Not everyone is an expert. Consumers are constantly looking for someone to guide prepurchase decision making and even look for reviews postpurchase to confirm good judgement.
Amazon and Barnes & Noble certainly understand this phenomenon‚ both offer customer ratings, customer reviews (mixed with a few more authoritative reviews from places like Library Journal and Publishers Weekly), and displays of titles that were purchased by people who bought the one being considered. The fact that these advisory features appear right at the critical moment when we’re deciding whether to part with our cash makes depending on them that much more tempting.
The question of what to read is not necessarily the same question as what to consume, however, so book reviews‚ that is, reliable book reviews free of bias or commercial interests‚ still play a key role in the more judicious process of evaluation and selection in both research and collection building.
Librarians and their patrons, therefore, will appreciate the more professional alternatives listed below. Some fall into the updated-old-school category (Gale Cengage Learning’s Book Review Index Online Plus and EBSCO’s rejuvenation of the H.W. Wilson classics Book Review Digest Plus/Book Review Digest Retrospective). More cutting-edge readers’ advisory tools are available, too, such as the Fiction Connection/Non-Fiction Connection components of Bowker/Proquest’s Complete Connection, and Books & Authors (B&A), also from Gale. That they are all easy to use and, in the case of Complete Connection and B&A, a lot of fun to play with, makes it worth the effort to seek higher-quality, more reliable guidance whether it’s for personal reading, reference, or library collection building.
CONTENT With a print publication history extending back to 1965, Book Review Index Online Plus provides access to more than five million citations in all fields of interest published in thousands of magazines and journals. Select major newspapers such as the New York Times (and New York Times Book Review) and Times Literary Supplement are also indexed, as are a few blogs (the books section of Blogcritics.org, for example) and transcriptions of audio sources such as NPR’s All Things Considered. Some 634,000 of the citations include full-text reviews culled from Gale’s InfoTrac products, and links to the library’s subscribed journal holdings further facilitate access.
The standard version of Book Review Index Online incorporates everything‚ including links to external sources‚ that is in the Plus version, with the exception of the full-text reviews from InfoTrac. The resource is updated constantly. We found citations published as recently as the previous week.
Usability The basic InfoTrac interface for Book Review Index Online Plus offers the option to search the author or title guide, to do a journal search for a reviewing source, or to move to advanced search mode. There, searchers may limit to a specific field index and use Boolean operators to structure a more sophisticated query.
Those using any of these modes have a fairly extensive selection of limits that may be applied to achieve more focused results. Options include checkboxes for reviews available in full text and from refereed publications, and search boxes for entering a date range or journal title (which can be imported from a browseable list). There are also pull-downs for review type (book, audiobook, ebook, periodical), review length (short, medium, long), reading level (children’s, young adult, other), and publication format (audio, blog, magazine/journal).
Although the advanced-search mode permits field searching, some of the options are fairly cryptic. The difference between a search in the author-work index (searched using the rv command) and one that mines the Author-Work List (rv=) index is that the use of the latter predetermines how the results will be displayed. For example, the search rv heller joseph produced 370 hits collected into a single set, while rv=heller joseph arranged the same results grouped by subject. The list provided 73 hits for an American lawyer named Joseph Heller, two about an American scientist of that name, 83 about the author, and another 167 with no clarifying descriptors added (although they consistently appeared to relate to the well-known creator of Catch-22).
The Author-Work List function is very useful when it comes to sorting out authors with the same name, but the results of the Heller search also reveal a lack of consistent authority control.
On one hand, this degree of subtlety allows sophisticated searchers considerable precision; on the other, we know from our information-literacy assessments that most students are thrown by something as standard as Boolean operators, which seem simple but are actually somewhat counterintuitive (the more things you put together using AND, the fewer things you get). Consequently, it seems unlikely that many searchers will make productive use of the capabilities under the hood of this resource.
Wild cards (and truncation); the AND, OR, and NOT logical operators; and proximity, nesting, and restoration marks (which restore the literal meaning of a term or phrase) are all available here. The database also offers numeric range operators, some of which are potentially confusing because there are, for example, four different ways to specify that matching articles must have been published more recently than the date that follows the operator.
Pricing An annual subscription to Book Review Index Online Plus starts at $573. The cost increases based on the size of the population served. Contact Gale for futher pricing information.
Verdict The Book Review Index Online Plus interface is as unglamorous as can be, but it offers considerable searching power. The beauty of this resource is that in its full-text incarnation the distance between the user and the necessary information shrinks dramatically. In other words, Gale here makes it worth the effort to seek higher-quality, more reliable review sources.
