Archive for October, 2007

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

LibraryThing for Libraries: October

October was another good month for LibraryThing for Libraries, with 7 new libraries coming on board.

First up on the list is the Los Gatos Public Library in California. Although a very small library, they show yet again that you don’t need to be big to innovate. They’ve promoted LibraryThing for Libraries extensively on their blog; they’ve even made a cool little video on YouTube of the widgets in action.

Library number two is the East Brunswick Public Library in New Jersey. Much more than most libraries, EBPL has really positioned themselves as a part of their community. You can see this in their offering of notary and passport renewal services at their libraries and their involvement with the community TV station, EBTV. I like seeing libraries that try to integrate themselves into their patrons’ daily lives like that. For an LTFL action shot, here’s “Treasure Island” in their catalog.

Next up is the Institute of Technology Tallaght, Dublin, our second library in Ireland. Along with our first one, the Waterford Institute of Technology, they’re a part of our nefarious plan to get every Irish engineering major hooked on LibraryThing.

Number four is the Kingston Information and Library Service in Melbourne, Australia. They have the honor of being our first Australian library, but we’ve got a bunch more on the way, starting with number five, the Australian Tax Office. The ATO’s running LibraryThing for Libraries on their intranet only, so I don’t have a demo URL for them. I’d like to thank them for coming up with a righteous javascript hack to make our widgets work with SirsiDynix’s new EPS/Rooms system.

Arlington Heights Memorial Library in Illinois is next up. I’ve already had a couple of other prospective customers ask to have their installation “look like Arlington Heights.” You can see why — they’ve done a great job blending LibraryThing for Libraries into their III catalog.

Finally, GMILCS is a consortium of academic and public libraries in New Hampshire. GMILCS runs SirsiDynix’s Horizon Information Portal catalog. It’s been cool to work with so many of the same people I knew when I used to support Horizon Information Portal for Dynix. Tim will be giving a talk about LibraryThing for Libraries at the CODI, the annual SirsiDynix user conference tomorrow along with Colleen Medling of the Salt Lake County Public Library. It should be a good one, so if you’re at CODI, check it out.

Along with picking up pencils, spatulas, and other stuff with vendor names on them, and talking to a lot of people in denim shirts, annual user conferences are always a good place to learn about new ways to make the software you’re stuck with do new things. That’s really valuable when change happens so slowly in the library software world; I remember helping GMILCS out when they first brought up their current catalog back in 2002. 5 years is a lifetime on the internet, and the gap between the speed that enterprise library software moves and the speed the web moves only seems to be getting bigger and bigger. So it’s vital for software vendors to make catalogs that can be modified, extended and customized both internally and externally. Customers shouldn’t have to wait for years for the shiny next generation product to get new features. It’s not just up to the vendors, though; customers need to keep finding ways to improve their out of the box systems (like David Pattern’s interesting new HIPPie project), library managers need to create a culture where change is embraced, and services like LibraryThing for Libraries need to keep adding more new functionality to existing systems. Legacy library software is inescapable — major upgrades will always be a gigantic chore, and even minor changes to the core of the system will often have huge repercussions on dozens of staff and thousands of patrons. That should not keep libraries from constantly making improvements to their public interfaces.

Labels: ahml, arlington heights, ato, australian tax office, codi, east brunswick, ebpl, gmilcs, iii, itt tallaght, kils, kingston, librarything for libraries, los gatos, ltfl, sirsidynix, slco

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

LCSH adds Strap-on Sex

Jessamyn has a funny post on the addition of “Strap-on Sex” to the official Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) authorities file.* Apparently she has Sandy Berman’s “Dildoes” LCSH application on her refrigerator.

The record itself is at right. I particularly like the third citation, “Google search, August 30.” Apparently the cataloger searched for and then found the term “strap-on dildo sex” in Google. Who would have thunk it?

Then there’s the related term “pegging.” It was new to me (it was invented in 2001). I turned to LibraryThing which is so often ahead of the curve on slang. For example, LibraryThing is hip to that whole “cooking” thing, where LCSH still calls it “cookery.” But alas, no pegging books yet.

Our strap-ons tag isn’t very detailed either, with only two books. (BDSM, by contrast, has been used 2577 times.)

My library talks (eg., at the LC, hit “launch in a new window”) focus on how LibraryThing’s tags can work better than LCSH for just this sort of thing. But not here—LCSH has us beat, I admit. I’ll just have to take it, um, like a man.

