Title: Booklist Online 

Publisher: American Library Association

URL: http://www.booklistonline.com

Cost: between $295 and $1,575 per year

Tested: April 20-May 15, 2006  

It took a long time for ALA to get this useful review archive ready with very good software capabilities. Finally ALA got it right with some minor exceptions, but it is not free for the public, or at least  for ALA-members who are not even offered a discount. The reasonably priced subscription to the print edition of Booklist does not come with any online access privileges, either. Considering the many high quality toll-based and open access options which offer multiple reviews from different sources for hundreds of thousands books in one fell swoop (including many Booklist reviews for free), Booklist Online will be a very hard sell both for individuals and libraries at the steep price. 

 

Booklist has been a staple in libraries, especially in public libraries  for 103 years. It has been a very worthy tool at a very affordable price in print format. I frequently used it, as well as  its digital subset before 2004 when the open access digital subset of about 6,000 reviews simply disappeared from the original  ala.org/booklist domain in one of the poorly planned, badly implemented and numbingly reckless series of changes of the ALA Web (AW) site – as I wrote about it in  AW, Look What They've Done to Our Links, Ma'.

Even the most fiercely loyal, card carrying members of l ALA protested loud and clear the redesign process as Marylaine Block chronicled it so well. The sorry software was then dropped after burning quite a sum on the project.  ALA seems to have switched to the Google appliance to index its site, but it is barely more than using Google with the domain parameter added to the query.

Actually, the open access subset of the Booklist reviews remained on the ALA site -- but was moved to the http://archive.ala.org/booklist  domain so secretly that apparently not even the Booklist correspondent knew about it.  When inquiring repeatedly, the poor user (my wife) was given misleading information and suggestion. This did not sit well with me, especially because this move coincided with the 100th birthday of Booklist -- an ugly birthday surprise and a weird way to pay homage.  I commented on this in a extensively illustrated  pseudo-documentary: AW, Look What They've Done To The Booklist Reviews, Ma'.

It was very un-ALA not to disclose the new location of the Booklist archive and to steer patrons and ALA’s own members away from the Web to the print indexes. I sensed that something was cooking. Not much later, ALA made the announcement that it would launch  a subscription-based Booklist Online service. Finally, in April, 2006  it did, and finally it features a well-designed interface with tailor-made search options for the content-rich book review collection – at a high price  ranging from $295/year for the individual to $1,525 for libraries of universities with doctoral programs.

 

THE CONTEXT

Book review journals and journals,  or journal and newspaper sections dedicated to book reviews have a long and glorious history. They are essential tools for collection developments, and many reviews, written by novelists, have their own literary merit. Reading the New York Times Book Review is a ceremonial pastime on Sunday mornings – and not only by the residents of the city. The good news for the readers (not necessarily for ALA) is that many of the best, most respected  review collections are at least partially available free of charge on the Web. Think of the digital version of the mighty NYT Book Review which I evaluated in this column a good year ago, the BookWorld section of the Washington Post, or the book reviews of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The journals which are dedicated to book reviews, such as Kirkus Reviews, Choice magazine  are not free, and except for occasional samples, neither are their digital versions. One big exception is Publishers’ Weekly (PW) which switched strategy not long ago, and makes all of its reviews published after 1987 open access. Publishers’ Weekly is particularly relevant from the perspectives of Booklist Online, because PW is its closest competitor as it covers adult and children/youth literature alike, and slowly but surely moves in also to the territory of audio and video reviews.

On top of this, there are the special databases which have significant number of reviews aggregated from reviews published in  journals, magazines and newspaper, such as Book Review Digest Plus, which has not only the bibliographic citations and excerpt, but for many books also the full text of 100,000 reviews, including  10,1000 from Booklist.  Then there is the special edition of Books in Print with a large number of full-text reviews from a variety of journals.