For space planners, the three cumulative indexes to Book Review Index that our library has (1965‚ 1984, 1985‚ 1992, and 1993‚ 97) take up almost four linear feet of shelf space, and the annual volumes published from 1998 onward bring the total up to about 6.5 linear feet. This means that purching the online version of the material will free up quite a bit of real estate.
Content The effective and user-friendly Fiction Connection and Non-Fiction Connection help users discover book suggestions based on titles they’ve already read, authors they like, and/or topics that interest them. These visually appealing databases afford readers the option of browsing categories such as topic, genre, setting, character, location, and time frame. Content is updated monthly, and titles are profiled as they are reviewed, so some material covers items prepublication.
Coverage extends back to 1997, although older works by popular authors, classics, and titles that are part of a series are also included. According to Bowker, older content will continue to be added to the backfile for more comprehensive coverage. We discovered numerous titles from the 1950s through the early 1990s supporting that claim. All editions of a title are listed on the detailed title-display screen, including out-of-print editions and different formats (library binding, audio, mass market, etc.). Children’s and young adult titles have been included since 2005, and all reviewed titles for grades three and up are available.
Only sold as a package (though its components are usable separately), Complete Connection recommends fiction and nonfiction titles together and links directly to a subscribing institution’s catalog so that users may check local availability. The service is administered through the subscriber’s Books in Print account, and this feature makes it easy to establish links to the OPAC.
Usability Powered by AquaBrowser Library and kept simple, Complete Connection is a fun advisory tool that allows users to explore recommended reading by entering a search term indexed in all fields, title, author, or ISBN. The site states that Boolean operators are recognized, although Boolean phrases were ignored on our attempts.
The results list is sorted by relevance. Typically, the desired title will display first, or users can sort by year, title, or author.
We previewed the resources as a package, which gave us slightly different functionality and features. (The top navigation bar offers the option to search either database as a separate tool during the entire session.) Starting with a search for animal sanctuary, we retrieved 24 records, which included all editions of titles displayed (the default is to group editions). The system presents results within a three-column layout.
Those who prefer a visual approach will be drawn to the word cloud of associations on the left, which offers terms related to the original query, as well as leads to further material. The color-coded cloud includes the most relevant connections, spelling variations, and translations. In the middle of the screen is the brief results list, with each record displaying a thumbnail image or a book title that users can select to view more detailed title information.
The expanded view offers a summary, associated reviews, awards, media mentions, editions, excerpts, and additional covers. Options at the top of the screen include print title details and the option to search the library’s catalog. Occasionally, patrons are also offered a list of online booksellers (Amazon, Alibris, AbeBooks, etc.). Selecting the first title in our results list, Kathy Stevens’s Where the Blind Horse Sings: Love and Healing at an Animal Sanctuary, we read the summary, searched the linked topic headings (farm animals, animal rescue, and more) to retrieve other books with the same theme, and browsed the linked author heading to see if Stevens had written other books that might appeal.
In the right-hand column are tools for refining the search. Selecting Find Similar from our initial title selection retrieved a staggering set of 33,274 related items. Of course, this volume is daunting, so we first restricted to nonfiction, which reduced the list to a more reasonable 5,524 hits. Additional refine options include genre (168 choices), topic, location, and bestseller. Selecting animals under genre and dogs under topics quickly brought the list down to 121 recommendations. Choosing New York as a location, we finally had a perfect dozen titles to explore.
In addition to the search options, users can browse via the tabbed boxes for genre, character, setting, location, and time frame. We started with character and selected private investigator, retrieving 3,121 titles. Hovering over the entry also displays the number of titles within that category, so users can discover title counts before selection begins. Further refinement to our selection‚ Women sleuths >>Missing persons >>21st century‚ provided 96 titles to browse, including Butterfly Lost, The Big Dig, and Havana Heat: A Lupe Solano Mystery. A breadcrumb navigation trail allows for quick backtracking to the previous refinement or the full results list.
Pricing Access to Complete Connection is complementary with new and ongoing Books in Print subscriptions, or sold separately for $750 a year. Free 30-day trials are also available.
Verdict The two files sold as Complete Connection offer a variety of ways to retrieve enriched content and to create recommended reading lists for all ages. They are excellent tools for additional research on a topic or author, book club suggestions, and general curiosity, and their visual aspects and accessible interface will accommodate a diverse user group. The link to Search My Library’s Catalog is a valuable feature that places the user back into the subscribing institution’s materials automatically.
Book Review Digest Plus
Content Well-established standards for authoritative book reviews, H.W. Wilson’s Book Review Digest Plus and its related Retrospective database are now available on the EBSCOhost platform as a result of EBSCO’s recent purchase of H.W. Wilson.
Book Review Digest Plus includes citation information, substantial excerpts, and full-text reviews of current works of fiction, nonfiction, humanities, social science, and general science for both children and adults.
