Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Finding Someplace to Go: Reading and the Internet

Marieke Guy takes a look at what the Internet has to offer the art of reading.

Reading has always been pretty popular. According to Alberto Manguel in his work A History of Reading [1] archaeologists have argued that the prehistory of books began near Babylon towards the middle of the fourth millennium B.C. It may well have begun even earlier than that. This given, it will come as no surprise that readers are the biggest arts audience we have in the UK. The number of readers far exceeds all other arts audiences combined (with the country's soccer fans thrown in for good measure) [2].

Reading has been making us laugh and cry, inspiring and enraging us since we were small children. So what more is there for us to learn about the art of reading?

Reader Development

Libraries rarely sit still when it comes to developing their readers. In 2000 the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS)/Wolfson Public Libraries Challenge Fund gave out thirty three awards totalling nearly £2 million towards activities in local libraries that highlighted the pleasures of reading for all sections of the community. Reading and learning continues to be a key part of the Framework for the Future document [3], which sets out the government's vision for English public libraries over the next ten years. The partners involved in the document's delivery [4] have turned it into an action plan with several themes. The reading and learning theme looks primarily at what it calls 'enhancing adult reading experiences'.

Reading and the Internet

So how exactly can our experiences of private reading be enhanced? And what role can the Internet play in that enhancement? Some might ask: how can such a passive experience translate to the online world?

It seems that recently people have begun to discover something that those who have studied literature have known for years: reading is a creative activity. Some might even call it an art. Something new comes to a book with every additional reader. And the Internet, being a pool of creativity, has a lot to offer readers in improving their art.

The Reading Experience: Sell the Sizzle not the Sausage

One organisation that has been using the Internet to stimulate readers is Opening the Book [5]. Opening the Book has led strategic thinking in reader development since 1990 and works to encourage reading through consultancy, training and promotion. It also has a great deal of experience of creating Web sites for readers using the reader development principles it has developed. These include putting the reader first, encouraging exploration in reader choices and facilitating reader-to-reader connections. Unlike many previous explorations of literature and reading, Opening the Book uses a reader-centred definition of quality; it is not the quality of the book that matters, rather the quality of the reading experience. Thus it believes in promoting the 'sizzle' (the experience) not the 'sausage' (the product).

Opening the Book has created several Web sites designed to enhance the experience of reading. Its sites help readers pick books and talk to other readers. A number are also targeted at specific audiences, such as teenagers. Whichbook.net [6] was funded by the New Opportunities Fund and provides an intuitive aid for choosing books. Instead of starting with an author or genre, readers consider the kind of experience they would like to have: 'I want a short romantic comedy' or 'I'd like a challenging book that's pretty disturbing'. Visitors to the site select their desired experience based on twelve sliding scale options: e.g 'beautiful' - 'disgusting', 'conventional' - 'unusual', 'optimistic' - 'bleak' and so on. Visitors can also choose books by specifying the setting, characters and plot they would like included or by providing details such as a character's race or sexuality. There are 20 million different combinations of factors and the site will suggest titles which most closely match the reader's needs. Once a book has been selected, a 'borrow' hypertext link allows visitors to go through to their local library and check the library catalogue for copies held.

screenshot (86KB) : Figure 1: Choosing a book on the Whichbook.net Web site

Figure 1: Choosing a book on the Whichbook.net Web site

The Whatareyouuptotonight.com Web site [7] has a target audience of 16-25 year-olds. It is divided into two sections, one for users wanting books for an evening in and one for users wanting books for a holiday or journey. A very popular section with the site's visitors is Blind Date, an online version of the TV show. Users select from a list of 10 different styles of 'date' and get a book which matches their desires. Once again the site links through to local libraries by allowing the book to be ordered; but the book selected by Blind Date remains a surprise until the reader goes to collect it. Another site tapping into popular culture is 4ureaders.net [8] which includes a Book Brother area similar in operation to the Channel 4 TV reality programme. Seven books are nominated at the beginning of the Book Brother cycle and once a week two books are nominated for eviction based on the number of online votes collected.

screenshot (100KB) : Figure 2: Book Brother on the 4ureaders.net Web site

Figure 2: Book Brother on the 4ureaders.net Web site

Links to all the Web sites Opening the Book has created, including an online resource for reader development professionals, are available from their site.

