Archive for August, 2007

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

Humor break, I think.

McSweeney’s: E-mail Addresses It Would Be Really Annoying to Give Out Over the Phone.

Altay, Abby and I are in tears. Others are not. There’s some deep personality thing here.

Ah, McSweeney’s lists. My friend Kevin Shay penned Pirate Riddles for Sophisticates. You have to be in the right mood for this stuff.

Labels: humor

Thursday, August 23rd, 2007

What does tagging do to knowledge?

Back when David Weinberger‘s Everything is Miscellaneous was published, LibraryThing ordered a box of copies to give out at conferences and so forth. (Although LibraryThing is mentioned only in passing, the book is, in a way, the intellectual justification for much of what we do.)

We ended up with a dozen or so left over, so I held a contest to get rid of them: Say something about what tagging means, or what it “does” to knowledge, and you might win a copy. I figured that it was time to stop pontificating about what people were doing with tags, and get them to pontificate instead.

The Talk topic eventually accumulated 170 comments, almost all interesting and some quite lengthy and involved. I found it thrilling stuff. We picked ten random winners, and sent out the books.

The whole discussion is newly relevant in light of our new Tag Mirror feature, discussed on the main blog and at in great detail on Talk.

Here are some selections from the full discussion:

I think the most interesting aspects of tagging, in a social networking context, are that: (1) All tagging is personal and (2) All tagging is public (ssd7)

So what does tagging do to knowledge? It classifies it in a fuzzy, family-resemblance kind of way, doing justice to multiple topics and interdisciplinary books in a way that the Dewey Decimal System could only do if it worked in four or five dimensions at once. (MyopicBookworm)

I like fun tags that are so personal or unique that nobody else uses them. A friend of mine, for example, has tags like “Detectives with gimmicks“, “Elaborate crimes“, “Witty people being clever“, and my favorite “Fangirlin’“. I myself want to use a tag for “Farm boys with magical destinies” but it’s apparently too long. (saturnine13)

Tags capture individual perceptions of a work, data, and add that information to our knowledge of the work. That’s a useful enhancement, but the variety offered becomes a disadvantage if they are used to find other works. Tags lack the precoordination necessary for efficient comprehensive searching. For example, the tagmash search for libraries, –fiction includes libraries and bibliotecas, but not bibliothéques, etc. Related works may have been lost. That interferes with one of Ranganathan’s laws—it does not save the time of the reader. (notelinks)

One of the things I find most fascinating about tagging is what it reveals about the cognitive processes of the taggers. What makes one person tag Walden with “simplicity” and another person with “hermits“? It’s not a novel observation that we all experience books (for example) personally or subjectively. Tagging is a very simple way to turn that individual experience into universal information. (johnascott)

I’m always amazed at the different ways of viewing something when I see how differently others tagged something to which I have already assigned the most ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ tags. (bobngail)

Believe it or not, tags are actually more formal or structured than some similar systems. Consider the general WikiWiki idea of turning any word into a link if it’s in FunnyCaps. The effect is very similar, but the links appear anywhere in text. Tags isolate the linking to specific fields. The extreme free-form nature of Wikis drives some people off, just as the extreme formalisms of MARC, etc. do. So tags seem to be a widely accepted compromise. (JasonRiedy)

Tagging doesn’t so much affect knowledge as reveal it in unexpected places and from unexpected sources. We are all bent, but we’re bent in different directions, and so the sum of our deviances converges on reality quickly – and tagging taps into that. (xaglen)

I think the main point to remember is that tagging is NOT JUST an unstructured form of subject headings; it is a completely different way of viewing the world. Taxonomies and standardised subject heading vocab divide knowledge hierarchically according to set rules. Folksonomies allow knowledge to emerge through collaborative involvement. Tagging allows people to look at books in new ways, to share that knowledge, and to create tag clouds so that no one tag gets missed. (mrsradcliffe)

Tagging helps to both aggregate and splinter knowledge. By this I mean, tagging helps to navigate relationships among disparate “knowledge objects” while at the same time, splits the categorization of similar objects into much finer and/or more random collections. (stoberg)

Everything is Miscellaneous is one of 37 books I currently have tagged “included in the present classification” (there are none that look like flies from a great distance). (sabreuse)

First, tags really only seem to work for organizing stuff you have some sort of conceptual “ownership” of things that in some way you have an incentive to keep order within. People don’t seem to want to tag in enough quantity / detail to be useful when they don’t have a personal stake in sorting through the resultant mess. (cubeshelves)

I much rather spend my time reading a book! (bcobb)