*No direct link. You can search for it here.

Labels: safe for work if you're a cataloger

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

Does authenticity matter? (The case of Marié Digby)

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent piece on Marié Digby, a “YouTube sensation” that turns out to be a sort of recording-industry stool pigeon. As it turns out, Digby’s ascent has been carefully orchestrated by a major label, and everyone’s been lying about it, not least twenty-three year old singer herself.

It’s going to be an interesting test case for Web 2.0. Everyone says that “millenials” value authenticity more than anything. Sites like YouTube have stoked things, but there has always been something extraordinary about finding something interesting, instead of having it pushed on you.*

There’s a good post about this on the Matchmine blog, asking why this stuff makes us “feel so dirty.” One explanation is particularly good: We want to believe we’re one idea away.

“The web has made celebrities out of regular people, and billionaires out of ham and eggers. Or at least that’s what we want to believe. There is something optimistic about the web; there is a feeling of opportunity here. I think that many people are hungry for examples of ‘amateur has idea, takes it to the web, makes it big.'”

I find this idea appealing, and I think it’s been responsible for some of LibraryThing’s success—that people know it was a hobby project of a booklover (me) that took off. If it was revealed that LibraryThing was some sort of astroturf plot by Borders or Amazon, I think people would react quite negatively.** I know this how we felt when an author created sock-puppet accounts on LibraryThing to shower her book with positive reviews. Of course, we blew her accounts away, but one employee—not me—was so angry he took the time to add creative insults to her Amazon page.*** How dare she?

Maybe I’m idealistic, but I hope the Digby stunt backfires in the same way. I’m something of an old-fogey when it comes to music and copyright. But, if I liked her music, I’d go the extra mile to steal it.

*For my senior thesis at Georgetown I ended up reading a lot of antebellum literary reviews from the South, looking for images of anient Greece. The writers that filled these journals are mostly quite forgotten and, particular as concerns the poets, rightly so. Anyway, one day I came across the poem “To Helen” and thought “Wow! Has anyone noticed this before?” Pseudonyms and initials-only names are the norm in these things, and not all have been subsequently deciphered by scholars. So I took down the initials and prepared to look them up in an index to these things. “E. A. P.” Oh, dammit, I just discovered Poe!
**Against this idea, we have our largest competitor, started by music people, funded by Amazon and responsible for a lot of astroturfing blog comments. It hasn’t hurt them… yet.

Labels: authenticity, book reviews, marié digby, ugc, user generated content, web 2.0

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

What if LibraryThing lost 13% of its books?

Don’t worry. No, as the Washington Post recounts, it’s the Library of Congress that has lost 13% of its collection. Ouch!

I wonder how long a traditional “shelf read” would take. When I was at the UMich the Classics Department’s library* did one every Fall. Although it was only one room and they impressed most of the graduate students, it still took hours.

It’s too bad asking users for help is harder in the physical than in the digital world—although I’m sure a lot of thingamabrarians would pay for the privilege of rolling a cart through the LC’s stacks…

*available online through Filemaker of all things!

Labels: library of congress, physical world

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

OCLC Social Networking Report

The OCLC report Sharing, Privacy and Trust in Our Networked World is out. It’s long and tedious, but skimable and with an interesting core.* Some highlights:

  • Library directors are much more web savvy than the general public, yet much less likely to use social networking sites.
  • Almost every category of website usage has gone up, except library catalogs, which went down.
  • Few of any group think “it should be the library’s role to build social networking sites for your community.” The question seems flawed—as if libraries are really going to build social networking sites—but it’s still depressing.
  • There’s a good half-disussion, including Sarah Houghton-Jan (Librarian in Black), Michael Sauers, Henry Bankhead (Los Gatos) and Meredith Farkas (Information wants to be free).

I suppose I’m (very) biased, but I’m puzzled how they managed to write 280 pages, with large sections on social networking, social networking in libraries and libraries’ future in social networking, without mentioning LibraryThing or any of its competitors.** (I’m not arguing bias, since they could easily have mentioned our competitors and not us!)

Color me crazy, but the rapid and—in tune of the report’s international focus—international spread of LibraryThing and other sites (more than 45 at last count) is a much more interesting and powerful demonstration of the potential of book-based social networking than the wan factoid “As of September 2007, MySpace reports 197 online groups with ‘book club’ in the title.”!

More on Stephen’s Lighthouse, Shifted Librarian, Lorcan Dempsey, YALSA, Resource Shelf.

