 pages already. Not a bad start.

We’re expecting to collect several thousand Reading Reports from Challenge participants, so we had to interview several survey applicants before choosing one. In past Challenges, SWON used a SWON-built MySQL database to collect information on the books people read. In terms of the Challenge, it collected everything it needed: book information (including number of pages) and the reader’s rating of the book as a bonus.

When I sat down in front of that data, there seemed to be an opportunity to collect information that would improve its usefulness for Readers’ Advisory users. Adding their opinions about the book could help others discover books they’d like to read. So I wrote a short-list of questions and got some feedback from Actual Readers’ Advisory Librarians. I’m no DBA, though. Modifying the current MySQL database is more than I know how to do, and a short timeline meant I needed to find a different solution.

So I looked at a couple different survey tools. The first was Survey Monkey. We have a Basic (read “free”) account there. That only allows for 100 responses. There lots of situations where that limitation would be fine, but the Reading Challenge isn’t one of them.

Next I looked at Google Docs. You can build your own survey there, which is linked to a spreadsheet that you can use or download to Excel. I built a quick survey there, including a question about genres. It seems like genre is the king of subjectivity. Put a couple CDs into your computer and watch with horror the genre names that come up. (Sure internets, I have 40 CDs that match “Alt. Country/Folk”) To be useful info, people need to be able to select multiple matching genres. So that’s what I built in my Google Docs survey.

That’s what broke my Google Docs survey. When I added some sample data, which selected multiple genres, Google put all that data in one cell. For example, let’s say that I chose to enter a book with the genres Historical, Mystery, and Science Fiction. Google’s spreadsheet would record that in one cell as “Historical, Mystery, Science Fiction” under the column heading “Genre.” If I want to create a formula that counts how many books matched the genre “Mystery,” I’m going to have to write some fancy scripts to discover Mystery in the middle of a text string. I’d rather not.

It’s much easier if the spreadsheet creates a column for each genre. You end up with a lot more columns, but who cares. A very simple formula will tell you how many books matched the genre “Mystery.” It’s also easy to find how many books matched “Mystery” and “Historical,” or “Mystery” but not “Science Fiction.” I didn’t quickly see how to set up Google’s spreadsheet this way, so I moved on.

We have a paid account with Constant Contact, which includes a survey builder. A quick test build there confirmed that selecting multiple genres was no problem–each genre is given its own column. I’m not a huge fan of Constant Contact’s WYSIWYG tools, and that counts for the surveys as well as their emails. Look at the HTML they generate to see what a mess it is.

The formatting for the survey was screwy too, with lots of blank paragraphs making for long pages of blank space. When I emailed their tech support about it, their fix was to edit the survey questions in IE or Firefox 3. Uh, okay. There’s evidently no HTML editor for surveys as there is for emails. In IE, I had to edit each question twice. The first edit removed some paragraph breaks and added others; the second edit finished the job. Yikes.

Constant Contact won’t let me update the questions once a survey has been published. This makes sense in some ways, but it means I can’t update the list of teams in the survey, which is too bad. It’s up and running, though, and I’ve exported data from it to make sure it works (and get that 16,000 pages number). Are there other survey tools you’ve used that are worth considering?

SWON 2012 Teen Reading Challenge

SWON 2012 Teen Reading Challenge logoThis morning we lit the fuse on the SWON 2012 Teen Reading Challenge. We have 160 participants and counting this year, all reading young-adult-oriented books for fame and glory. Okay, the fame would be pretty local. The glory…. They’re doing it because they love to read, and we’re excited to host the Challenge again this year.

I’ll be writing some posts here about the Challenge. It’s about the reading, for the participants, but here at the blog is about the tech behind the Challenge. As I’m in touch with Challengers, and as data starts to roll in, I’ll share the view from SWON.

For example, I was included on an internal team email (nothing covert, it was their idea). The person who sent the email mentioned that she’s recording the books she’s reading this year on Pinterest. With several people on the team already using Pinterest, it will be pretty easy for them to see what other people on their team are reading. Plus, those book covers will pop up for other Pinterest users. It’s a pretty low-energy way to share what you’re reading. Shoot, it says you read books period. That’s no bad thing.

Anyway, more updates as events unfold.

Reader’s Advisory: Secrets Hurt

Last week, when SWON’s Readers’ Advisory special interest group met, I got to join them. The group was doing a run-down of their favorite books from 2011, and I did my best to live-tweet the meeting. That is, I wrote up book titles and author names and abbreviated comments. You can read these mini-write-ups at the SWONtech Twitter page.

In the two hours that the meeting lasted I wrote up over 40 books, and I missed a couple that flew by too quickly. The books ranged from young adult to sci-fi to non-fiction to mysteries and literary fiction. They covered a lot of ground, and I walked out of the room with a list of books I wanted to read. What happens to all these great recommendations? What happens to all this great information?

The 5(?!) librarians in the room aren’t keeping it a secret. They talk to patrons and to each other. That’s what this special interest group is about. And I’m sure that their in-person recommendations are way more helpful than the 12-word description I was able to type up. They get to ask questions and have a conversation. A one-on-one chat seems like the best way to give readers’ advisory advice. But I think the next best way is Every Other Way.

I’ll admit that I like to think about top-down approaches. I like to think about ways tech can help people find books to read. SWON’s Teen Reading Challenge is doing this. We’re challenging librarians to read as many young adult titles as they can between February 1 and April 30. Read the most pages and earn bragging rights among your peers and, more importantly, collect a lot of first-hand knowledge of YA titles.

The way participants show that they’ve read a book is to submit a “Reading Report.” This includes basic stats about a book but also collects the reader’s impressions of the book: what they liked and disliked about it, matching genres and audiences, and read-alike titles. I’d like to put this into a database they could easily search and use after the Challenge is over. Year over year, this could turn into a pretty hefty resource. But I can’t turn this into a GoodReads- or LibraryThing-scale project.

We’re a small team, and we have to think on a small scale. So the plan, at the moment at least, is to make the Reading Reports available in whatever ways we can. We don’t have the resources or visibility of a site like GoodReads. But if we’re willing to share information with lots of people, in lots of formats, we can still reach a broad audience by word of mouth or word of tweet or however the word spreads.

But being willing to share information isn’t enough. We may not want our recommendations to be kept secret, but if we only give them to people who walk up and ask us, that’s pretty close to a secret. People who walk into the library looking for a book who walk out empty-handed? That hurts. It hurts the case libraries are always making for their relevance and utility. This may not be the kind of hurt the cues slow-motion videos of teary-eyed children, but it still smarts.

I’m not giving up on the idea of a searchable database for our Reading Reports. In the meantime, I’m going to try to say yes to sharing that information in every other way. Make a flyer of books that received lots of positive reviews? Sure thing. Send out an email of boys-interest books? Yep. Blog about it, tweet about it, talk about it? All-three-yes. Let’s see what it’s like to say yes and invite people to use our information in their own inventive ways.