From a library standpoint, my favorite thing about tags is that it allows natural language into the catalog. .. [A]nd what tagging does to knowledge? It gives you more access points. (e1da)

Tagging is getting awfully close, it seems, to the way our brains naturally work anyway – it “associates” and “retrieves” based on miscellaneous tags it has (subconsciously) attached to the idea or concept. (nicknich3)

The variety of tagging systems is amazing. You can tell a lot about a user’s interests by the complexity of tags relating to a specific concept. I am always a bit disappointed when I encounter a catalog without tags. Of course you can look at the books in that catalog, but you don’t get much indication of the user’s relationship to their books. (oregonobsessionz)

[SilentInAWay wrote an exceptional piece on the Deathly Hallows tag cloud and it's common and uncommon tags, from fantasy (783) to Kleenex (1): — Ed]

[W]here there is a clear consensus on a tag, it is probably based on fairly broad considerations (and therefore constitutes relatively superficial knowledge). Conversely, the most intriguing tags (autistic-like character, Kleenex, the end of Pottermania) are almost inevitably used by only a single member. (SilentInAWay)

I remember being flabbergasted when I found out how long it took for the Library of Congress to change the subject heading “Vietnam Conflict” to “Vietnam War.” Now it doesn’t seem so ludicrous to me.

Even recognizing that LC Subject Headings and tagging achieve two different goals doesn’t ease my mind about this. I cannot stand the thought of how muddy and increasingly useless much of Library Thing’s tagging database will end up being in a very short time. (lmccoll)

Tagging permits me to see books as others see them. (kencf)

Labels: contests, everything is miscellaneous, tag mirror, tagging, weinberger

Thursday, August 23rd, 2007

“Weinberger, I did my research.”

“Now you gotta cough up!”

Die-hard David Weinberger fans should not miss his interview with “DishyMix.” DishyMix is a sort of cross between a podcast like IT Conversations—sober, intellectual conversations with IT visionaries—and the TV show E!.

The effect is uncomfortable and often hysterical. Although he preserves his dignity pretty well, Weinberger is very much out of his element being asked, for example, to free associate. And, strange as the exchange gets, lifting Weinberger out of his book groove does produce some interesting tidbits.

Labels: everything is miscellaneous, podcasts

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

“I just get sleepy when I read”

CNN has details on a somewhat depressing survey of American reading habits. I’d be more depressed, but reading has never been anything but a minority pastime.

The blogosphere is buzzing over quotes by Pat Schroeder, the president of the American Association of Publishers and a former Democratic house member from Colorado. According to Schroeder:

“The Karl Roves of the world have built a generation that just wants a couple slogans: ‘No, don’t raise my taxes, no new taxes.’ It’s pretty hard to write a book saying, ‘No new taxes, no new taxes, no new taxes’ on every page.’”

I find the argument unnecessarily partisan. The statistics hardly support the weight:

“Among those who had read at least one book, liberals typically read nine books in the year, with half reading more than that and half less. Conservatives typically read eight, moderates five.”

That’s not much of a difference, I think, and the real villains are the ones in the squishy middle. And while everyone is entitled to their opinion, it’s distressing to find the titular head of American publishing dismissing eight out of 22 readers.

It seems to me the numbers support a rather different conclusion, that most Americans have political opinions untested by serious reading. To me, that’s a little scary. But does it matter? If democracy really required a reading electorate, Iceland would be the only functioning one.

One of our greatest strengths is the degree to which LibraryThing crosses political and social boundaries. There are, of course, political groups, two of the largest being Political Conservatives and Progressive & Liberal!. But, members mostly get along, either because the community here is welcoming and we prohibit ad hominems or because book lovers share something as powerful as a political orientation.

Then again, maybe it’s because our book-based social system tends to keep opposites away from each other…

Labels: politics, polls, reading

Friday, August 17th, 2007

Library Camp NYC

Back from NYC after a great trip. I went to Library Camp NYC 2007, hosted by Baruch College.

LibraryCamp is an unconference, which I think is an excellent way to do things. The discussion topics are choosen by the participants, the morning the morning of the conference—so the entire program is shaped by the people who actually show up. A good crowd means a good day. That meant that instead of “what is a blog 101,” we (mostly) got to go a little bit deeper.

Kate Sheehan of the Danbury Public Library* and I moderated a program on LibraryThing for Libraries. After I introduced LibraryThing, Kate talked about the actual implementation of LTFL—upload a file with your ISBNs, titles and authors, customize what it will look like, copy the javascript it gives you, and go! Or, as Kate likes to say, “Copy, Paste, Dance with Joy.” You can see the notes on the session here (thanks Nicole for taking notes).