In other news, OCLC released a new logo. Does anyone else see this and hear “glug glug glug”?

*One meta impression: I can’t get over all the photos of pretty, well-scrubbed, orthodontically-correct and racially-balanced un-people which, to large and impersonal organizations suggests a “human touch.” It makes me want to take a camera down to my local library and capture something authentic—someone tired, stressed-out, unshaven, pimply, pierced, maladjusted, unhealthy, decrepit or drunk.* It makes me want to hold up a sign that reads “I’m ugly. And I read.”
**There is one glancing mention by Nicolas Morin, but unlike all the other sites I found—ReadItSwapIt!—LT didn’t make the glossary.

Labels: Uncategorized

Monday, October 22nd, 2007

Google in the NYT; Aaron Swartz at Berkman

I just returned home from doing a talk in NYC*, so I only just read the front-page NYT story about libraries spurning Google’s scanning effort, and turning to the Internet Archive and the Open Content Alliance instead.

You may now insert five paragraphs of incisive discussion of this vexed topic. I’ve got opinions a-plenty. But why bother? I can’t do anything about them.

Aaron Swartz, the tech lead for the IA’s Open Library project, is a guy who can. And I’m going to see him tomorrow! Aaron is dropping by the Berkman Center to talk about Open Library.

Berkman scholar and regular on this blog, David Weinberger, gave me a heads-up, and I snagged a spot for myself and for Abby. I’m all keyed-up over it. I was involved in an early Open Library meeting and have followed it closely. Our recently-introduced “Common Knowledge” feature owes something to the Open Library vision, and has given us some insight into the promise and the problems Open Library will face as it grows.

Anyway, the event is at 12:30 Eastern Time. I don’t know if they still have spaces, but the whole thing will be webcast live (directions here), and archived for later viewing.

*NFAIS, it was fun.

Labels: aaron swartz, berkman center, open library, weinberger

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

Shirky/Weinberger… the Movie

It’s hard to boil new, complex ideas down into a 5-minute movie. Antropology professor Michael Wesch has a rare skill for it. The movie above, R/Evolution, thumbnails the Shirky/Weinberger argument, about the assumptions built into physical information, and how digitization changes knowledge.

It’s something I’ve touched on many, many times—it’s the intellectual justification for much of what LibraryThing does—but never as neatly as Wensch has done. R/Evolution has this flow to it. It’s compelling stuff.

In this vein, I recommend the video he’s best known for Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us, which won a 2007 Wired Rave award. LibraryThing member benjfrank recently pointed me to another of his videos, A Vision of Students Today.*

I think, however, there’s a danger when you squeeze an argument. It took me a long time to be persuaded that Ontology is Overrated was right. I had to get over Shirky’s somewhat glib style. Reading Shirky my instinct is to ask say “Wait, that’s too simple!” and “But what about?” I like my arguments both tighter and more detailed. I’m a convert now, but I think I think many will have even stronger reactions to this video. I’m guessing that, for many, this will be their only exposure to the idea. That would be too bad. So, my recommendation is, see the movie, but don’t settle for it. Read Shirky’s Ontology is Overrated and Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous.

That said, I want Wesch to do a five-minute on LibraryThing 🙂

*Also compelling, but the former educator in me thinks that when students start going on about how what they’re learning isn’t “relevant to their life,” some really good teacher should be there to hold up a sign saying: “The point of education is to make your head a more interesting place to live in.” And when someone hold up a sign that says they only complete 40% of the reading, I want to hold up a sign that reads “40%=F!” Maybe I could IM it instead.

Hat-tip Felius (LibraryThing sysadmin John Dalton).

Labels: everything is miscellaneous, mike wesch, shirky, weinberger, youtube

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

Openness and Transparency: A beer for Second Life (part 1)

We were mentioned recently on the Second Life blog. They were blogging about communication and transparency and asked for comments on the companies that were doing it right. Very few of the comments took them up on that suggestion–more on that later–but one LibraryThing/SL user dropped our name as “a small start up that knows to admit it when it has got it wrong. and answers questions instead of ducking them.” SL repeated the recommendation.

The hat-tip got me reading the post and its comments. It gave me a powerful sense of deja vu! I’ve seen many of the same negative patterns on LibraryThing. Some I’ve seen and it got me thinking about why the patterns happen. Others I’ve seen us deal with successfully, so I thought I’d write about how I think we did it.

