Goodreads: Why Social Cataloging Matters to Public Historians

Goodreads is a “social cataloging” website that was created in 2006 to help people find and share the books they love- the Facebook for books, if you will.

Once a free account is created, Goodreads allows users to build virtual bookshelves consisting of books they’ve read, books they are currently reading, and books they want to read in the future. Users are able to write reviews, create reading lists, and share this information with those who have subscribed for updates. Users can peruse the virtual bookshelves of their friends as well- the activity of those that have been “friended” will appear in a live feed on your homepage- you can see what books they’re reading (as detailed as to what page they’re on) and how they’ve rated these books. Goodreads even has an algorithm that generates recommendations for users based on what they’ve already added to their shelves. The site and its algorithms thrive on interactions between users.

Users can also join groups and contribute to discussions that focus on various topics: authors, series, or individual works. There’s a very effective search feature, too. You can search for a work by title, author, genre, or ISBN. Depending on the search parameters, the results will yield titles, similar groups, related quotes and events, and lists that include the search term, and related trivia questions. Goodreads also facilitates interactions between readers and authors through interviews, giveaways, and author blog posts. Authors can also use Goodreads as an advertising platform to ensure that they are reaching their target audience.

Goodreads has evolved since its inception, but its initial mission statement has remained at its core. Founded in 2006 by Otis Chandler, Goodreads was run for roughly a year without any funding out of Chandler’s living room. In 2007, Chandler received $750,000 from angel investors, and then $2 million in 2009 from True Ventures. In 2013, the site reported roughly 20 million users and was acquired by Amazon. The recommendation feature is newer- in 2011, Goodreads acquired Discoverreads, which uses algorithms to determine what books a user might like based on books they’ve liked in the past and books that people with similar tastes have liked. In January of this year, Amazon announced that it would be merging its own social cataloging website, Shelfari, with Goodreads. Otis Chandler has stated that he is working with Facebook to create book clubs within the social network.

There are many social cataloging sites available in addition to Goodreads and Shelfari (LibraryThing, Bookish, aNobii), but none have been quite as successful as Goodreads. There are a variety of reasons for this:

  • Goodreads has a strong presence on other social media sites. Users can link their Goodreads account to their other accounts to share their virtual libraries with a much wider audience and expand their connections.
  • Strong presence on other devices/ operating systems. Integration with Kindle products makes it easy for users to utilize Goodreads via these devices.
  • Close proximity to authors via interviews that allow readers engage at a more intimate level
  • Valuable to authors (marketing, publicity) and readers (entertainment, cataloging) and booksellers (sales) alike

More broadly, the success of Goodreads underscores the participatory culture we live in. Examining the history of social media sites like Goodreads is of interest to public historians because both the website and public historians work to engage the public in very intentional ways. The participatory culture we operate in is one based in the idea of collective intelligence. Creators are users and users are creators- everyone wants to participate and feel as if their contributions matter. Studying the public’s relationship with social media can help us determine the best ways to reach out to the community and strengthen ties between the community and museums, libraries, historical societies, and other cultural heritage sites.

In the not so distant past, the presentation, production, and consumption of history felt inaccessible to anyone who hadn’t studied it extensively in an academic setting or worked in the field. Many groups felt (and feel!) marginalized and underrepresented in much of the work done by historians. Goodreads allows everyone to participate and feel as if they are part of something bigger, and by doing so, they’ve created a productive community that has flourished in the past ten years. Public historians must follow suit.



One thought on “Goodreads: Why Social Cataloging Matters to Public Historians

  1. This is a great example of how social media has become a part of so many aspects of our lives. Like you said, people want to “participate and feel as if their contribution matters.” As public historians, this is the spirit we want to bring into our cultural institutions. Goodreads can tell us how people are interacting with literature and give us ideas about how we can facilitate interactions with history. Some museums might even find that their audiences would enjoy discovering and discussing books that relate to the museum using the social media site.


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