Social Reading in Libraries
With the Browser to the Book

Online exchange about books.
Online exchange about books. | Photo (detail): © Ammentorp -

Progressive digitalisation has had an effect on reading habits. In the form of social reading, the reading circle of yesteryear is enjoying a renaissance on the Web. This development has also consequences for the work of libraries.

Historically considered, social reading is not new. “Until 400 AD, silent reading to oneself was largely unknown. Even philosopher Augustine marvelled at a silently reading contemporary”, noted the science journalist Astrid Herbold in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. Above all in the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries exchanges among reading enthusiasts who banded together in reading circles and discussed books experienced their heyday. A trend that now, under the changed auspices of the digital age, has made a comeback – and has put the publishing industry and academic and public libraries before new challenges.

Sharing the digital

Dominique Pleimling of the Mainz Institute of Book Studies captures the meaning of social reading in a definition that is as concise as it is open: “intense and sustained online exchange about texts”. Users join together in thematically focused communities, document their reading behaviour and share comments and quotations. In the United States, the platform with twenty million members leads this segment of social reading. In Germany, the commercial forum Lovelybooks is similarly organised; it networks roughly 80,000 book lovers, who exchange recommendations with one another.So-called Social Reading 2.0 leads beyond the digital model of the reading circle; it enables users to carry on a dialogue in the book itself, a simultaneous reading and commenting. “Why make a book digital and not make it shareable?” is the slogan of the Berlin start-up company Readmill. The in early 2014 shut down internet service offered an interactive user interface for e-book readers as an app. Markings of text passages could be made visible to all members of the platform, shown or hidden, commented on and shared via social networks such Facebook or Twitter.

Evolution of reading behaviour

In the area of academic library work, Dr. Rafael Ball, Director of the University of Regensburg Library and chief editor of the magazine B.i.t.-Online, currently sees a “co-evolution” in progress: “Not only does digital media content change reading behaviour; readers also want faster and more easily searchable content.” Here the analogue book is clearly at a disadvantage. Especially the sciences, according to Ball, now use almost exclusively electronic publications, which can be searched “precisely in terms of target, language and method”.In 2012 academic libraries in Germany already spent 41 per cent of their budgets on digital and electronic media, according to German Library statistics. But public libraries are also re-equipping themselves correspondingly. “Nearly 1,000 public libraries in Germany now offer e-books for temporary electronic download”, reported the gazette of the German Book Trade in October 2013.

Value-added books in science and scholarship

From the academic perspective, Ball at least sees in the trend to electronic reading only something positive: “When e-books equipped with multi-media content and links offer more than merely the PDF version of a printed work, they’re real value-added books”.

Academic libraries speak of “scientific reading” rather than social reading, but the opportunities for interaction are similar. “Though the exchanges don’t follow the chat principle”, as Susanne Göttker, who heads the Department for Integrated Media Processing at the University of Düsseldorf, stresses. She points to the web-based software system Mendeley, which supports scientific and scholarly communication and collaboration among colleagues in various ways in the form of a social network. For example, in keeping with the personal profile of the user, he or she is alerted when a new publication is released or commented upon. “Certainly a working platform of the future”, says Göttker.

Public libraries in digital space

Public libraries are meanwhile facing greater challenges. “Given their present structures, it’s difficult to realise social reading there”, explains Tom Becker, Professor at the Institute of Information Science at the Cologne University of Applied Sciences and member of the Federal Executive Committee of the Professional Association of Information Libraries (BIB). The reason for this, he says, is the locality and licensing restrictions of e-book holdings, which prohibit the exchange with readers in other cities. A conceivable counter-model, however, would be the transfer of reading clubs with fixed user groups into the digital world. At collaborative platforms, public libraries could play their role as competence mediators and carry on “cultural education in digital space”, says Becker. “This would make them interesting for digital natives.”