Archive for June, 2008

Friday, June 27th, 2008

LibraryThing at ALA—with reviews in your catalog!

I’ve only brought one rhino this time—two rhinos cut down on the standing room—but the rhino and I will be at ALA 2008 in Anaheim (booth 2878), showing off LibraryThing for Libraries.

I’ll be showing off our new reviews feature, which allow any library to add patron-reviewing to their OPAC, with review sharing between libraries and a base of 200,000 librarian-approved reviews from LibraryThing.

I think it’s going to be a big deal. With luck, I’ll get a screencast about it out before morning…

Labels: ala2008, librarything for libraries, ltfl

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

The Future of Cataloging at ALA

If you’re at ALA in Anaheim, have nothing to do Sunday morning and are interested in the future of cataloging—and who isn’t?—you might be interested in the following panel:

ALA Annual Conference
Sunday, June 29, 2008 from 8:00 a.m. – 12:00 noon
Anaheim Convention Center, Rm. 204B

The panelist include Roy Tennant, Jennifer Bowen, Martha Yee, Diane Hillmann—and (gulp) me!

The moderator, Robert Wolven of Columbia*, is promising to keep it snappy, with brief presentations and oodles of time to discuss the big issues.

I don’t know all the panelists, but I know we include some very different visions of the future. There may be fireworks! (I won’t be attacking OCLC as much as I otherwise might. Roy could disarm Rambo.)

My mini-presentation is titled “UGC: The Next Sharp Stick?” UGC is, of course, User Generated Content. And the “Next Sharp Stick? is a reference to John Hodgman’s humorous one-act play “Fire: The Next Sharp Stick?” The play ends with the fire-promoting caveman being killed, of course.

What can I say? They didn’t ask me on to be conservative straight-man.

*No “primary link” I can find, but see this for starters.

Labels: ala, ala anaheim, ala2008, cataloging

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

Zoomii: Book covers, physicality and cover usability

Recognition vs. Discovery
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown Cannibals and Kings by Marvin Harris

Have you played with Zoomii yet? It’s a new bookstore—a skin on—that uses a very attractive and dynamic cover-browsing interface. Instead of text, or a mix of text and graphics, Zoomii is all covers, laid out as if they were on an “endless shelf.” The effect is very impressive but also, and with due praise for the ingenuity involved, unsatisfying.

There is no shelf. Part of the problem stems from the “physicality” of the idea. The limits of shelves are the limits of the physical world. Importing physical limitations into the online world is a familiar error. As Clay Shirky remarked in 2005, we ought to be over it.

“People have been freaking out about the virtuality of data for decades, and you’d think we’d have internalized the obvious truth: there is no shelf. In the digital world, there is no physical constraint that’s forcing this kind of organization on us any longer. We can do without it, and you’d think we’d have learned that lesson by now.”

In Shirky’s analysis, not “learning that lesson” results in information architectures like that of the original Yahoo directory:

“Yahoo, faced with the possibility that they could organize things with no physical constraints, added the shelf back. They couldn’t imagine organization without the constraints of the shelf, so they added it back.”

In Zoomii’s case, the whole point was to add the shelf back. It was surely a conscious reversal, and therefore an audacious one, but like swearing off email in favor of handwritten correspondence or communiting in cars in favor of horses, not an efficient one.*

Covers and usability. Zoommii also helped me answer a question I have been struggling toward for some time but never fully worked out for myself: What are covers good for?

If you had asked me a month ago, I would have mentioned Gardnerian “Theory of multiple intelligences,” and the contrast between visual learners and those who do better with text. This concept has a lot of relevance in my own life.** And I would have mentioned how covers were a great way to browse other people’s library.

The truth is, I think, much more simple:

  1. Covers are great for recognition, because visual memory is faster than reading.
  2. Covers are terrible for discovery, because reading covers, with all their different typefaces and layouts, is slower than reading words.

Transferred to web design, these are fundamentally uability principles, and for the bookstore or OPAC developer up there with any overbroad dictum of Jacob Nielsen—not the full story, but a good rule-of-thumb and starting-point.

In retrospect, this patterns can be seen all over LibraryThing. On the new home page, your recently-added books are shown as covers because you are expected to recognize them at sight, but recommended books are in list format by default, because you probably aren’t familiar with them. This principle also solves why list and cover view are both useful. Cover view is, in particular, a great way to scope out someone else’s library quickly—when you’re looking for commonality, not making a detailed assessment.

