March 25, 2014

Does this new NYPL sidebar look infected with algorithm to you?


Dance halls and book discovery sites are rife with the stuff. be careful out there.

Dance halls and book discovery sites are rife with the stuff. Be careful out there.

Hey there, New York Public Library website. This might sound weird, but you look like you’ve really been taking care of yourself lately. I don’t know if you’ve been eating better or just getting more sleep or what, but you look good. A lot of white space, your events sharing real estate with books, you just look like a very friendly, useful site.

And I love how if I click on one of your featured book jackets I’m taken to this other page where WHOA. Hold on. When did you get that sidebar, NYPL? Have you been cleaning it with rubbing alcohol? I don’t want to be alarmist, but it looks like you may be infected with algorithm over here.

Yeah, I thought so. Look, see there where it’s red and cracked and smells kind of yeasty? Definitely an algorithm. Who’ve you been… Zola? Oh well of course. Yeah Zola has had a heavy dose of algorithm for months now. Remember, they picked it up from Bookish earlier this year. It was all over the industry gossip sites, I thought you knew!

Listen, it’ll be fine. If you want I’ll take you and we can get some over-the-counter ointment for it, or you can just wait and it’ll probably go away on its own. And it could be worse. The algorithm that Amazon has been spreading around is based on sales records from a broad sampling, but the Bookish algorithm chooses book recommendations based on the similarity of the books themselves. In practice it could sometimes use some tweaking. Often, however, it’s spot on and kicks up results that are more interesting seemingly because they aren’t targeted at pulling in the most sales conversions. This makes it a pretty promising algorithm for a library so long as… hey, hey come on, don’t scratch at that.

Another interesting thing is that if you look closely at your sidebar, next to this flaky part here, there’s a link to Bookish itself where you can actually purchase the book you were thinking of checking out or downloading from the library. It’s not as if libraries never sell things—you already do great business at your store, NYPL, so there’s no scandal there. And insofar as you’re directing people to buy the book from someone other than Crusty Jeff and his own algorithm-riddled site, I guess that seems pretty good.

All in all, NYPL, things could be worse.  Keep up the soap and water, let it dry out fully. I know you and Zola seem pretty strong right now but also, and don’t take this the wrong way, but should something happen, and I’m not judging you, but in case you try out a new digital marketing partner, just be careful during an algorithm flare up. It’s only common courtesy.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.