The “Cataloging and Weinberger” program was a little more of an intellectual discssion, which is always up my alley, but it was also a lot of “tags vs. LCSH” talk/fighting.

And of course, since I was there, I managed a trip to The Strand, where I ultimately had to buy another tote bag to lug all my new books back home…

*The first library to go live with LTFL data in their catalog.

Labels: librarycampnyc2007

Wednesday, August 15th, 2007

Come and get your “Erotic Stories, American”

Here are the the top 25 most popular Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH) pages on LibraryThing, according to Google Analytics.

I’m guessing this makes someone at the Library of Congress blush:

  1. Erotic Stories, American
  2. Photography of the nude
  3. Erotic fiction
  4. Historical fiction
  5. Erotic literature
  6. Love stories
  7. Psychological fiction
  8. Fantasy fiction
  9. Mystery fiction
  10. Erotic art
  11. Detective and mystery stories
  12. Characters and characteristics in literature
  13. Sex instruction for gay men
  14. Sexual dominance and submission
  15. Humorous stories
  16. Symbolism in literature
  17. Murder
  18. Australia > Social life and customs
  19. England > Social life and customs > 18th century
  20. Social classes
  21. Allusions in literature
  22. Humorous fiction
  23. Sex instruction
  24. Short stories
  25. Religion

The explanation involves a paradox. Erotica does so well because LibraryThing is a non-erotic site. The top subjects all win because of search-engine referrals. Google likes a mix of sites, so that erotic searches turn up something besides erotica. (This is particularly true if you have “safe search” enabled.) And LibraryThing has relatively high PageRank (PR), Google’s measure of a web site’s authority. Put these factors together and LibraryThing turns up high for erotic searches. For example, we’re currently Google’s number one site for “gay sex instruction.” Who would’ve thunk it?*

Of course, the “bounce rate” for these pages is astronomical. LibraryThing provides no actual sex instruction, just links to books about it—or rather links to metadata about books on sex instruction. That’s not what the searchers were looking for, and they leave as fast as they arrive.

As a side note, it’s sad to see so many top-level subjects in the list. I hope the bounce rate isn’t too high. Top-level subjects are where LCSH falls apart. Take a subject like “Historical fiction,” which has almost 8,000 works underneath it and no innate relevancy ranking. There can be little doubt–people don’t want to plough through 8,000 links!

*Can we start running ads on just the erotic pages.

Labels: erotica, LCSH, subjects

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

VP Book Club: A gorgeous mistake

The imprints Viking and Penguin just launched a new website, www.vpbookclub.com. It is without doubt the most beautiful book website I have ever seen.

And it is a complete failure.

My coworker Altay put it best. It’s not a web site, it’s a “Flash monstrosity.” It’s beautiful. It glistens. It moves. But it doesn’t work like the web. Instead of building a website, Viking and Penguin have built an elegant custom application, like some Director-based CD-ROM from 1997. They let the graphic designers make a website, and shut the information architects up in a closet. On today’s web this sort of design doesn’t fly.

What’s wrong with it:

1. The site has lots of great content, but you can’t link to any of it. Everything takes place in Flash running under one URL. So if I want to blog about some new book I have to link to the top level and then tell people to perform a series of clicks. Yuck!

2. The site will never appear on Google. Google needs URLs to follow. It won’t “get inside” somebody’s Flash application. Without links and without Google, how exactly is this site supposed to get traffic?

3. The site has completely unnecessary “features.” There’s link to “customize your desk.” I figured this might be about selectig my favorite authors or my local bookstore. I’d love to do that.

No, it’s literally customizing my desk. The whole application has a desk metaphor, and they allow me to add a coffee cup and a cookie, and to change the surface of my desk to something like plywood or brushed metal. Do they seriously believe people want to visit a publishers website to tweak backgrounds move photographs of a coffee cup around?

4. External links go to PDFs. The site does have a few external links, to reading guides, to “About” and to “How to use this website.” They all go to PDFs. That’s like a child that knows only one song, and it’s “It’s a Small World After All!”

Users hate PDFs because clicking one generally launches an external application, like Acrobat Reader or Preview. That means delays, downloaded files, windows popping up and confusing new controls.

The dean of usability, Jacob Nielsen, wrote about the perils of PDF links back in 2003 (“Alertbox: PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption.“) He’s been right for four years now.

“Users get lost inside PDF files, which are typically big, linear text blobs that are optimized for print and unpleasant to read and navigate online. PDF is good for printing, but that’s it. Don’t use it for online presentation.”

It might be a good idea to provide the reading guides as PDFs, perhaps as a link from an HTML version. Sometimes people want to print those out. But who makes the “Help” page a PDF?

