Actor and former host of the PBS children’s show Reading Rainbow LeVar Burton said he grew up in a house where reading was fundamental. “You either read a book or got hit with one. . . . You were going to have an encounter with the written word,” he said at the Tools of Change Conference February 14.
Mark Johnson from Zite talks about serendipity and search.
Greetings from the Tools of Change for Publishing Conference (TOC) 2012—or more accurately, from the train ride headed home. TOC is a publishing conference in New York, put together by O’Reilly media (which publishes the computer books with the pen-and-ink drawings  of animals on the covers). This is my second publishing conference this year (I attended Digital Book World  conference in January), and it has been fascinating to look at ebooks from the publishing perspective. (Also, the lines for the bathroom are shorter than they are at library conferences.)
The first day of TOC opened with LeVar Burton  as the keynote speaker. I grew up watching Reading Rainbow, so I’ve had the lyrics “Take a look, it’s in a book, a Reading Raaaaiiiinbooow” stuck in my head all week. Those of you in the Reading Rainbow age bracket can thank me later for the earworm.
Not surprisingly, LeVar Burton grew up a voracious reader, and—no shock to those of us who watched Start Trek: The Next Generation—he loves sci-fi. Burton spoke passionately about the power of story, saying that he believes in the link between what we imagine and what we create. Stories are inextricably connected to how we continue to invent our world. Humans, he said, are manifesting machines. Burton speculated that the advent of digital content must be like Hollywood in the 1950s, with television coming in, but he assured the audience that we will be fine as long as we don’t lose sight of the power of our imaginations and the fundamental connection that stories have to our humanity and our future.
His powerful message was my filter for the rest of the day. Valla Vakili, CEO of Small Demons,  talked about how he came to found the company, which bears the tagline “Welcome to the Storyverse.” Quoting William James, Vakili said he looks for better understanding of things by examining their exaggerations and perversions, not the ordinary manifestations. Catering to “pathological obsession” sounds like it would appeal to a narrow audience but actually will reach a lot of people. Getting lost in a book is an ordinary experience, but “cosplay,” in which people dress up as characters from a story down to the smallest elements, is less ordinary, one of James’s exaggerations and perversions.
Small Demons is deconstructing stories to enable obsessions. It’s generating a lot of data and creating interesting ways to buy more content, but story is fundamental to the site. Threads that were evident in several presentations included the idea of content and the role of publisher as content selector and promoter. Barbara A. Genco’s keynote focused on Library Journal’s Patron Profiles and its finding that our Power Patrons (weekly library visitors) are also fantastic consumers of media and, as librarians know, buy a lot of books. Libraries, Genco assured the audience, are a proven marketing engine. “Discovery” is another publishing watchword and an area that libraries excel at: We connect people with books.
Zite ’s Mark Johnson emphasized the importance of serendipity and curation in discovery, calling serendipity the enemy of search. Search is great when you know what you want, but he spent 45 minutes at New York’s Strand Bookstore  and found he used all modes of discovery. Search came in the form of asking a staff member about a book, but he gave a description that would leave a regular search engine sending him to odd corners of the web. For RA librarians who’d like to give it a whirl, here’s what Johnson did: He asked the staff member, “What’s that book with the little boy who goes to a land of names and numbers and meets a dog with a clock in it?”
Content recommendation is complex, and Johnson contends it’s only going to get harder as more and more content is created. The three sites that get the most attention for recommendations are Amazon, Pandora, and Netflix. Librarians are familiar with Amazon’s shortcomings as a reader’s advisor, and Johnson pointed out, of the three only Pandora gives an explanation of why it recommends the songs it does. The site does this by having a staff of music geeks who can draw connections between songs that mere mortals may never hear. Curation is how the early web began (Johnson had a screenshot of Yahoo’s directory), and it’s how discovery will improve.
Like discovery, curation is something libraries are pretty good at already (I recently used read-alike recommendations from an Illinois library to help a patron who wanted more J. D. Robb ebooks—which are now unattainable—in my consortium’s OverDrive collection). What we haven’t done is leverage those skills collectively to prove our value.
At the Library Alternative panel (which deserves a post of its own), the need for data came up more than once. We may know anecdotally and experientially that our patrons are also avid book buyers and that we connect readers with new authors and new books to buy all the time, but we have to be able to show how we’re driving consumption and purchasing. If we can produce data specific to ebooks, so much the better. Small Demons, Zite, and other start-ups that deal in books and online content generate a lot of data that they can use to develop relationships with publishers. Libraries need data of our own to prove our role—and our worth—in the ebook ecosystem.
(Many of the TOC sessions have been streamed online, and archived video and presenter slides can be found at toccon.com .)
KATE SHEEHAN is the open source implementation coordinator for Bibliomation,  a consortium of public and school libraries in Connecticut, and previously served as coordinator of knowledge and learning services Darien (Conn.) Library and coordinator of library automation at Danbury (Conn.) Public Library, which was the first library to implement LibraryThing for libraries. She also blogs at loosecannonlibrarian.net  and ALA TechSource.