Obvious as this discovery is in retrospect—and you may have known it all along—I think it was worth spellng out carefully. In my estimation, bookstores and online library catalogs lack a clear rationale for when covers should be used and when they shouldn’t. Often the idea seems to be that covers add “panache,” which to some extent they do.

But there are some deeper principles at work in the decision to use covers, and the decision to put them on virtual shelves.

*In this vein there’s a good deal to be said from David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous. In Weinberger-ian terms, Zoomii is a throwback to the “first order of order.” Incidentally, for a quick fly-by of both Shirky and Weinberger, check out Mike Wesch’s Information R/evolution.

**Although obviously a reader, I am an unusual visual person. I learned this when in a group of graduate students preparing to take Latin. We all took a standard learning-styles test so that we understood the idea. The class was perfectly split between visual and textual learners—the archaeologists were visual, the philologists textual. Except for me. I showed up on the visual side. It was a revelation to me because I couldn’t even understand my fellow philologists. Confronted with the task of navigating to an unknown place and offered a choice between a map and a set of directions these people chose the directions? Were they insane?

Labels: book covers, clay shirky, david weinberger, jacob nielsen, usability, zoomii

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

My YouTube Break-even

Dig the hole deeper.

In the last week I’ve started posting screencasts about LibraryThing, under my YouTube user name, LibraryThingTim. And, of course, I’ve been watching videos. 

Today, I crossed a line I’m going to call “My YouTube Break-even.” The videos I made have been watched more times than I have watched others’ videos.

So, add up every time I’ve watched the eyeglass-catching video, FunTwo, Clay Shirky on love, Pulp, Tarkan, Fionna Apple, Weezer,* Turkish cooking videos, parkourthe anchorman and the lizard and John Stewart—which comes to 693 times—and it is just slightly less than my own videos have been watched. I have moved from being a net consumer to a net producer of YouTube videos.

The moment of relative equipoise is a special one—and rare. The sudden removal of access barriers to creative production and dissemination has created an explosion of “user generated content,” but it has not lead to attention equality. Traffic on the web tends to follow power laws. A small number of blogs, websites and videos get outsized attention. 

It’s probably true that receiving attention correlates with giving it. People who write interesting blogs tend to read a lot of blogs too. But giving attention can never scale as fast as receiving it. If the laughing baby spent the rest of his life watching YouTube videos all day long, he will never see as many as saw his.

And some people don’t even try. The folks at Universal Music Group have watched only 3,927 videos. Assuming they use the account to upload and test their own videos, they didn’t even bother to watch 700 of their own videos once. And, at the extreme of this and many things, we have Britney Spears. She, or her “people”—have watched only 25 YouTube videos, but they forced the rest of us to watch her efforts 188 million times. That’s 5,700 years of progressively more fetishized hip-thrusting!**

There’s still hope for me. LibraryThing screencasts will never be as entertaining as exploding Mentos. And there are hundreds of 90s alternative Boston-band videos yet to watch. 

I can climb out of this!

*Or Weezer, which ought to count ten times.

**Have Utnapishtim and Britney Spears ever occupied the same grammatical clause? No.

Labels: attention, britney spears, power laws, utnapishtim, youtube

Monday, June 16th, 2008

Tagmashes for Readers Advisory

I’ve been thinking a lot about how booksellers and librarians can use LibraryThing for “readers advisory,” helping readers find books they’ll love. One answer, I think, is to promote and improve our “tagmashes” feature.

Readers Advisory is something of a discipline in librarianship, with a body of thinking behind it. There are also a number of well-known subscription RA tools, such as NoveList and FictonConnection, available in a very large number of US libraries. (See this page for a much larger list, which includes LibraryThing up with the big guys.)

LibraryThing can be used for Readers Advisory in a couple of ways:

  • Some libraries have used LibraryThing to highlight special topics (eg., new YA material at the Framingham Library)
  • Most LibraryThing works include recommendations—both automatic and member suggested, and with various summary and detailed lists—so you can get from a known book to a set of similar titles.  
  • Our fielded wiki Common Knowledge links books by series, places, awards and so forth.
  • LibraryThing tag pages provide relevancy-ranked lists for many topics, eg., chick lit, steampunk, memetics, cozy mysteries
  • Tagmashes

“Tagmashes,” introduced a year ago, are a variant on tags, for when a simple tag isn’t good enough.