Most importantly, there are the full text mega-databases each of which have hundreds of thousands book reviews in addition  to the millions of full text articles. Many of them have substantial coverage of the full text of reviews published in Booklist. The Gale Group has 104,000 full text reviews from Booklist alone from 1992 onward. This almost exactly matches the size of Booklist Online, (and also has bibliographic citations for about 300,000 reviews published in Booklist between 1965 and 1991),. These are available both in the Expanded Academic ASAP and in the InfoTrac databases – thus covering well the needs of users of both the academic and public libraries .  The Research Library database of ProQuest has the full text reviews from Booklist since 1997, and Academic Search Premier of EBSCO from 2002. Surprisingly, H.W. Wilson’s OmniFile Full-Text Mega edition does not cover Booklist. Libraries which subscribe to the ProQuest and Gale databases mentioned above are unlikely to  subscribe to Booklist Online. Individual users will not be subscribers.

 

THE CONTENT

Booklist Online had 103,335 reviews as of mid-May, 2006. This is an impressive number, but not as impressive as the review collection of Publishers’ Weekly (PW) which has 125,128  reviews - for free. For comparison:  it is about half the size of the fee-based Kirkus Reviews database.

In addition, not all the records are really reviews. Many of them are single sentence annotations from various lists, such as editorial picks, etc. I like the substantial, medium-sized reviews like this one from Booklist’s editor, Bill Ott who seems to  be the most productive reviewer and shows a good model for others. The typically short but informative reviews of Booklist, are good, especially when the reviewer puts the book in context by comparing it to another in the same field of the non-fiction genre such as this book about multiple sclerosis with another one on the topic. It is good to see when a reviewer expresses her positive opinion about a book in a style that is deserved by the book rather than in the nauseating, Hollywoodish and cheap talk-show style of “I-just-lllloved-your-book”.

The reviews of reference publications are the most important for me, and even when I disagree with the reviewer’s overall opinion, I find them useful for their specific comments and again, for context which was the forte and trademark of the outstanding reviews of Jim Rettig, my predecessor at Gale.

On the other hand, the soundbite "reviews" like this are  probably much too short for many. Handling reviews which cover more than one book is always a dilemma, and this solution is not a good one. It leaves the user of Booklist Online perplexed and nowhere to go. A few records looked more like publicity blurbs of the publisher (which my beloved Amazon lists under editorial reviews), or table of contents lines beefed up into sentences. I found only a few such odd records in my tests, they are unlikely to be  prevalent.

Almost two third of the items are reviews of adult books, and there about 6,000 reviews primarily for  videos/DVDs and  audio books for adults. There are about twice as many reviews for non-fiction than fiction, a similar ratio as in PW. The significant proportion of reviews about romance books certainly mirrors the public’s interest in the genre, which itself is classified in three sub-genre to let the users zoom in on the reviews of historic romance books if they so desire.   

There is a substantial collection of reviews of reference books. Although you can pick that genre from a pull-down list, and can get an impressive hit count of 5,382, there is literally more than meets the eye, as I explain in the software section of the review. Subject-wise, the largest subsets are reviews for books on topic in Arts, Business, Social Sciences, Religion, Literature, Cooking, Poetry, and Technology

It is somewhat bothersome what is not found in Bookllist Online - even though the review is available not only in the print edition, but also in the small but open access digital archive of reviews that I discussed in the introductory comments. Mind me, the spelling of my query is correct (even if it looks weird), and I searched the entire Booklist Online archive). Unfortunately, one week point of the software that it does not echo back the queries after the search in the advanced mode.

It caught my eyes that there are no reviews about the trilogy of Taylor Branch, for example. True, the review of the first volume, Parting The Waters was published in the print edition of Booklist in 1988, which is before the start year of the coverage of the digital version, but where is the review for the audio edition which was published in 1999 in the print edition of Booklist?. The search without the definite article <<parting waters>> in the keyword index which includes all the words from the reviews yields 1 hit, but it is another book, titled Moses. Space between words triggers Boolean AND operation.

And where is the 200+word review written by Brad Hooper in Booklist for the second volume of the trilogy, Pillar of Fire? It is in the Expanded Academic and Infotrac databases of Gale in full text, as well as in the ProQuest Research Library.There are four reviews in Booklist Online for books with the same title, but none of them are about the book of Taylor Branch.

A review of the third volume of his trilogy, At Canaan’s  Edge is missing in another way. There is no review published about that book  in Booklist. Luckily, there are plenty of reviews on the open access sites, including the recently launched book section of the splendid MetaCritic service of which I raved about 2 years ago in this column. 

