March 10, 2017

A look back with Duncan Smith

Recently, I sat down with Duncan Smith -- one of the founders of NoveList -- to chat a little about NoveList history. As someone without a library background (though a lifelong user of the library) I always love hearing about the how and the why of NoveList when it was in its infancy, making this interview with Duncan particularly enjoyable. 

Let’s start at the beginning (a very good place to start!)  

What led to the idea for NoveList in the beginning?

Duncan: It may be surprising, but there was a life before NoveList! I was running statewide continuing education services for librarians in North Carolina, and one of the workshop requests that kept coming up was help training people to help readers find their next book to read. So I put together a workshop. What I had done was videotape somebody talking about a book they read and enjoyed, and then I went off on my own-- because there wasn’t a NoveList at that point -- and came up with a list of books for them and gave them copies of book reviews for each book. The person would look at the reviews and say whether they would read them or not.

That became something I was going around the country doing. I guess I did that workshop about 30 times in different locations. During the course of that workshop people kept saying to me “We can’t read fast enough, think fast enough. Gosh it would be great if we had a database.” So after a year or two of hearing that, I hooked up with Roger Rohweder and John Strickler and we started throwing this idea around -- could we build such a thing? And that’s what we did.

Cassi: So you saw that need, and filled it.

Duncan: People kept saying it. It took me a little while to actually believe it. Then it was about two or three years of fooling around trying to get it to work and finding the data and all that. This is what NoveList looked like back then:

Cassi: Wow, that’s a lot of floppy discs!

Duncan: And if you can believe it, we thought it would never get any better than this!

How did you decide to expand into other products?

Duncan: At first, the primary need was for NoveList --- there were no subject headings for adult fiction and that was the area that we focused on, and certainly the area I knew most about. So that’s what the first version of NoveList was all about. It was adult fiction only. Shortly after that we had people say, “Well when are you going to do this for children? We need this too!” So then we began to look at young adult and children’s books.

One of the things that’s happened over time -- just as NoveList sprung from future customers asking us for something to make their lives better -- other customers kept coming to us with ideas for things they wanted. For example, some of our customers started looking at e-newsletter services and decided they wanted an e-newsletter service for their libraries -- and they wanted NoveList to do it. So that’s where NextReads came from.

It was a nice use of technology to take NoveList to a different level; our core products are wonderful and used by both librarians and readers, but NextReads began to actually push things out. Rather than waiting on you to come to the library, it’s the library coming to you.

As for NoveList Select. From the time NoveList began, we had directors saying “I want this in my catalog.”

Cassi: So you had people just telling you directly what they wanted.

Duncan: That’s right. Before we sold our first copy of NoveList, the first two public library directors -- one was Charlie Robinson at Baltimore County, the other was Ron Dubberly at Atlanta Public -- they both said “This needs to be in our catalog.”

Cassi: So they predicted Select!

Duncan: Yes they did! And as frequently happened, both of those directors were visionary; it just takes some time to catch up to the real world, or the real world to catch up to the vision. And so Select was born, and it was one of those things where the second it was ready, everybody said “Well what took you so long?”

Cassi: And now we’re taking it even further.

Duncan: A lot further now! Our partnership with Zepheira brings linked data to libraries -- we’ve moved through the library catalog out to the open web. We’re helping customers get visible on the open web and bringing readers back to them.

Cassi: A full circle.

Duncan: It is a full circle. There’s certain things throughout NoveList’s history that remain constant. One is that our customers lead us where we need to go to take care of them. The other thing is creating great content that actually addresses the questions that people are getting -- and then delivering that content and those answers, those solutions, to where readers are.

What were you seeing and hearing that led to the creation of LibraryAware?

Duncan: There’s a couple things that happened there. I mentioned NextReads -- at this point NextReads was about five years old, and we were doing a market research study on what the next version should look like. What came back was that libraries were using e-newsletters sure, but there were all these other things they were doing too, like making flyers, using social media, that kind of thing. We wanted to support all of those many different ways of connecting with readers.

This was an extension of what NoveList had already been doing, but now taking advantage of some new tools. I think LibraryAware is an excellent example of how libraries can use new technologies to deepen their relationships with their core users: readers. It’s essential for libraries to keep users connected to the books and collections that have always been the main reason public libraries are valued.

What’s been your proudest moment throughout all of this?

There’s several little moments but I’ll tell you the couple that meant the most to me. When I won the Margaret Monroe award from ALA in 1997, that was like an affirmation that readers’ advisory and the work that we were doing and the making of NoveList was a great thing. But I think the proudest I’ve ever been was when we got the first review of NoveList from Library Journal, and Cheryl LaGuardia -- who was at Harvard and was an academic librarian -- I was nervous, what was she going to think? And she opened that article by saying “I have found the database I’ve been searching for all my life and it’s called NoveList.” She referred to us as “a reader’s paradise and a reference librarian’s dream.”

We get validation all the time, but that was just tremendous.

So now you have all this stuff -- this big thing you started over 25 years ago and has really grown. How do you feel about it now?

It’s really easy to think of this “thing,” the products…but the aspect of this enterprise that I tend to think about the most is the people. The people who are here are just…magnificent. And I think that when I think about my role here, and what brings me joy, is the fact that the people here are passionate, are dedicated, they’re smart, they’re driven. And they are doing meaningful work and they know it. I think for me, when I think about this thing called NoveList, that’s what sums it up. We are people doing meaningful work and helping others do meaningful work, too. And that is really what it’s all about.

Duncan is co-founder and general manager of NoveList. He helps transform the lives of readers by leading a team that creates the tools library staff use to provide their most important service -- connecting readers with the books that will make a difference in their lives.


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Lucy M Lockley
March 14, 2017

I attended one of those workshops and recall Duncan showing us that ‘early’ version of NoveList! Went back to my library so excited; told everyone about this great new RA tool that we just had to get! Thank You, Duncan, Roger, & John!


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