Online and Off-line Working Together

The key with the Opening the Book ideology is that it offers more than just an Internet-only solution to reader development. Through its sites it aims to encourage people to visit their local library. Opening the Book believes that linking the online with the off-line is the secret to getting people reading again.

Online reader development programmes are hardly new. Stories from the Web [9] is managed by Birmingham Library and Information Services and has been running for over seven years. The site evolved out of a small-scale pilot Web site called Treasure Island [10] which was developed by UKOLN [11] as a possible service model for a children's library site. Stories from the Web aims to develop both traditional literacy skills and Internet-based skills in children through reading and online interaction. Such initiatives are on the increase all over the world. For example in Canada, Book Adventure [12] is a reading motivation programme for school children. Children create their own book lists from over six thousand recommended titles, take multiple choice quizzes on the books they have read, and earn points and prizes for their literary successes.

Online Reading Groups

Another boom area in reader development is reading groups (or book clubs). Meeting and talking about books has been popular in some circles for a long time, but recently reading groups have become very fashionable. One possible contributing factor to this move into the mainstream was the BBC's The Big Read survey carried out in the winter of 2003. The BBC polled the general public on its favourite novel and ran a series of programmes on the resultant Top 10. By the end of the initiative three quarters of a million votes were received, a high percentage of these through The Big Read Web site [13]. J.R.R. Tolkien's classic The Lord of the Rings was officially voted the UK's Best-Loved Book. Opening the Book takes a more downbeat, but still valid, view of the impact of The Big Read. It feels that the need for consensus among readers is potentially dangerous, possibly causing stagnation and resistance to trying out new books [14]. Nonetheless, whether they were contemporary or classic books in The Big Read, there is no denying they encouraged many people to read and talk about books.

Opening the Book encourages what it calls 'the reader-centred reading group'. A reader-centred approach emphasises the quality of the reading experience rather than the quality of the book. Such a reading group respects everybody's individual reading experience and makes no assumptions about what people have already read or their knowledge of literary theory. It also enables people with different reading preferences to talk to each other on common ground and encourages honest exploration of responses, instead of just pressuring people to 'perform' in front of fellow group members. One important consideration is that such a group accommodates varying levels of time commitment and reading appetite [15]. Reading groups are an excellent mechanism for allowing people to communicate, they often provide their members with a safe platform on which to carry out discussions that would not normally take place without confrontation. The reading group experience can be a really positive one and recently there have been many schemes to establish reading groups within libraries.

Off-line reading groups are now using the Internet more to complement their meetings. The Mostly, We Eat site [16] has been presented as an example of a long- running reading group that exploits the Internet for its own management. The group uses its Web site to link to chosen books, offer recommendations and provide maps and schedules for members. Many book sites now offer discussion guides for reading groups, aids to choosing pertinent books to discuss and even discounts on group purchases. There are also more resources than ever out there for people wanting to set up a reading group [17]. It does seem that everyone is up to it. Even Channel 4's daytime chat show hosts, Richard and Judy, have a book club [18]. In so doing they promote book reading for the masses. Their selections have been made in connection with the National Library for the Blind (NLB) and all book choices are available in Braille.

But what do you do if you cannot or prefer not to meet up with people? The Internet, through discussion forums and email, has made it possible for reading groups to exist online. Online reading groups have a number of advantages over the traditional reading group model. Traditional reading groups are limited by time, space and location. Being online and effectively anonymous also means that there is no limit to the diversity of views and perspectives that enter into the discussion. Also due to the immensity of the Web and the variety of reading groups available, readers who turn to the Internet to find a book club enjoy a much wider selection of clubs, including many dedicated to a specialised interest or genre. Of course, there are also disadvantages associated with online reading groups. For instance, the intimacy of a personal discussion is lost, along with the social interaction that is often a part of the traditional reading group experience. The type of reading group one should join is very much down to the individual. A good list of online reading groups is available from the Open Directory Project [19].