Culled from a core title list of more than 100 popular, scholarly, and specialty English-language journals, the reviews are also supplemented by reviews from 8000-plus periodicals included in other databases. The material is updated daily for a total of more than 118,000 new reviews annually.
The interface displays master records for each book, with links to reviews from various sources including Library Journal, Booklist,the Economist, Film Quarterly, Historian, Kirkus Reviews, and the New York Times Book Review. Positive and negative reviews are included, and every title in Book Review Digest Plus appears with all of its reviews together. Some titles have only one review citation, while others include descriptive summaries and numerous reviews, plus excerpts and full text, depending on the coverage originally received.
The Plus database extends back to 1983 and covers art history and criticism, architecture and architectural history, archaeology, antiques, museum studies, graphic arts, industrial design, interior design, folk art, painting, photography, costume design, television and video, motion pictures, advertising art, and more. Coverage of children’s literature includes a suggested grade range. Most master records display covers with direct links to the title’s product page on Amazon.
Book Review Digest Retrospective covers nearly 80 years of the digest. There are excerpts from and citations to 1.5 million reviews for 300,000 books. At least one substantial review excerpt (up to 500 words) is included for each book. Detailed indexing of more than 500 core English-language popular magazines, newspapers, and academic journals as well as the library review media, including titles such as the Chicago Sun Times, Library Journal, The New Yorker, New Republic, Saturday Review of Literature, and Yale Law Review.
For institutions considering space-saving measures, the equivalent print volumes‚ dating back to 1905 in our library‚ currently take up 21-plus linear feet of shelf space.
Usability The interface of both databases works well. Users can search from 20 indexed fields if the databases are searched separately, including all text, author, publisher, abstract, series title, and ISBN. Similarly, a variety of limiting features is available with each resource. These include subject, document type (collective biography, feature article, etc.), ISSN, and full-text reviews only. The Plus database also offers narrowing to children’s literature and by certain physical descriptions. Where users have access to both databases and elect to search them together, the options decrease to seven basic fields, including title, author, text, subject, and source.
Book reviewers are searchable by name. During our preview, we retrieved excerpts by well-known writers such as Richard Brody, Edmund Wilson, Hamilton Basso, Carson McCullers, and John Updike.
An Advanced Search in the Retrospective collection for Marge Piercy as a personal author retrieved 15 records. After selecting the master record for the novel Small Changes, we got a brief display of an abstract, a link to reviews of the title (with excerpts from the Atlantic and Best Sellers), and a sliding visual array of other books by the author.
Switching to Book Review Digest Plus, we did a basic search for presidential elections and limited the results to nonfiction, choosing reviews as source type. Users have numerous options for browsing results: publication, subject, or source. Most patrons will be looking to discover reviews of a specific title or author. Searching for Don Fulsom’s 2012 title, Nixon’s Darkest Secrets, we retrieved two reviews, one also available as an audio file. The record includes the review’s word count and abstract, linked subject headings, a full citation of the book under consideration, and expanded menus to Similar Books and Other Books by this Author. The similar titles option led us to browse reviews for Daniel E. Frick’s Reinventing Richard Nixon, Jules Witcover’s Very Strange Bedfellows: The Short and Unhappy Marriage of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, and Stanley Kutler’s Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes.
We didn’t have as much success with subject browsing based on the phrases and terms included, which often seemed a bit random and title-specific. If users stick to what works best, such as author, title, publisher, and source, they will be extremely pleased with either of these products. All the standard EBSCOhost tools are available for export‚ bookmarks, notes, durable links, and more.
Pricing Pricing is based on a variety of factors including FTE, existing EBSCO databases, and consortium agreements. The price range listed applies to a single institution. Ranges for consortia and online institutions may vary. Book Review Digest Plus costs between $1600 and $5000, and Book Review Digest Retrospective (onetime purchase) ranges from $14,200 to $28,000. Pricing is subject to change based on royalty requirements, and 30-day trials are available.
Verdict Although collection managers and users can discover reviews on countless publisher sites, blogs, and unaffiliated reviewer sites these days, Book Review Digest Plus and Book Review Digest Retrospective offer not only the scope but certainly also a sense of authority lacking from those other sources. For public, academic, and research library use, combine both or either resource with additional EBSCOhost databases to access further criticism and more in one simple search.
Gale Cengage Learning
Content Books & Authors (B&A) is an attractive and engaging resource that traces its lineage to the classic Gale print title What Do I Read Next? It combines the expert recommendations of nearly two dozen subject specialists with the community-building ethos of the Internet to guide readers to the next step beyond the authors, titles, and genres they already know and love.
