This is how Rachel Van Riel tells it:
Whichbook was first conceived of in the heady days of the first dot.com boom in 1998 when I met Daniel Brown – no, not the author, this Dan was a clinical psychologist, with an interest in how art alters emotional states, and a computer techie on the side. (He is now Entrepreneur in Residence at UCL, London.) I was heading up a public library transformation programme called Branching Out which brought the new discipline of reader development, founded by Opening the Book, to the heart of UK libraries. As the successful People’s Network programme rolled out public access computers to libraries across the UK for the first time, we wanted to show how books and digital could work together. Support from two leading chief librarians, Tom Forrest, Chair of Branching Out, and Chris Batt, Chief Network Adviser, leading the People's Network Project, brought us technical development funding and the first 33 readers, librarians across the UK, started their training right way. A great mix of reader psychology and that new concept – a clever search algorithm – took the first version of the site live in 2000.
Nowadays algorithms are commonplace (even vilified) but the core concept of whichbook – a site where readers control their own choices – is as powerful and needed as ever. I bought the original algorithm from the company we started with and I continued to train readers, sometimes through bigger training programmes – 22 librarians in Wales and 32 librarians in Scotland, one in every library service – and sometimes through open or cascade recruitment. Readers are the lifeblood. We experimented with AI and machine learning to try to scale up, yes, technically we were ambitious. We tried with back cover blurbs, book extracts and publisher Advanced Information sheets – nothing gave good results. A computer can be trained to high levels of sophistication to rank the technical difficulty of, say, medical language, but the complexity of literary language and emotion needs a real human reader to decode. The debates in training sessions to thrash out a consensus were fast-paced and the quality was outstanding. I taught literature in universities for six years and some of the discussions of which ratings to give our benchmark titles are every bit as complex and well argued as a uni seminar. And I don’t always win!
Public funding comes and goes. We would never have got off the ground without it which is why we always sustain the link to public library catalogues. Some of the best whichbook adventures have been in other countries. Ønskebok ran for five wonderful years in two Norwegian languages, Bokmål and Nynorsk, funded by the Norwegian Arts Council and ABM-utvikling. More recently, WelkBoek in the Netherlands was developed with Stichting Bibliotheek.nl and then supported by KB, the National Library, for five years. Both projects have created networks of reader-centred librarians, with new knowledge, new skills and new friends. Hundreds of trained readers have contributed to whichbook over the years– we are delighted that three of our Dutch colleagues now read for the English language version. Many of our users are from the USA – it would be great to get a project going to involve American librarians
Opening the Book staff are at the centre of whichbook. Fiona combines the role of editor with mentoring our busy online training courses. Tris has redesigned the site from scratch, once in 2012, and now again in 2020. I donate every hour of their time because I just love this site and always will.
The English-language site last received public money in 2003. We have given a huge amount of time to make this new version possible and that is why we are asking for the first time for donations to help support it. If you enjoy your visit and would like to help us keep developing, just click on the Donate button. Your donation will help to support training new readers, researching titles for inclusion and maintaining the high-quality technical performance of the site.
Thank you for following the whichbook story. Do get involved if you would like to be part of the next phase of development.
Rachel Van Riel