The People's Network Service Approach

With support from a £500,000 grant by the Big Lottery Fund, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) has begun developing the first phase of the People's Network Service [20]. The project looks at online services and the range of resources which they offer. One of the three intended service areas is reader development. The predicted outputs will include an online reading group run in a real-time environment, links to many reader- and reading-focused online resources and a national database of reading groups. The database will initially contain all the reading groups that meet in public libraries and will be searchable by postcode. It is being developed by UFI/learndirect alongside a similar project establishing a directory of library services.

The Web site (or 'reading book toolkit') for the project, called Reader to Reader [21], is being created by Opening the Book and pulls together all these resources. There will be attempts to include deep links via library catalogues. There will also be connections with Find Your Library [22], an interactive way to locate your nearest branch. Reader to Reader will run for 3 years with the Web site going live in the Autumn of 2005.

Connecting the Online with the Off-line

As mentioned earlier, many of the Internet reading resources available are seeking to connect up with libraries. One method of making the leap from the online to the off-line is by deep linking into library catalogues. The best way to do this right now is by using an OpenURL [23] to transport citation information for a resource. The idea behind OpenURLs is that links should lead a user to appropriate resources. The OpenURL is, to put it simply, an actionable URL that transports metadata for the object in question. The target of the OpenURL is an OpenURL resolver that offers context-sensitive services based on that metadata. This piece of technology allows users to find their local copy of a book with the click of a button. A way to see this in action is to have a look at the UKOLN Open URL demonstrator [24]. You can also try Jon Udell's LibraryLookup bookmarklet [25], which will invoke your library's lookup service when visiting an online bookstore.


The Internet has been the perfect medium with which to kick-start a reading revolution. It has a lot to offer readers everywhere, from reading groups to resources a-plenty. The key is that the Internet and reading have a lot in common. Both are about communication, interaction and interpretation. And both can give us great pleasure.

As Mason Cooley the famous American aphorist once said, 'Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are'. The Internet seems to provide the perfect transport.


  1. Manguel, A (1997). A History of Reading, Flamingo.
  2. Quote from Olive Fowler, Opening the Book.
  3. Framework for the Future: Libraries, Learning and Information in the Next Decade http://www.culture.gov.uk/global/publications/archive_2003/framework_future.htm
  4. Framework for the Future Action Plan http://www.mla.gov.uk/action/framework/framework.asp
  5. Opening the Book http://www.openingthebook.com/
  6. Whichbook.net http://www.whichbook.net/
  7. What are you up to tonight http://www.whatareyouuptotonight.com/
  8. 4ureaders.net http://www.4ureaders.net/
  9. Stories from the Web http://www.storiesfromtheweb.org/
  10. Treasure Island http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/treasure/
  11. UKOLN http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/
  12. Book Adventure http://www.bookadventure.org/
  13. BBC's Big read http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/bigread/
  14. The Big Read in libraries http://www.openingthebook.com/website/page.asp?idno=906
  15. Opening the Book : Reader-centred reading groups http://www.openingthebook.com/otb/page.asp?idno=362
  16. Mostly, We Eat http://www.mostlyweeat.org/
  17. Book-Clubs-Resource.com http://www.book-clubs-resource.com/
  18. Richard and Judy's Book Club http://www.channel4.com/entertainment/tv/microsites/R/richardandjudy/book_club/book_club.html
  19. The Open Directory Project http://dmoz.org/Arts/Literature/Reading_Groups/
  20. People's Network Service http://www.mla.gov.uk/action/pn/services.asp
  21. Reader to Reader (due Autumn 2005) http://www.readertoreader.co.uk/
  22. Find Your Library http://www.findyourlibrary.co.uk/
  23. OpenURL definition from Ex Libris http://www.exlibrisgroup.com/sfx_openurl.htm
  24. OpenURL demonstrator http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/distributed-systems/openurl/
  25. LibraryLookup homepage http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/stories/2002/12/11/librarylookup.html

Author Details

Marieke Guy
Interoperability Focus

Email: m.guy@ukoln.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/interop-focus/

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