The post got so long I’ve split it in two. The first part describes the post and offers a partial defense of Linden Labs. The second will describe some of the things I’ve learned about member involvement, and some of the things Linden–and LibraryThing–could do better.

In defending Linden I want to make it clear that I am not a high-volume user of Second Life. I visit about once a week, usually for something like the BookMooch/LibraryThing meet-up. As a low-frequency, low-impact user I did not have strong or informed opinions about whether they’re doing a good job, and, except for admiring the book they put out, no opinion about whether they communicate well with their users. Until now, I enjoyed the site, but I wasn’t passionate about it.

Now, Doughty Lindens, I am on your side! And I would like to take this opportunity to extend my person invitation for Boston-based Second Life employee to drive up to Portland, Maine for a lobster roll and a beer at the LibraryThing apartment. Seriously. Expense it!

I sympathize for two main reasons:

  1. The quantity of feedback was enormous. They cap the blog at 149 comments (and are excoriated for it). Users hit this in twelve hours. Comments totaled 28,000 words. The longest comment was 2,100 words long!*

    But I only saw the the horror of the situation when the blogger revealed that, as one response, Second Life was going to hire its first dedicated community-relations person. Not having dedicated community “handlers” is the brave way to go. I think its the best course of action—that “filters” are bad for both company and users. But man, I sympathize!

  2. Most of the comments were negative, and many were downright nasty. The negatives wrote the most and screamed the loudest. They mentioned competitors; they talked about ditching the site; they went ad hominem. If you read only this post you would believe that Second Life was a buggy disaster, managed by lying, incompetent and venal “hypocrites,” focused on screwing its users and deaf to their unanimous and desperate pleas. In particular, they hate Europeans.

Now, I can’t beat back any of the specifics, but something tells me that this picture is flawed. It certainly isn’t my feeling, and I’ve never met anyone in Second Life or out with such strong, negative opinions.

More the point, people don’t write paper-length comments about something they hate. Or, if it is hate, it is a hate that only the deepest love can engender. While Linden Labs surely has much to learn from criticism, there is a meta-message: you’re doing something right.

Back-seat driving. I was caught by the amount of back-seat driving and second guessing. Stability was the main topic. Take this comment (much reduced):

“How many people at Linden Research know what the value of plus or minus three standard deviation on metrics is? Does anyone at Linden research know what control limits are? Has Linden research implemented +/- 3 sigma trending monitors … Does anyone at Linden research know who Deming was? Does anyone at Linden Research know what Kaizen is?”

Now, again, I don’t have proof, but I can’t believe that the commenter is better equipped to run Linden than the people at Linden. Everything points to a pretty stellar team–the sort of team that only an extremely exciting project and stock options can produce.

And think of what they’re doing. Linden (unlike LibraryThing) is doing something fundamentally new. Second Life isn’t just an online 3D world—itself a pretty new idea—but an infinitely plastic one. Everything is editable and scriptable, from buildings to sun glasses. It’s a world where members create buildings in real time, to an audience, and eyeglasses have their own programming code. It’s a word where you can not buy user-generated genitalia—many brands—but if someone has a compatible set, you can use them!

If that weren’t enough everything needs to be communicated to computers all over the world, running different hardware, with different networking constraints. Wikipedia puts their storage at 24 terabytes. They run thousands of machines.

Three sigma? This isn’t data processing for an insurance company!

Entitlement. Customers have every right to get upset. But this can get out of hand. Take this comment:

“[About] LL’s inability to provide full help coverage to basic accounts, one can compare this to the US’s inability to provide full health coverage to basic families.”

Excuse me, but the United States is a government! Whatever duty the US has to provide basic health care to families is utterly unlike the duty of Linden Labs to non-paying users. It might still make sense for Linden to do as much free customer service as it can; we do as much as we can. But failing to do so is not a grave injustice.

Opposition to change. I grew up in Cambridge, near Harvard Square. It used to be great, but it isn’t any longer. I think this. My older brother thinks this. My father thinks this. But none of us have the same Square in mind. The truth of the matter is that the Square we had in our teens and early twenties is the Square from which all subsequent examples deviate.

The same goes with software, particularly social software. Users wanted stability, not new features. There was particular hostility to LL’s addition of a voice option, although users were not apparently calling for it (“NOONE ever asked for the VOICE thing”) and didn’t use it (“except for escorts”).

