What We Learned from Thousands of Goodreads Reviews

This post is by student researchers Emma and Chris:

If you’ve ever combed through Goodreads, you may have noticed the range of ratings and reviews on the site. While some books may receive thousands of comments, others only gather a hundred (or less). You might also wonder have much disparity there is in ratings for any single book.

We wanted to know what Goodreads reviewers said about some of the “One Book One Chicago” books we’re studying as part of the Reading Chicago Reading project. Comments on Goodreads can, of course, come from anywhere in the world. But did Chicago’s choice of these books leave a trace in the online record?

Our research team compiled an Excel spreadsheet with about one hundred thousand Goodreads reviews (spanning 2007-2016) for the seven books chosen by Chicago Public Library between 2011 and 2017. We sifted through them to find if One Book, One Chicago (OBOC) had any presence and influence in the reviews. Here is what we found:

Pros and Cons: The Goodreads reviews that specifically mention OBOC vary in breadth, depth, and opinion. Though the majority took a neutral stance, the reviews that had the most to say about OBOC were overwhelmingly positive. One particularly laudatory review of The Adventures of Augie March (the Fall 2011 selection)said OBOC is “one of the many things that makes it such a treat to be a book lover in this city.”

This review went on to discuss the “unbelievable and magical” effect of “stepping onto a random el one day with one of these OBOC books, and to spy ten or fifteen other strangers just on that car alone who are all reading it too.”

Interaction with other Chicagoans reading an OBOC selection on public transit was a common theme in reviews, illustrating participants’ interest in connecting with others through this program, but most lamented an unfortunate lack of such encounters. It is important to note that though the reviewers were disappointed about their own realization of this goal, they were aware of CPL’s aim “to foster a sense of community through reading.”

Other reviews mentioned specific OBOC events and their promotional materials, showing us the effectiveness of CPL’s campaigns for OBOC.

There were very few reviews (if any) that spoke negatively of OBOC. The most negative of them questioned the book selection process and lamented a lack of visible public engagement. However, there were no openly negative reviews about the program itself.

Data: From our data, we created two graphs. Figure 1 exhibits the compared average rating (out of 5 stars) between total Goodreads reviewers and those that mentioned OBOC. Figure 2 shows the percentage of comments that mentioned OBOC out of the total Goodreads comments in our set. Though the absolute numbers are small, OBOC engages with the Chicago community while Goodreads exists as a website with global outreach. Overall, it is fascinating to see the trends between all Goodreads Reviewers and those that mentioned OBOC, helping determine what was similar and different.

Figure 1: Comparison of total Goodreads ratings to OBOC Readers’ Ratings for six OBOC books
Figure 2: Percentage of OBOC readers’ reviews to all RCR Goodreads reviews.

Conclusion: So what can you learn from thousands of Goodreads reviews and ratings? Though there were comparatively few mentions of OBOC to the total amount of reviews, we found OBOC readers are engaging with their Chicago community through reading, whether it is online or on the El, thereby fulfilling OBOC’s mission for connecting the Chicago community through books.

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