Tuesday, January 1st, 2008

Happy 1815! Thomas Jefferson is done.

An unusual member has finished adding his 4,889 books to LibraryThing—our third president, Thomas Jefferson!

Jefferson, 264, was assisted by sixteen LibraryThing members, led by jbd1. Together, they cataloged 4,889 books (6,487 volumes), added 187 of his reviews (a treat), and tagged them 4,889 times, according to Jefferson’s own innovative/weird classification system.

It was hard work, but it only took them four months. They worked from scholarly reconstructions of Jefferson’s 1815 books, tracking down records in 34 libraries around the world. As is well known, Jefferson sold his books to the Library of Congress, replacing the one the British destroyed during the War of 1812. This 1815 library is Jefferson’s best-documented library. (Of course, Jefferson spent the rest of his life building up another personal collection.)

Why do it? What’s the point? After all, scans of the scholarly catalog were already available from the LC. But browsing his library is a breeze now—it’s a LibraryThing library just like another.

From Jefferson’s profile you can take advantage of all the special features, like spying on his author cloud, tag cloud, author gallery and stats page. (Everyone knows he was a Francophile, but it’s neat to see he had 45% as many French as English books.)

What’s your Jefferson number? You can also find out how many books you share, either on his profile or a new section on your stats page. Right now the top shared-user is ellenandjim, with 69 works and 79 books. Your number is going to go up, however, as the combination work continues.

About the effort. The effort to catalog Jefferson’s books was coordinated through the group I See Dead People[‘s Books]. Here’s the post announcing the completion.

It was exacting work. I stalled after few dozen books. Thanks are therefore due to the sixteen members who contributed, and particularly to the two biggest contributors, jbd1 and jjlong. I met jbd1—Jeremy Dibbell—at the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair. He is just weeks short of an MLS from Simmons College, and has just taken a full-time job at the Massachusetts Historical Society. About jjlong, Jeremy doesn’t know anything more than his first name, Joel, and his state, Tennessee. [UPDATE: Jeremy has put up his own blog post.]

Work has already begun on other dead worthies, with William Faulkner and Tupac Shakur the farthest along. I’m guessing that when Jefferson’s opponent John Adams is entered, they’re show up as each other’s top sharers!

Why Jefferson is Web 2.0 hip. As Tim O’Reilly recently put it*, LibraryThing (and Geni.com) presents different sorts of “social graph” (social network). On LibraryThing it’s not just “friends”—a powerful but rather simple way of seeing the world—but a different set of connections: how you relate to others through taste and interest. We’re aiming for something more than “who are your bookish friends?” or “what are your friends reading?” but “what is the world of books, and how do you fit in?”**

A paradoxical result of this—one that the “Web 2.0″-types mostly don’t understand—is that not all uses of our “social network” are social. I watch a number of users I have never spoken to; their taste in books is interesting enough. The tags and recommendations I watch work the same way. They’re socially created, but they’re not always about social interaction.

In MySpace and the lot, dead people are boring. Recently-deceased people get tributes on their comment page; MyDeathSpace has even built up a ghoulish, ad-driven business*** off teen suicides and car wrecks. But that’s about it. Historical dead people are jokes and get deleted.

On LibraryThing there are no such limitations. Books are a sort of mental world, and shared books a shared mental space. Dead or alive, it’s interesting to know that Jefferson and I share the world of Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe and de las Casas’ Destruction of the Indies (he read both in Italian!). It’s also interesting too to see that Jefferson, a Deist, had more books on Christian theology than all but a few libraries in LibraryThing, 25 books of Ecclesiastical history and 19 of Ecclesiastical law!

And Jefferson is just the start. Every library, bibliography and list, every publisher, author, bookseller and reader adds meaning to the whole, and there is no end to how the data can be turned. What books had both Jefferson and King George read? How many of my books were in the libraries of Photius or at Monte Cassino. What living author has my taste in novels? What NYT reviewer hates the same books I do? What bookstore sells the books I like? What town buys the most vampire smut? Calculating book-to-book affinities, which founding father is most likely to have enjoyed Chicken Soup for the Cat-Lover’s Soul? (It’s Burr, definitely.)


* Near the end. Geni.com is a Web 2.0 genealogy site, where the dead people are the metadata!
**I like the word bibliosphere, with its implicit comparison to the blogosphere. As stuffed-shirts like Michael Gorman fail to recognize, books have always been subjective, imperfect and in conversation with other books.
***A page of suicides is currently giving me a Viagra ad. They also make money from tshirts. Blech.

Labels: jefferson, social networking, special libraries

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