Ask for a Book has been developed by the creative agency, Opening the Book, working with 15 partner public library services across England. It has been made possible by grants from Arts Council England through the National Lottery and LibraryOn.
The idea of libraries offering free book suggestions was first mooted by Opening the Book before the pandemic. It is something that library staff have always done if asked, but we were aware that friendly, knowledgeable expertise could reach so many more readers if we could find a way to make it available online.
Then reading took off in a big way during lockdown - the number of people who took up reading again while isolated; the number of people who felt the benefits of reading helped them get through Covid times; the way bookshops and publishers ramped up their digital activities while customers couldn’t get to bookshops. Libraries, too, expanded digitally, and also developed successful hybrid services like Click and Collect – order online and collect physical books. All this gave the context for developing new ideas, especially ideas which would help to build back library services after the pandemic.
As we began to develop concepts, we also faced real, practical challenges. How could we make a personalised recommendation service when library staff time was already stretched very thin? Could we use technology to help? Could we share resources across the boundaries of local authorities so no one service had to do everything?
The result is what you see today – a site which replicates the motivational push that comes through a friend’s enthusiasm for a book to make a personal link between library staff and individual readers. It uses strong tech but depends on expertly-curated resources rather than basic algorithms. It draws on deep experience of how people make reading choices.
There are plenty of sites offering to recommend you a good read but most expect to sell you books. Recommendations tend to focus on bestsellers or what you’ve liked before to give you more of the same - books by the same author, or in the same genre. If you liked a particular crime novel, you can find 10 more crime novels. That clearly works, so long as you want something like you had previously. But there’s so much more to discover! How might you dip your toe into more than the obvious? That’s where Ask for a Book comes in.
We want to make the most of libraries’ special strengths – their range of books, their connections with readers and their free service. Libraries are in a unique position to encourage people to expand their reading because you can take risks without it costing lots of money. We aim to open up choice and to cross genres by focusing not on what you’ve already read but on what you might be willing to try next.
All the library partners have committed staff time and resources to making this work. This is a pilot project which is testing everything - from the choices we offer to getting the books to your library to pick up. If we are successful, we expect to roll out to many more library services in the future.
If you have any queries or suggestions, do get in touch with Rachel Van Riel on email@example.com.