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Tattoos are the Newest Form of Algorithm at Denver Public Library

by on October 6, 2017

In mid-July 2017, the Denver Public Library invited the public to upload photos of their tattoos to the library’s Facebook page. The idea was to have its librarians see if they could recommend titles to patrons solely based on a person’s tattoos  and the back-story of why they got that particular tattoo. “It’s really to connect readers with books in a personal way and recreate the feeling they have from books, and movies, and music that they’ve loved in the past,” said Hana Zittel, one of the librarians who responded to the hundreds of comments users left on the library’s page.” [1]

For example, one patron’s tattoo read, “It’s just a spark, but it’s enough” with a picture of a lit match in the background of the text. This quote comes from a Paramore song and the patron said that it represents her struggle with depression. The librarian recommended she try:

  1. Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson
  2. Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me: A Graphic Memoir by Ellen Forney
  3. This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression by Daphne Merkin.

This got me thinking what I would recommend if I was the librarian assigned to these tattoo recommendations.  For this particular example, I might go with:

  1. Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett
  2. Lady Dynamite: Season One starring Maria Bamford
  3. Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

I also wondered what other sort of algorithmic connections we could create in the library in an effort to relate to our patrons. Would it be a stretch to associate pictures of patron’s pets to a reading list for them?  If someone had a bulldog would I have made the thread to recommend Damn Good Dogs:  The Real Story of Uga, the University of Georgia’s Bulldog Mascots by Sonny Seiler, or A Dog’s Way Home by W. Bruce Cameron? Could librarians connect your favorite television show to a book recommendation?  If a patron really likes Twin Peaks, I might recommend The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka or Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

While this may sound like just a fun one-off situation that the library did, in the grander scheme of things, it speaks to making person-to-person connections with our library community. It’s wonderful that computers can algorithmically link one title to another based on data, however having a discussion with the patron may lead you to realize that just because a person liked The Hunger Games doesn’t mean they will also like The Divergent series. There is not any replacement for the human interaction with our patrons.


Powell, Erin. 2017. 9News. July 17. Accessed August 14, 2017. http://www.9news.com/news/local/next/denver-public-library-offers-personalized-reading-lists-based-on-tattoos/457480079.

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