5. News, but no RSS. One link they’re missing is to RSS. The site collects author schedules, but you can’t link to them and you can’t put them in your feed reader. It took me six clicks to find out that Jasper Fforde is appearing in “Portland” (of course, not my Portland):

Archive > U-Z > The Well of Lost Plots > Jasper Fforde > More > More

Are they really expecting I’ll check back and do this regularly?

5. Flash doesn’t work like the web. Nielsen wrote this back in 2000, when Flash was at it height (“Alertbox: Flash: 99% Bad”). He’s modified his 99% number somewhat since then, but the main point is as true as ever–Flash “breaks web fundamentals.” You can’t bookmark pages; the back button doesn’t work; The links aren’t blue; the scroll bars aren’t the regular ones (I missed theirs at first); you can’t use the brower’s find function and you can’t resize text. As for accessibility, there is none. The site is as invisible to the blind as it is to Google.

The back button issue is particularly acute. The browser one doesn’t work since everything is under one URL. And the site itself provides the link only fitfully. As I understand it they’ve decided that “back” is about tree-level navigation, not user-path navigation. So, you can get “back” from an excerpt to the book page, but you can’t get “back” when you click from a book to an author. Authors aren’t “below” books in their navigational tree, so there’s no path upward.

This is everything that is wrong with trees. The message is that their structure is the important one. The way you’re using the website is unimportant. Suck it up.

Correction: Apparently they’ve faked up the back button. The URL never changes, but they’re using frames to keep track of where you are. It’s a neat trick. I missed it because I look for the forward and back buttons to operate on the URL.

6. It’s designed for the wrong people. People design for people like them. (I am not immune from this error!) Unfortunately, this looks like it was created by hip, young graphic designers. These aren’t your typical readers. Readers like reading more than they like graphics and animation, and around 40 most people’s eyes start to go so. Right-aligned un-resizeable 10-point sans sertif type on a changeable background is pretty, but it’s dreadful to read.

To sum up, the site is beautiful, but misconceived. It doesn’t work like the web, and it’s not part of it. You go there to find out about a book and you’re trapped in a shiny snow globe—pretty, confusing and remote.

The idea for a new site was good. Publishers, like libraries, have found themselves singularly disadvantaged on the web, passed by retailers like Amazon and by Google Books. It’s great to see them take another crack at the Web. But this was the wrong crack. Flash-based design like this went out for content sites six or seven years ago. It fundamentally misunderstands what the web is for and what people do on it. It was replaced by design that uses standard HMTL and which make it easy to navigate, bookmark and link to the content.

It’s not to late. There’s a lot of great content here, and some good design work around the edges. Someone needs to take hold of this Flash application and redo it as a website. Permanent link-URLs scattered here and there will not be enough. Fortunately, HTML is easier than Flash—easier to write and easier to maintain (and the people who do it don’t get paid as much). Reconceive this as a website and Viking and Pengin might have something worth all their effort.

Labels: Uncategorized

Thursday, August 9th, 2007

Hot intellectual property!

LibraryThing has a small but dedicated cadre of author-picture adders. The most active, alibrarian, has uploaded more than 3,000 of them.* Today’s subject, DromJohn, has entered fewer—183 at last count—but almost all of them required permission. That is, he wrote to the author, agent or publisher and got permission to post the images on LibraryThing. I am awed by this.

DromJohn wrote to the McIlhenny Company, the people who make Tabasco. They’ve also published a few books under their company name, so they have an author page. Wouldn’t it be cool to have the Tabasco logo on that page? Here’s their reply:

Please be advised that McIlhenny Company hereby grants you permission to use the forthcoming “Brand Products” logo on the LibraryThing author page … for six months from the date of this email.

Any changes in your intended use of our Intellectual Property must be submitted to us for prior approval.

We will follow up with you at the end of the six month period to see if the logo is still being used.

Further, we note that “Tobasco” is misspelled on the author page. Please make the necessary revisions to the pages in which it is misspelled. It should read “TABASCO(r)” with an “A” and it should be in all caps with a superscript registered symbol.

I will review the page in a few days to ensure the necessary revisions have been made.

Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Thank you and have a great day.