B&A features nearly 150,000 titles in an ever-expanding list assembled from the recommendations of subject field experts and librarians. Additional titles come from sources such as New York Times best-sellers lists, ALA’s Notable Children’s Books, and Booklist‘s Editors’ Choice picks. Listings of award-winning books‚ recipients of the Edgar Allan Poe Awards, the Caldecott Medal, the Pulitzer Prize, and many others‚ round out the selection. In all, some 54,000 authors are represented with biographies, most of which are identified as coming from Gale’s Contemporary Authors Online database.
The About This Genre link associated with each broad fiction group includes an introductory essay plus a useful list of recommended titles for 2011. Fiction, made up of eight genres (fantasy, historical, horror, inspirational, mystery, popular romance, science fiction, and Westerns) and countless subgenres, far outweighs nonfiction recommendations, but there are still 40,000 titles covering business, health and medicine, the humanities, science, social sciences, technology, and biography. Each of these categories is further subdivided for easier accessibility.
Quite current, the database already contains ten of the top 15 combined print and ebook fiction best-selling titles from the current New York Times list. Happily for librarians marketing their databases, the product’s home page reflects the emphasis on popular titles, which will make this resource an easy sell.
Usability The B&A home page is sprinkled with enticing features and loaded with tempting opportunities. There are links to seasonal suggestions, best-sellers lists, award winners, expert and community picks, monthly highlights of numerous popular titles, a spotlight selection, a quick poll, and a Who Reads What? feature (in which Judy Blume recommends Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline). On the business end, a quick search box has title, author, keyword, and series name options, as well as a link to advanced search mode.
Users have a slew of choices when it comes to browsing‚ titles, authors, genres, expert picks, and award winners‚ along with the bonus of an appealing look-up capability called Who? What? When? Where? that enables readers to browse or search using combinations of character, subject, time period, and location.
We keyed in espionage (in the What? field) and selected 1940s (Decade), A.D. (When?), and Paris (Where?) from the respective pull-down lists, which produced a Venn diagram showing Total Overlapping Results of 13 titles. Filtering by fiction and adults after the fact redrew the diagram and refined the results list to four titles, one of which was Alan Furst’s Red Gold. Clicking on that title lead to an attractive about the book page, where there was a brief plot summary; a list of main characters; genre/subgenre identifiers; information about setting, subject, and time period; links to expert picks (The Year’s Best Crime Novels 1999); and recommended readalikes. There are also icons that enable sharing via various social media sites and tools for marking, printing, and emailing the page.
The overall community rating is displayed, and registered users may write and post a review. There are links to the reader’s personal lists and ratings. The database also provides ISBNs for various editions in multiple formats, but, oddly, publisher information is not listed (although it does appear on the author page). Additionally, there are tabs leading to material about the author, reader-contributed book reviews, and readalikes, a prettier view of the recommended similar titles listing. Each of these areas has a What Do I Read Next? section in the right-hand frame that lead to other titles corresponding to the genre, subject, location, and time period assigned to the current title.
Gale builds a lot of social media functionality into this package. Users may export links to Delicious, Digg, Newsfine, and Furl, or they may email them. Sections of each record (about the author and the book, book reviews, and readalikes) may be printed or downloaded for later use, with both of those options creating presentable output.
A newly added feature, My Reading Room, allows registered users to manage their profiles; to build, edit, and share marked lists of authors and topics; and to write and save personal book reviews and ratings.
Pricing An annual subscription to this resource starts at $995 and is based on the size of the population served. Contact Gale for further pricing details.
Verdict B&A is a fun and fascinating tool, and it’s hard to imagine any librarian who A) wouldn’t get a huge kick out of experimenting with it and B) would have trouble finding creative ways to use it for reference and collection-building purposes.
Checking our recent acquisitions against the database, we succeeded in finding roughly three-quarters of the titles on display in our Current Reading area, which includes a mix of quality fiction and nonfiction from mainstream presses.
B&A fared poorly on the more strictly academic titles in our collection, however. Only one of 15 recently acquired (2011 and 2012) titles in the sciences and just one of 38 in the area of philosophy, psychology, and religion showed up in the resource. It’s fair to say, then, that this tool is not geared toward use in academic libraries. There’s a distinct slant toward fiction and an absence of university press titles.
The obvious exception in the academic setting will be when the library suddenly discovers that a faculty member is about to offer a course on The Literature of Steampunk or The Art of the Techno-Thriller Novel. In those situations, this resource will prove invaluable.
In school and public libraries, where What Do I Read Next? has supplemented the native expertise of the library staff as the readers’ advisory tool of choice for decades, B&A will receive an extremely warm reception, not just because of the expertise that informs its recommendations but also because it is spot-on when identifying emerging genres and the tastes of the reading public.