By combining two or more tags, or excluding tags,  tagmashes extend tagging and nip away at some of the unique values of traditional subject classification—high granularity and hierarchy. Thus, although the tagmash France, wwii doesn’t have an explicit notion of hierarchy, it works something like the LCSH World War II, 1939-1945 — France. (And, of course, the LCSH tree is an artificial one—there’s nothing in the idea that makes France a branch of World War II more than World War II is a branch of France!)

Notably, the system doesn’t make tagmashes, users do. Once made, they “stick around,” and may appear on related tag and subject pages, with their overlap to that page listed, testimony that a particular combination of tags made sense to someone. The system could–but does not currently–track tagmashes for relevance and usage, pruning some and elevating others. And it could allow users to edit, rate or review them for useful and accuracy.

I have it in my head that tagmashes, particularly with these additions, are one stone in the bridge between “free tagging” and traditional classification, between algorithmic recommendations and hand-generated ones, between the physical past and the digital future.

I see a world of librarians and readers creating, spreading and editing book lists that don’t just “stay still”—depreciating over time, like a physical object—but shift and grow like a digital object can. And they wouldn’t be the same for everyone, like a physical object, but adapt to the reader, like only a digital object can.

Anyway, here are some tagmashes to play with:

Labels: ra, readers advisory, tagmash

Saturday, June 14th, 2008

Salvador Dali on What’s My Line?

Ever since Very Short List covered LibraryThing’s Legacy Libraries in May, we’ve all become fans of the website.

À propos of little but enjoyment, be sure to watch Salvador Dalí’s appearance on “What’s My Line?” (If you want a bookish excuse, one of the panelist is Bennett Cerf, founder of Random House. Does anyone suppose it remotely possible that the president of Random House would be invited on a game show today?)

Hat-tip: Philobiblos/JBD. Jeremy is also right about Russert. In the last few months I had become increasingly addicted to the podcast of Meet the Press.

Labels: amusement

Saturday, June 14th, 2008

OCLC’s non-profit status

The New York Times ran an interesting story on non-profits that act like businesses. Apparently a number of states are taking a hard look at charities that “give nothing away,” or have amassed vast wealth. A lot of day-care centers are worried, as is Harvard, where the endowment tops the GDP of more than 100 counties.*

Of course, my mind went to OCLC, the Dublin, Ohio-based global library-data organization.

OCLC’s core business involves maintaining a central database of cataloging records, largely created by others, which member libraries pay to access. That OCLC was a great invention can hardly be denied. Personally, I think it has become a relic and an danger to the future of libraries. Agree with me on this or not, there’s no question it is highly profitable—driving a steady stream of acquisitions—and in its fee structure calls into question the core idea of the non-profit.

So, why hasn’t someone take away OCLC’s non-profit status?

I Googled it up, and discovered that someone DID! In 1984 Ohio state courts stripped OCLC of it’s charitable status on those very grounds:

“(A)lthough OCLC’s service may greatly enhance the ability of libraries to better serve the public, OCLC essentially offers a product to charitable institutions, for a fee exceeding its cost, and, as the board concluded, is not itself a charitable organization.”

So, what happened?

It seems the Ohio legislature passed some sort of private bill removing Ohio organizations involved in “library technology development” (and starting with the letter “O”?) from the court’s requirements. Well, I guess that’ll do it.

UPDATE: I’m working up a presentation on why OCLC’s (also unfree) Dewey Decimal System needs to be killed-off, and what distributed, open classification could replace it. I’m all ears for anti-Dewey examples. And if any bright young cataloger with no love of Dewey wants to talk to me about heading up the effort, I’d love to hear from you.

*$35 billion, doing a quick check against Wikipedia. Of course, GDP is wiggly as heck.

Labels: DDC, dewey decimal, oclc, tax exemption

Saturday, June 7th, 2008

J. K. Rowling commencement address

Be sure to check out J. K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement speech:

UPDATE: Check out this Morning Edition story on Harvard students unhappy with her selection. One can only hope they experience failure the failure recommended by Rowling.

Labels: Uncategorized

Friday, June 6th, 2008

Covers from Google: Too good to be true?

I created this cover (well except for van Gogh’s contribution). You may use it!