That voice was only for escorts is clearly wrong–a number of users, including a member of the “SL Shakespeare Company” contradicted this. But I can’t believe the first assertion. Users don’t ask for game-changing changes.

But a company like Linden Labs needs to try new things. I’m not a big fan of voice either, but, as I see it, it had to be tried. It could have open Second Life up to a whole new audience. It may yet.

Expectations outpace openness. The more you let users in, the most they can expect. As one user put it:

“Saying ‘We goofed’ is not enough. What the goof is, and the steps being taken to see it does not happen again, that to me is being transparent.”

The commentator goes on the ask “Why did it take LL so long to fix the ‘vanishing water bug?'” Now, I have no idea, but I can suggest some possibilities.

  1. The “vanishing water bug” may have been hard to find. Back when software ran on stand-alone computers and was released in integer-number versions every year or two, nobody noticed. Web delivery speeds everything up, most of all expectations. Programming is still hard.
  2. The “vanishing water bug” may have been deep. It’s unlikely that water was vanishing because of an error in the “prevent water from vanishing” function. More likely there was a basic problem with gravity, or transparency or some concept I’ve never thought of. Maybe Linden Labs was working overtime to prevent the vanishing water problem from becoming the “vanishing everything” problem.
  3. Mundange things were more important. If Second Life is anything like LibraryThing, the “vanishing water bug” may have taken second place to the “we-grew-by-20%-this-week” problem.
  4. Maybe a new feature was more important. Which was more likely to attract new members, stay-put water or voice?
  5. To adapt mayor Giuliani on ferrets, “this excessive concern with [vanishing water] is a sickness. You should go consult a psychologist.”

As I’ll detail in part two, the answer to the cycle of expectations is more communication, not less. But man, I feel their pain.

Nobody answered the question. Users often take any opportunity to talk as an opportunity to talk about anything. In this case, the blogger asked for examples of companies doing transparency right.

Now, in fairness they can hardly restrict comments to this alone; the bulk of the blog post was about their transparency. But it was still remarkable that only 14 comments too them up on the request. Of these, only a few seems applicable. Walmart may be a great company—although I’m girding up my loins to doubt that—but it wouldn’t be at the top of my list of companies for Linden Labs to imitate. Ditto Amex, Southwest Airlines and Coca-Cola.

Looking forward to part two. I do not think LibraryThing’s discussions are as dysfunctional as this exchange. LibraryThing members may get angry, but they seldom get nasty. (And with fewer fuck-yous, I think our responsibility to listen goes up.)

But these are familiar patterns, and worth talking about as such. Some questions:

  • Is disfunction inherent in the medium, or are there ways of doing it better?
  • What obligations does being open impose on a company?
  • Are there limits to openness?
  • Does communication have to change as a company grows?
  • How can a site encourage everyone to talk?
  • How can a company understand member communication when you know not everyone is talking?

I’ll try to tackle those questions in part two.

*Shorter than this post, and man is this post long.

Labels: communiation, feedback, linden labs, paid memberships, second life, users

Saturday, October 6th, 2007

Ig Nobel Awards Honor The, The

The 2007 Ig Nobel Prize winners have been announced (summary). Mixed in with studies of hampsters on Viagra and “extracting vanilla flavor from cow dung” was something of particular interest to Thingology. The “literature” prize went to:

“The Definite Article: Acknowledging ‘The’ in Index Entries,” Glenda Browne, The Indexer, vol. 22, no. 3 April 2001, pp. 119-22.

Hey, it’s a problem!
Update: A good example of the problem? Try to search for the band “The The” on Google. You can’t even do it with quotes.

Labels: indexing, the

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

The library of the future!

Steve Lawson has a wonderful post on an even more delightful 1883 article by library-pioneer Charles Ammi Cutter, entiled “The Buffalo Public Library in 1983.” He links to the full text from Google Book Search.

Cutter’s piece has much the same feel as Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward. Futurism is all about the present, and it is hard.

Cutter got a few things right, like the presence of children in the library. His photographic catalogs are about half-right as are the reading desks with a “little key-board at each, connected by a wire with the librarian’s desk.” He was less prescient about gender segregation, smoking rooms and armies of slippered boy pages. His obsession with ventilation is peculiar. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t hear the phrase “great unwashed” enough:

“Every one must be admitted into the delivery-room, but from the reading-rooms the great unwashed are shut out altogether or put in rooms by themselves. Luckily public opinion sustains us thoroughly in their exclusion or seclusion.”

Labels: cutter, library of the futurue