[NAME OMITTED]
Trademark and Licensing
McIlhenny Company

A couple of points:

  • The owner of one of their (not-so-popular) cookbooks is volunteering to promote them. This should be a call for celebration.
  • The “tobasco” spelling error came about because some loyal customer of theirs couldn’t find the book they published in any source, but was so insistent on including it on their virtual shelf that they cataloged it by hand. These are problems you want!
  • Neither Amazon nor the Library of Congress nor any other source I can find put the registration marks in. Personally, I’m glad.
  • A close of view of the front cover of the Tabasco Cookbook shows no registration mark either. So, LibraryThing is supposed to add it when the company doesn’t?
  • Good luck getting the Tabasco tag pages on Del.icio.us and Flikr to use the ® symbol.
  • “TABASCO®”? HASN’T ANYONE TOLD THEM THAT ALL CAPS IS SHOUTING?

I’ll bet you that, on today’s web, half the time you fire off an asinine letter like this to someone with a blog you get a post like this, and another 10, 100 or 1,000 people out there who think you’re clueless.

Of, I forgot: TABASCO®, the TABASCO® diamond logo, and the TABASCO® bottle design
are registered trademarks exclusively of McIlhenny Co., Avery Island, LA 70513.

Labels: Uncategorized

Wednesday, August 8th, 2007

Elton John wants to shut down the internet

Hat tip to the (recently news-worthy) Fake Steve for juxtaposing that blog title with this photo. Juxtaposing someone’s fuddy-duddy opinion with a photo of them in a Donald Duck suit is an unfair, but totally effective, way to cut the opinion down.

Does anyone have a photo of Michael Gorman in a duck suit?

Labels: elton john, fake steve, michael gorman

Tuesday, August 7th, 2007

LibraryThing and AquaBrowser My Discoveries


AquaBrowser, which makes one of the few really interesting online library catalogs, has teamed up with us to offer LibraryThing tags and recommendations within AquabBrowser.

The product is called My Discoveries. Basically, it gives AquaBrowser a series of desirable social features, like tagging, list-making, ratings and reviews—and not in some half-assed way either. LibraryThing comes in as a way to kick off the tag data (a 21-million-tags kick) and to add recommendations to it. My Discovery customers who choose to go with LibraryThing data will be able to see both LibraryThing’s as well as their own patron’s efforts.

Putting tags and recommendations in AquaBrowser is a natural step. LibraryThing for Libraries is showing what LibraryThing can do to a library catalog and more generally the importance of having large amounts of data to help “social” features reach their full potential. But some sort of LibraryThing-AquaBrowser project has been written in the stars for a while now. Writing up this blog post I did some blog searching around LibraryThing and Aquabrowser. Apparently we should have hooked up long ago—the idea is positively rampant on the biblio-blogosphere. As NeoArch puts it:

“What would happen if we put traditional cataloging data, LibraryThing, and a highly visual OPAC in a blender?* Probably something special. It’s just my opinion, but I think if both types of data could be incorporated and added to an OPAC with a powerful interactive visual interface, like AquaBrowser, we would see a fopac [folksonomic OPAC] that every patron could fall in love with.”

We finally met up at ALA in Washington, DC. The core team is whip-smart, and as a relatively small company they have a development culture not unlike our own.** High on my list of virtues, they have a larger sense of what they’re doing. The co-founder and the Marketing director put it in a book, Risen: Why Libraries are Here to Stay. I don’t agree with all of it, but the basic point is dead-right, that innovative and user-centered technology from libraries can avert everyone’s worst-case scenario, the “fading out” of the library. We think projects like this might play some small role here—and that would be something. Also, I’m dying to take a “business trip” to their offices in Amsterdam.***

Here’s their press release.

Lastly, we should be sure to say that LibraryThing for Libraries still very much in play. LTFL is designed for all library catalogs, not just one. We have a number of planned improvements, and a frankly absurd number of customers waiting to try it out. (We’re hiring someone to take it on full time in August.) But working directly with AquaBrowser is going to give their customers what’s good about LTFL with perfect back-end integration and much more baked into the software from the start.

We’d be only to glad to partner with or work more closely with other vendors. This is clearly the future, and everybody’s going to get there eventually.


*We definitely need a LibraryThing edition of Will it blend?
**I suspect they do test, however. AquaBrowser is headquartered in Amsterdam. It’s something of a happy coincidence that yesterday was LibraryThing’s big push into Dutch-language books. The effort was a coincidence, but two of their top people have generously offered to scout out some potential sources.
***I’ve been there four or five times on the way to Turkey—KLM has great lay-overs. And my brother, best friend and I stopped there on the way to my bachelor party in, um, Lithuania (desperately random on the part of my brother). But I’ve basically only done the Rijksmuseum, the Anne Frank House and walked around till I was lost. Now that we’re tying in to all this Dutch data, and we have work to do with AquaBrowser, a longer visit is surely necessary! Now, what accounting category does hash fall under—”office supplies”?

Labels: Uncategorized