A sign of a good book: readers’ methods of accessing fiction in the public library

Publication Date02 September 2013
AuthorKatariina Saarinen,Pertti Vakkari
SubjectLibrary & information science,Records management & preservation,Document management
A sign of a good book: readers’
methods of accessing fiction in the
public library
Katariina Saarinen
Turku City Library, Turku, Finland, and
Pertti Vakkari
School of Information Sciences, University of Tampere, Tampere, Finland
Purpose – Lending novels is the major service provided by public libraries. The efforts in developing
search systems have been focused on retrieving non-fiction. There is a need for designing systems to
support fiction searching in libraries. The aim of this study is to analyze readers’ methods of accessing
fiction in a public library for informing the design of fiction search systems. This study seeks to find
out which attributes of books readers perceive as indicators of a good novel, and what kind of tactics
they use for finding these good novels in the public library.
Design/methodology/approach – The authors observed 16 adult library users by semi-structured
interviews eliciting information about their literary competence, what characterizes a good novel and
how they accessed and identified good novels in the library.
Findings – Based on the data this paper developed a tentative reader typology, which differentiated
the attributes of good novels and major tactics for accessing them.
Practical implications – The typology was used for inferring user models and design ideas for
systems supporting fiction searching.
Originality/value – This is the first empirical study to inform how readers’ literary competence is
associated with the tactics used and indicators recognized in books for finding and selecting good
novels to borrow.
Keywords Fiction searching,Search tactics, Reader types, Usermodels, Criteria of good novels,
Fiction indexing,Public libraries, Books
Paper type Research paper
1. Introduction
The public library functions as a major source for recreational reading. In the year
2008, 50 percent of Americans read literature at least once a year (NEA, 2008). In the
US the most popular activity among library users is borrowing books and leisure
reading. In 2010 45 percent of Americans went to the library at least annually for
leisure reading (OCLC, 2010). In the same year in Finland, 39 percent of adults
borrowed books at least monthly in the public library and 78 percent at least once a
year (Serola and Vakkari, 2011). Studies on the outcomes of the public library
systematically show that the major benefit derived from the use of public libraries is
the pleasure of reading fiction (Lance et al., 2001; Vakkari and Serola, 2012). It is also
known, that most of the books borrowed in the public library are fiction. In The
Netherlands their proportion of all book loans was 73 percent in 2005 and in Finland in
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received 10 April 2012
Revised 15 October 2012
5 November 2012
Accepted 5 November 2012
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 69 No. 5, 2013
pp. 736-754
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/JD-04-2012-0041
2007 the respective figure was 52 percent (Huysmans and Hillebrink, 2008). Thus,
providing fiction for reading experience is the major function of the public library.
Current catalogs in public libraries typically support finding novels, if the reader
knows the name of the author or the title of the novel. However, Spiller (1980) has
already observed, that 54 percent of the fiction borrowed was found by known item
search, i.e. by book title or author’s name, and the remaining 46 percent was found by
browsing in the library. Thus, about half of the fiction borrowed was found without the
help of the library system. This indicates a clear need for developing systems for
supporting fiction search tactics other than known item search. Although the major
benefit derived from public library use leisure time reading and enjoying fiction - is
based on finding good novels to read, there has not been much interest in studying and
developing systems for fiction retrieval since the 1980s (Adkins and Bossalier, 2007).
The effort in developing search systems has been focused on retrieving non-fiction
(Case, 2007; Elsweiler et al., 2011). However, there are some signs of interest toward
examining search tactics for novels in libraries (Oksanen and Vakkari, 2012), books in
bookshops (Buchanan and McKay, 2011) and supporting book discovery trough
information visualization (Thudt et al., 2012). Also professional interest in developing
tools for finding fiction has increased (e.g. Van Riel et al., 2008). Thus, searching for
fiction and books in general seems to be an object of emerging research interest.
Although library catalogs typically support known item searches for fiction, it is
known that users are able to bypass this limitation by leaning on other features of the
library (Ross, 2001). They have developed tactics for finding good books without using
library catalogs. When browsing, users are looking for cues in order to identify fiction,
which would match with their interests. Books displayed on the shelves are borrowed
more regularly than shelved books (Berelson, 1950). Also book exhibitions, books put
on the shelves and genre classification of collections are means users utilize for
identifying interesting reading (Goodall, 1989; Saarti, 1997).
Although there are some st udies exploring how use rs search for fiction
(e.g. Pejtersen, 1989; Oksanen and Vakkari, 2012), the information concerni ng tactics
used for identifying good novels to read by browsing is fragmented. We do not have
systematic studies since the 1980s (Pejtersen, 1989) on what kind of tactics readers use
in the library or in the OPAC for searching and identifying interesting novels by
browsing except Oksanen and Vakkari (2012) and Mikkonen and Vakkari (2012).
Especially, there is a lack of studies, which analyze from what kind of attributes of the
book readers infer that it may be of interest (Adkins and Bossalier, 2007). These
attributes act as access points to good novels. The characteristics acting as cues to
interesting reading could be used for indexing fiction (Pejtersen, 1989). Thus, studies
aimed at revealing users’ means of finding good novels to read and the cues they use to
identify them would provide ideas for developing systems to support fiction retrieval.
Studies on tactics used for finding fiction and on indicators of good novels can be
related to two larger research traditions. First, they are part of studies on information
searching in general. This tradition is interested in how actors search, what are the
search tactics used (Marchionini, 1995), how they assess the relevance of the
documents found, and from which elements of the document they infer its value
(Schamber, 1994). Second, these studies can be seen also as part of research on book
reading and library use (cf. Ross et al., 2006; Case, 2007). Factors observed in this
tradition like the characteristics of reading fiction can be used as independent variables
A sign of a
good book

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