July 31, 2014

Get to Know Goodreads: Share this primer to the social reading site and help teachers and kids connect with great books

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Illustration by Mark Tuchman

That’s the first thing you do when you finish reading a book? Pass it along to a friend? Return it to the library? Place it on the unruly pile of titles that you charitably call your “office”?

Scores of dedicated readers log on to Goodreads and share their opinions with the world. Imagine Facebook and your public library having a baby (on second thought…) and you get the gist of the social network that millions have come to know, use, and depend on. You may not have heard much about Goodreads, and the public at large hardly knows it exists, but this site has a devoted following among book lovers. It’s a powerful and, occasionally, controversial way for readers to connect with one another, share their two cents’ worth, and decide which title to tackle next. It can also be a valuable professional tool to share with your students and colleagues.

Calling all teens, teachers, and librarians

Similar to Facebook, you must be 13 or older to sign up for Goodreads, which helps to explain why it’s a useful tool for recommending books to young adults. It’s also a great way to stay in touch during the summer, because students can see what their librarians or teachers are reading. And since kids can write reviews for the site, it also offers them opportunities to offer an in-depth analysis of the titles they’ve read.

For those of us who work in school libraries, there’s the added benefit of being on the cutting edge of kids’ book publishing. I’m constantly finding out about new titles—such as Kelly DiPuccio and Heather Ross’s Crafty Chloe (S & S/Atheneum, 2012), Steve Jenkins’s The Beetle Book (Houghton, 2012), and Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles’s Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling (Laurence King, 2012)—which inform my collection-development decisions and help me make savvier reader’s advisory choices. I can see librarians going wild with Goodreads’ bookshelf concept (more on that later)—creating virtual shelves for their favorite read-alouds and subjects, and those oft-requested topics (princess books, anyone?). Every year, I lead an after-school, professional development session on the year’s best books. With Goodreads, it’s easy to pull up my favorite titles to share with our teachers. And even if you don’t want to create your own interest-specific shelves, you can still benefit from looking at your friends’ shelves. OK, are you ready to take the plunge and join Goodreads?

A few basics

I joined Goodreads in 2008, about a year after it was launched, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that many of the librarians and bloggers that I follow were using the service. It’s secretly popular, and it’s growing by leaps and bounds. In December 2011, BuiltWith, a technology information provider that tracks working websites, reported that Goodreads had “6,700,000 members who have added more than 230,000,000 books to their shelves.” And in August 2012, the Los Angeles-based company announced that over 10 million users had recommended more than 300 million books on its site.

My home bookshelves may be a mess, but on Goodreads, they’re immaculate. Many people, myself included, use the site as a de facto home library. By adding titles to various virtual “bookshelves,” Goodreads encourages its users to organize their reading and to reflect on what they’ve read. Members can assign a one- to five-star rating to each title they’ve completed, and their individual appraisals contribute to a book’s overall rating, which appears next to the title.

Inside and out

When you register for Goodreads, you have the option of letting the service check your email or social media accounts for any members you may know. Once you have a few friends, things get interesting.

If you have a Facebook account, you’ll feel comfortable—even peaceful—with Goodreads’ design and layout, because the site keeps clutter to a minimum. Its home screen lists “Recent Updates”—the equivalent of Facebook’s well-known wall of “Status Updates”—that indicate when friends have added a new book to their to-read piles, rated a book, or written a review. Overachievers, ahem, frequent users can even offer updates on the number of pages they’ve read in their most recent book.

If you’re new to Goodreads, one of the first things you’ll notice is that it has a few built-in shelves—“read,” “currently reading,” and “to-read”—for you to put your books on, but you can also create your own custom shelves. I have one for “Books Read in 2012” and a “to-review” shelf for some 2013 titles that I’m planning to critique, including Steve Jenkins and Robin Page’s My First Day (Houghton), Cecil Castellucci and Sara Varon’s Odd Duck (First Second), and John Coy and Joe Morse’s Hoop Genius (Carolrhoda).

From the home screen, you can easily set up a “Reading Challenge.” Simply enter the number of books you’d like to read this year, and Goodreads will track your progress. There are also plenty of social features. The site lets you compare books with friends, comment on reviews, and recommend books to friends. Members can also set up lists for others to vote on. I especially like checking out the Newbery and Caldecott lists, because they highlight titles that are getting good reviews and may be in the running for these prestigious children’s literature awards.

You’ll also find groups for every imaginable genre and niche—from manga to literary fiction to werewolves—which offer a place for those with shared interests to get together to discuss what they’re reading. You can also start a book club or create a digital counterpart to a club that already exists in the offline world. I belong to a mock Newbery group that has more than 800 members, and we always have lively discussions.

If sharing on the site isn’t enough, you can also create a widget that displays your books on your website or blog. It looks like a little bookshelf and flashes through the titles on any of your Goodreads shelves.

The organization benefits alone are worth the price of admission. Actually, since the price of admission is free, the benefits are worth way more. I love being able to quickly look back at my reading history. Plus, the ability to add filters—narrowing my search results according to the number of stars a title has—means it takes only seconds to pull up a list of my “five star” favorites.