A few months ago when the Google Book Search API came out, I was among the first notice that GBS covers could be used to deck-out library catalogs (OPACs) with covers, potentially bypassing other providers, like Amazon and Syndetics. I subsequently promoted the idea loudly on a Talis podcast, where a Google representative ducked licensing questions, giving what seemed like tacit approval.

It seemed so great–free covers for all. Unfortunately, it now seems that it was too good to be true. At a minimum, the whole thing is thrown into confusion.

After some delay, Google has now posted–for the first time–a “Terms of Use” for the Google Book Search API ( If you’re planning to use GBS data, you should be sure to read it.

The back story is an interesting one. Soon after I wrote and spoke about the covers opportunity, a major cover supplier contacted me. They were miffed at me, and at Google. Apparently a large percentage of the Google covers were, in fact, licensed to Google by them. They never intended this to be a “back door” to their covers, undermining their core business. It was up to Google to protect their content appropriately, something they did not do. For starters, the GBS API appears to have gone live without any Terms of Service beyond the site-wide ones. The new Terms of Service is, I gather, the fruit of this situation.

Now, I am not a lawyer and I am not a reporter. I don’t know who, if anyone, messed up. Nor do I fully understand what the new Terms of Service requires or allows. Although I am told they put the kibosh on using GBS as a replacement for other cover providers, I can’t find a straightforward prohibition on using GBS for covers, primarily or secondarily. But it starts out with the statement that:

“The Google Book Search API is not intended to be a substitute or replacement of products or services of any third party content provider.”

And there are other concerning clauses. There is a vague bullet about not posting content that infringes any other parties’ “proprietary rights.” And there are clauses that should give pause to many on the library-tech listservs–about not reordering results, not crawling, not caching, and so forth.

My interest in free data is well known. I think the days of selling covers—something publishers give out for free—are passing away. But if this happens, it must be done fairly. Those who provide proprietary data should be able to protect it, at least as far the law allows them to. (Since no data suppier can “copyright” their cover images, any restrictions must be based in licenses.*) Those of us who argue for free data** must respect this. That’s the difference between “free as in freedom” and “free as in ‘fell of a truck.'”

Meanwhile, being among the most vocal proponents of using GBS for covers—and having no idea the covers’ weren’t Google’s to do with what they pleased—I have been asked to sensitize librarians that “some of this content is licensed and they need to be respectful of infringement issues.”

So, that’s the word. Now if I only understood it.

*And, I gather, there is some doubt about “posted” licenses on publicly-available websites, as opposed to licenses that require explicit agreement. By the way, did you know that, by reading this, you’ve agreed to dance on the table like a damn fool next time you hear the Gypsy Kings? Do not disregard this license. We’ll know.
**At least those who believe in the right of contract or property.

Labels: book covers, google book search

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

Re: Reanimation Library

The Library hosted “Dewey’s Nightmare,” seven blindfolded playwrights pick seven random volumes, and from them write seven plays in eleven days.

The Minneapolis City Pages has an interesting article about the Reanimation Library in Brooklyn.

The Reanimation Library, a 600-book collection assembled by Indie-rock drummer and library-school graduate Andrew Beccone, uses the LC Classification, but is itself extremely hard to classify. Is it a library? An art project? Playful? Serious? Ironic? Kitsch?

The home page puts it simply:

“The Reanimation Library is a small, independent library based in Brooklyn. It is a collection of books that have fallen out of mainstream circulation. Outdated and discarded, they have been culled from thrift stores, stoop sales, and throw-away piles across the country and given new life as resource material for artists, writers, and other cultural archeologists.”

A quote by playwright Eric Sanders, who directed the Dewey’s Nightmare project (see photo), appealed to me greatly:

“There has been a sort of junk shop curiosity movement over the last 10 years in indie culture–with things like Found Magazine–and I think there is a misconception that Beccone is just taking random trash and calling it a collection, but he’s vetting everything and treating his library like its the rare books collection at Harvard.”

Although a friend of LibraryThing, Beccone went with his own library catalog, a simple, but elegant title list, built into the RA website—itself a work of art. That’s too bad. It’d be interesting to see how members’ libraries stacked up against the RA collection. (I recognize quite a few of the books from my parents’ house.) And it’d be great to get the covers on LibraryThing.

Check out the article. Our congratulations to Beccone for his unique accomplishment.

Labels: curiosities