Allow me a short detour. The lack of review of the last volume of the trilogy in Booklist several months after the reviewers got their advanced copies reminded me of one of my most disappointing experience at the ALA Conference in Orlando, where Pulitzer-winning author Taylor Branch spoke as the invited guest in a large auditorium. There were 8 people in the audience. When I left after his excellent  presentation, I had a hard time to pass through the crowded aisles in the exhibit hall with visitors waiting for tchotchkes and for their turn to get a personally signed book by another first time novelist.   

 

THE SOFTWARE

The user interface is designed to accommodate the novice users as well as the well-versed librarians who want to find reviews, of say, books on terrorism, which are appropriate for young adults amd were published in the past 3 years to make some educated acquisition decision. The advanced interface offers searching in a variety of indexes (title, subject, author, reviewer, ISBN, etc.) allowing to be specific with the query, to distinguish author of the book versus author of the review, to limit to genre, sub-genre, grade level, material type, publication year range, etc. It is intuitive and powerful. Some options do not work yet, like the filter too limit the results to Booklist Editors' Choice items.

The software  brings out the most of the metadata in the review records. However, records have not been tagged with the same metadata from 1992 onward, therefore using some of the filters would automatically reduce the set of 103,335 reviews by 10-20% or more.

For example, the search for non-fiction will find a total of 61,038 records, the search for fiction finds 33,196 records with the appropriate tag. A few thousands reviews apparently have no such tags and metadata. There are only 80,597 reviews with the age limiter (58,455 for Adults, and 22,142 for Youth), so more than 20% of the reviews are not tagged by this criterion. The same is true for the format of the source document (book, video/dvd, audio, internet resource, etc.).  Many items are simply not tagged, or not tagged appropriately. I saw improvement in completeness during the 1-month trial, so chances are that retrospective addition will be made to make use of the powerful search and limit criteria   

It is an annoying deficiency of the software that it does not show the query as it was submitted on the top of the screen after an advanced search was run. In the above case I could figure out that I used the Reference genre as a search criteria.  Many times I had to repeat the search to make sure that I searched the right index, and there was no limit field activated. This must be fixed. 

The software has potentially very useful output options. Beyond saving results as a file, you can also rename, delete and/or merge two or more lists, and build your query and result list step-wise dynamically, within the search process,. This was the case when I searched for Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and belatedly realized to have forgotten to use Myanmar. After creating a list for that query I could easily merge it with results of the previous search.

Unfortunately, downloading did not work correctly for me. The result lists are supposed to save the result file directly in Excel compatible format (which is great news for me, as I am so obsessed with tabular, quickly re-sortable lists even for bibliographic data, that I convert and keep in spreadsheet format – but this download feature did  not work well yet in Booklist Online to let me do so..

 

Although a digital collection 100,000+ reviews from Booklist is an attractive asset, I doubt that it will have many subscribers, for one more reason. Beyond the other competing fee-based and free sources discussed above, there is another resource, a mightier competitor than any of the others: Amazon. It provides in my estimate about 30,000 reviews from Booklist (I can’ tell the exact number), and tens of thousands of reviews from many other sources, like the digital archives of Kirkus, Library Journals, School Library Journal, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, Publishers' Weekly and the like - most of the time the full review, sometimes just a snippet with the quintessential part of the review.

True, the reviews  are not (yet) searchable directly from Amazon, let alone in a sophisticated way as they are in Booklist Online, but they increasingly often come integrated with many other information materials and tools for free. These include the  front and back cover illustrations, table of contents pages, sample excerpts, first chapters, readability and citation statistics. Hundreds of thousands of them have links to sellers of new and used copies, and the ability to search for any word inside the book. There are also links to related books, and for a  fee - to articles, essays, and author biographies.  To get a glimpse of the richness of the most endowed book records click here to see the extra features about Taylor Branch's trilogy, or better, go and  look it up live through this link.

I am working on a proxy program to find the books in Amazon that have a full text review from Booklist. Preliminary results suggest that about a third of the 100,000+ reviews in Booklist Online, are available in Amazon but you can enjoy the benefits of the synergy of the two databases simply and freely. I plan to post it by mid-June. Look for the link then at http://www2.hawaii.edu/~jacso/extra

 

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