Goodreads is also a helpful place to find basic book information. Summaries, pub dates, cover images, and genre details are available for any book you can think of. Underneath this information, you’ll find reviews from Goodreads users. Friends’ reviews always appear at the top, followed by other users’ opinions.

Goodreads’ free mobile app is another good reason to jump onboard. It’s well thought out, with intuitive touches that allow easy access to just about everything you can access on the regular site. It even lets smartphone and tablet users scan books’ barcodes—entering them into their “to-read” shelves without having to type a single thing. I knew I got a smartphone for a reason.

Controversy!

Any time “non-critics” are able to share their opinions worldwide, there’s bound to be some friction. While this sort of “review by committee” approach is something that rightfully makes many cringe, it invariably holds some power, and most likely guides many readers’ book choices. The “yea or nay” type of reviews that Goodreads allows (it should be noted that the site also offers an opportunity for lengthy, thoughtful reviews) may not be ideal, but the Harvard Business School recently released a study that shows that, in general, Amazon’s reviews (which are very comparable to GoodReads’) are more similar to a professional critic’s opinion than one might think. I’m not giving up my professional reviews any time soon, but this study provides some food for thought. As you might expect, this is a controversial topic.

The public nature of online reviews clearly has pros and cons. In some cases, it has increased the tension between readers and authors. Writers who belong to Goodreads should be prepared to occasionally give their thin skin a workout. I’ve heard of authors (I won’t name names) who have joined the service only to cancel their accounts because of unfavorable (and, in many cases, unfair) reviews of their work. Stories of unhappy writers directly contacting users to contest their negative reviews are also out there. But there’s a flip side: being a member of Goodreads allows authors to directly interact with their fans in ways that were unimaginable until fairly recently. And for readers, the chance to easily contact a favorite author to praise their latest book is a genuine 21st-century thrill.

Still, controversy occasionally erupts, as in the case of British thriller writer Stephen Leather, who admitted that he’d created fake Goodreads accounts so he could write positive reviews of his own works. He also, every now and then, gave other authors’ books one-star reviews to lower their overall ranking. Although this sort of deviousness is rare, it offers a glimpse into the “book review 2.0” world.

It’s a wrap

Now that I’ve been a member of Goodreads for a few years, it’s hard to imagine going back to the days when my only bookshelf was an actual physical object. I like that my unorganized mess of hard copies has a neat and tidy online counterpart. The organizational, informational, and social elements of the service have won me over. It’s a personal and professional win. Chances are, it’ll enrich your reading and teaching life, too.


Travis Jonker is a school librarian and an SLJ blogger (100scopenotes.com). His last feature for the magazine, “Travis’s Excellent Adventure” (September 2012), was about how to launch a successful ereader program.

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Travis Jonker About Travis Jonker

Elementary school librarian Travis Jonker (scopenotes@gmail.com) works for Wayland (MI) Union Schools and blogs at “100 Scope Notes.”

Comments

  1. thanks Travis, good piece and quite helpful! I have a question, can I save a list on my goodreads account. for instance, I love the Newberry and Caldecott 2013 lists, can I save these for future reference? If so, how? Thanks in advance.

  2. Good overview. I joined Goodreads in 2008 as well and it has become absolutely essential to my literary world. I have used the app to record books that I want to purchase when attending library conventions. You can have an online book club that allows the creation of book lists and discussion topics. I’ve also received several free books through the giveaways. You can search, record, and save favorite book quotes to your own page. There are trivia book quizzes. Another feature I love is that Goodreads sends emails monthly telling me what books are released that month by authors I already have on my bookshelves. Etc., etc., etc.! I can’t believe everything they offer nor that it’s all free.

  3. I am glad to see Biblionasium mentioned in the sidebar. As an elementary school librarian, I am always looking for social networking sites that do not require email addresses and can be used by students under 13. Although Biblionasium isn’t perfect, I have found that it offers many of the same features as goodreads except for the connection to authors. I reviewed it more completely on my blog: http://emilyruthbrown.blogspot.com/2013/01/online-tools-biblionasium.html

  4. I’ve been a Goodreads member since 2007, and I am a big big fan, but I would be very cautious in encouraging my students to begin their own accounts because of the lack of privacy controls available. Reviews cannot be set to private, comments from other users cannot be filtered to “friends only”, and a whole host of other problematic issues keep Goodreads from being particularly minor-safe. Of course, we can remind everyone -adults included – to be smart about not publishing full name, city of residence, or birth date to the general Goodreads community, which can be controlled in the profile info, but even so, I think a lot of personal info sneaks into reviews, and on days when I get complete strangers messaging me to chat favorite authors, and maybe meet up in person sometime, I’m always powerfully reminded that this online community can require some mature judgment calls and a strong dose of skepticism.

  5. I love Goodreads too! I try to be cautious about accepting as gospel the reviews that I read there, remembering that many books that I’ve loved have been given awful ratings by others, and vice versa. In fact, I usually don’t read the reviews until after I’ve read the book, or at least most of it, so I won’t be prejudiced by what others think. Vive la difference!

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