What if we described books like we describe beer?

We’ve talked a lot this week about the sensory experience of books. I confess that I often grow weary of this conversation (Yes, I snarkily use the #smellofbooks hashtag on Twitter) because I had resigned myself to the idea that we can’t express this digitally, and we should just accept this and move on to more practical endeavors.

But I was wrong.

It occurred to me: there are lots of sensory experiences that we try to describe, for the benefit of others, in text/digital form. The one that came to mind for me first–no surprise!–was the beer review. (Don’t forget to check out the DHSI beer review site, if you haven’t done so already!)

There’s a whole cultural procedure when it comes to reviewing beer (or wine, or food, or anything, I suppose). You approach the drink, and you deliberately think about how it interacts with each of your senses–smell, color, density–and write that down, from the appearance in the glass to the aftertaste. You swirl, smell, taste, swallow, and document. You seriously use words like “mouthfeel” that get at a sort of cross-sensory tasting/feeling experience.

These reviews contain a strange mix of quantitative data, such as ABV, which describes how much alcohol is in it, and IBU, which describes the bitterness/hoppiness, and qualitative data, like what tasting notes you picked up. There is a mix of information that should also apply to someone else ordering the same beer (like ABV) and information that only documents your individual experience, like the price, location, and ambience of where you consumed it.

No one expects that reading a beer review will be the same as (or, God forbid, replace!) drinking a beer. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to say something useful about the sensory experience.

What if part of reading room practice were to take five minutes to look, touch, smell–and document!–the physical experience of the book?

Where would this information be stored and usefully shared? Mmm, I don’t really know. Doesn’t seem quite right to add it to an ESTC record. But to the record maintained by an individual library? Maybe yes. Get an idea of what it’s like to meet this book before you meet it.

I’m tickled to realize that there is precedent, and (thanks to DHSI 2012 colleagues) a wealth of colorful examples to draw upon, for usefully representing this kind of experience online.

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