Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ask not what your partnerships can do for you...

(This article is brought to you in conjuction with Captain Obvious. Or maybe Lieutenant This-Should-Be-Obvious?)

Periodically, our department identifies other organizations that we believe would be good partners for the library. We then begin an interaction. Here is how it usually goes:

Us: We think you'd be a great partner. Want to help us with this project we're doing?
Them: Uh, I guess so.
[Minimal help is given] or [they stop returning our phone calls]
End of interaction.

A couple of weeks ago, the county's department of youth services contacted us about starting a partnership. Here's how the interaction went:

Them: We think you'd be a great partner. I noticed you have a project going on. I've thought of some ways to help. What do you think?
Us: Yeah, that would be great!
[help is given]
Them: Okay, here are some ways we can work our goals into your project. What do you think?
Us: Okay, sure!
Them: We have some other projects going on.
Us: Maybe we can help you!

See how much better that is? And it's all because they came to that first meeting saying "Here is how I can help you" instead of "Here is how you can help me."

Here are my takeaways:
1. Prepare. Be aware of current projects within your partner organization and take some time to think about how the library could support or enhance them.

2. Come prepared to give more than you take. Invest some time at the beginning of the partnership, and it will pay off later.

3. Bring your strengths to the table. By offering help, you're basically giving yourself a chance to demonstrate what you do well, thereby demonstrating your value as a collaborator.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Harry Potter Read-Alikes for Grown-ups

We all love Harry Potter. From fantasy fanatics like me, to the fantasy-wary, almost everyone finds something to like in the easy-readability, the fanciful world, the likable characters, and the strong sense of morality. Here's my list of Harry Potter "read-alikes" (books that offer a similar reading experience) for adults.

Sabriel by Garth Nix
This is probably the best recommendation on this list; if you like Harry Potter, you should read Sabriel. The title character is tough and appealing, as she faces an array of obstacles both creative and frightening. You'll love the world and its characters both.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Okay, I said I wasn't sticking to Juvenile Fiction, but I'll use it when appropriate. Gaiman is a genius, and The Graveyard Book is a great story. Even if you don't particularly care about fantasy, you should give Bod a chance to win you over.

The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold (Vorkosigan Saga)
The Harry Potter series is a great coming-of-age story; it watches Harry grow up, from age 11 to age 17. In a way, the Vorkosigan saga is the same; it starts Miles' story at 17, and watches him grow up from there. It's science fiction instead of fantasy, but it shares some charming qualities with Harry Potter. You can't help but love Miles, even when you don't agree with his decisions, and the books read fun and easy. If you love finding a new series to sink your teeth into, you'll be delighted to discover the Vorkosigan saga.

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik (Temeraire series)
I'm consistently struck by how much I like the characters in this series - I was hooked right from the start. The adventure is fun, and of course, there are dragons - who doesn't like dragons? But what really got this book on the list are the wider themes. Much like Harry, as the series progresses the characters must deal with not only their own dangers, but with a choice of how to behave in the face of wider injustice.

Enchantment by Orson Scott Card
How will an ordinary young man respond when he finds himself at the center of extraordinary circumstances, battling a legendary villain? The inner journey of the two main characters is the linchpin of this fairy tale.

On Fortune's Wheel by Cynthia Voigt
Character focused, thoroughly appealing. I like to bring up Cynthia Voigt when I talk about strong women in fantasy. Her characters have a true strength; not the leather-outfit, tough-exterior strength that you sometimes see, but an iron-at-the-core strength that will resonate with anyone.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Whether you love or hate The Lord of the Rings, don't expect The Hobbit to be cut from the same epic cloth. It's a great adventure story, extremely accessible, with a sense of humor and a lot of relatability.

Fairies of Dreamdark: Blackbringer by Laini Taylor
I've been trying to recommend books with a universal appeal; stuff that even a non-fantasy-reader will enjoy. This book is an exception. It isn't a story of rich characterization that explores the heights and depths of the human spirit. This is a fun adventure, starring. . . fairies! Awesome fairies, fighting evil powers. Trust me, it's a total blast, and if you liked watching Harry learn to live up to his destiny, you'll like watching Magpie do the same.

I'm happy to hear your additions to the list! Add in the comments, or mention on Facebook and I can repost. I've mostly stuck to fantasy, but don't feel limited. I almost put Voigt's Dicey's Song on the list, but On Fortune's Wheel won out.
Well, here's where I'm adding the suggestions that other people have for the list, and stuff I didn't think about the first time around.

His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman I purposefully left this off the first list, but I'll add it here along with her description (thanks Maya!): "It's a fantastic coming of age story whose narrative complexity follows the character's emerging adulthood. It's filled with complex issues and the need for true bravery."

Why I left it off: That very complexity takes the form of an increasingly conceptual story, touching on philosophical and religious issues. Characters (and therefore readers!) must cope with higher levels of moral ambiguity and personal tragedy.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Trouble with Automatic Recommendations

Last week I was chatting with a coworker who said that she loved the Harry Potter books, but otherwise didn't read much fantasy, and she asked me what she should read. It got me thinking: there ought to be a Harry Potter read-alike list for adults. I'm hoping to make that the subject of my next post: a list of books for the adult Harry Potter fan.

I'd love to get suggestions, but I warn you: this will not be a list of books about kids learning magic. I want a list of books that capture the wonder and adventure, the likable characters, the easy readability, and the sense that it's important to do what's right.

Which brings me to the main topic of this post: automated book recommendations. They are terrible. I find the "find similar books" features on NoveList and What Do I Read Next to be utterly useless. (Amazon does a little better, but not much.) And I think I know why.

NoveList and What do I read next make decisions based on topic. They say "Oh, you liked this story because it's set in the deep south. Would you like to read some more books about the deep south?" Or "women detectives," or "coming-of-age stories." The problem is that topic rarely has anything to do with why I like a book. (Rarely, but not never. For instance, I like dragons. I'll read almost anything with dragons in it. And many people have similar affinities. But these affinities aren't a factor in a majority of my reading decisions.)

Amazon, of course, makes decisions based purely on "people who bought...also bought...", meaning that for any genre bestseller, the recommendations will consist of the rest of the bestseller list. Not helpful.

Our reading decisions are based on intangibles: tone, character, moral compass, etc. We need a system that reflects these intangibles. And Amazon's failure to produce useful recommendations from its one-dimensional rating system tells me that only a multi-dimensional system will work.

Harry Potter read-alikes for adults will make an appearance next time. In the meantime, another list: the factors that I think define what we like in what we read. (I envision these as sliding scales, not multiple choice.)

Setting and circumstances: realistic or fanciful?

Moral stance: clearly defined vs. shades of grey?

How many POV characters?

Pace: quick and easy, or slower?

"Fun" book vs. "serious" book?

Characters are motivated by: duty, revenge, survival, logic, emotions?

Characters are: likable and easy to identify with, or complex and flawed?

I know that's not everything, and I suspect I'll be adding to this list as time goes on. Feel free to offer suggestions!

What I wonder for the long term is, would this be workable as a rating system? Could Innovative, or NextReads, implement a rating system like this and create an automated system that would offer true read-alikes?