Archive for February, 2009

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Rocky Mountain News: Final Edition

Another important newspaper dies.

Sure, models change and things are gained too. But things are also lost. Denver is definitely the worse for this. You’ve got to worry it’ll be publishers and libraries in ten years.*


*Both are suffering now—witness the recent HarperCollins layoffs and the Philadelphia closings, but Newspapers are in really deep trouble.

Labels: newspapers, print culture

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

Classify your heart out

Here it is, the revised list of top level categories. These have been vetted by all of us for awhile and it’s time to start building subcategories. We’ve created threads in the Group to discuss the subcategories of each top level. Keep in mind that these need to be comprehensive, but not excessively granular. Take a look at this example of possible subcategories for PETS.

After more of the second levels are fleshed out, we plan to have a new classify-this feature to test out the classification system on books in LibraryThing.

Until then, classify and discuss!

Labels: Open Shelves Classification, OSC

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

uClassify contest winner

After some delay, I can announce that the LibraryThing/uClassify contest has been won by Kelly Vista—the only entrant, but a worthy one. (Kelly gets a copy of Programming Collective Intelligence and $100 from Amazon or IndieBound.) She described her “LibraryThing classifier” as follows:

“My goal was to create a classifier that would automatically “tag” any book description based on actual LibraryThing tags. For example, if you paste the book description for “Truman” into UClassify, it should return to you LibraryThing tags that suit the book. This is one step more general than one of [Tim's] ideas (fiction vs. non-fiction).”

In my testing, it does a pretty good job of hitting the top tags. Pasted descrptions of Harry Potter give “young adult” and “children’s.” John Adams gives “american history” and “biography.” It’s not perfect—Adams is also labelled “young adult”—but the initial results are good and the whole point of uClassify is to enable accelerating accuracy.

uClassify seems to be growing apace. They recently opened up public classifications for external access, so I’ll be looking into automatic text-language classification of LibraryThing reviews.

Labels: kelly vista, uclassify

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

Research libraries clobber OCLC Policy

The Association of Research Libraries released its report on the new, now delayed OCLC Policy, and it’s a doozy—a forceful rejection of both the process and content of the Policy.

The full report makes for enjoyable reading—outside of Dublin, Ohio anyway. The task force members, research-library heavyweights all, fully and finally put to rest the notion that the only people bothered by OCLC’s power grab are open-data crazies and evil commercial companies.

There appears to have been a significant split. The majority felt it “desirable to have a policy that limits large-scale redistribution of records that could be harmful to the collective” and a minority did not. (It’s great to hear that a team of veterans had at least one member willing to reject the whole structure of cooperative-restriction!) But if the majority felt some policy was called for, they were apparently unanimous in condemning OCLC’s unilateral, non-consultative approach and concerned by a host of issues, large and small. Surveying the current Policy they urge a “fresh start.”

Vague legal language, unclear goals, worrying process, the split between the “nice” FAQs and the actual language of the Policy, issues of clouded ownership and responsibility for bibliographic data, termination provisions, the lack of respect for federal libraries and the legal impossibility of binding them without explicit renegotiation—it’s all here! There’s even a legal opinion, attached to the document, pouring cold water on the idea that the Policy will have any “downstream” effect on parties that haven’t explicitly agreed to it (ie., LibraryThing members). In all, a good drinking game could be invented—every time the ARL report validates or recapitulates a point made on this blog, and on other opponents‘, drink. (If you’re going to Code4Lib this week, I’ll buy the drinks!)

Most striking are the report’s vision of OCLC as a cooperative, and the ways the OCLC policy undermined that trust:

“The collective activity of shared cataloging is a source of deep pride and success in libraries in the U. S. and around the world. OCLC was created as, and is viewed as, a membership organization formed for the purpose of enabling this collective activity…. Members view WorldCat as a collective enterprise, not as a product that they license for use. …”

“The new Policy is clearly intended as a unilateral contract, unilaterally imposed on any entity using records from the WorldCat database, including member libraries…. The member community has seen the introduction of the new Policy as a fundamental change in the nature of the relationship between OCLC and its member libraries. In the eyes of the community, the guidelines expressed a mutual social contract, and the new Policy represents an authoritarian, unilaterally imposed legal restriction.”

Now let’s see what comes of this. OCLC has a needle to thread. The ARL report sets a high bar for consultation and consensus—higher than I think OCLC can reach without rethinking its whole communication model. And the core research-library concerns are serious*. I don’t think they can address them without failing to ensure what I believe to be the Policy’s true intent—establishing a permanent and lucrative data monopoly.

My prediction: Keep an eye on OCLC’s “regional service providers.” Various signs, including what reporters call “highly-placed sources” confirm that OCLC/regional tension is at an all-time-high, with OCLC increasingly rewriting the rules there too—selling directly to libraries in unprecedented ways. I think we can see in these moves a common historical pattern: when the structures that give a powerful institution strength start to weaken, it reaches for a new level of authority not based in the previous structure and therefore not susceptible to weakening. (In this case, OCLC is moving from a robust, often mediated cooperative to a unmediated, contractually-drawn licensure.) Sometimes the effort succeeds; sometimes the attempt crystalizes opposition and hastens and ensures the institution’s decline.


*Even if they picked the members of the Review Board, they may still face trouble from that direction. I doubt that OCLC’s Review Board has what the ARL board apparently had—members who apparently questioned the very idea of restricting access and use!—but all but one of the board members are academic/research librarians and can be expected to understand and appreciate the concerns raised by their ARL colleagues.

Labels: arl, oclc

Friday, February 20th, 2009

What do Ben Franklin and C.S. Lewis have in common?

Answer: They’re both on LibraryThing!

I’m pleased to announce the completion of Benjamin Franklin’s LT catalog. This project wouldn’t have been possible without the gracious permission of the American Philosophical Society and the Library Company of Philadelphia, the publishers of The Library of Benjamin Franklin (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2006). Not only have they made the book available via Google Books (here), but they also gave us permission to enter the data from it completely, including the wonderful and incredibly useful annotations by Edwin Wolf 2nd and Kevin Hayes, whose hard work and bibliographical sleuthing made the book possible in the first place.

On the LT end, thanks to pdxwoman, who got the project off the ground way back in January 2008, to hopeglidden and benjclark who cataloged portions of the collection, and to katya0133, who
entered a major chunk of the titles. I jumped in in November and worked to add more titles and augment the records by entering the annotations. We got on a roll in January; since the start of the year, Katya and I added 2,009 titles, ~800 of them in the last ten days.

You can browse the catalog here, read Franklin’s reviews, and check out his stats. Not surprisingly, he shares many titles with his other Early American comrades.

No sooner is one finished than another is begun, around here. I’ll be tackling the Virginia Georges next (Washington and Wythe) but BOB81 has taken on the task of heading up the creation of an LT catalog for C. S. Lewis, based on a listing created by the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College. If you’re interested in helping out, sign up here.

[So far Lewis and Franklin only have one work in common, The Spectator. More to come, I'm sure.]

Labels: ben franklin, c.s. lewis, legacies

Friday, February 20th, 2009

Flash-mob cataloging tomorrow in Rhode Island

Join us tomorrow for the second Flash-Mob Cataloging Party, at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island in Smithfield, RI.

See the main post.

I’ll be driving some people from Boston tomorrow morning. If you want a ride—no guarantees—drop me an email (tim@librarything). I check it all the time.

Labels: flash-mob cataloging

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

Seeing parallels

Steve Lawson wrote this wonderful piece for his blog See also…, reprinted here (by permission) in full:

There is a large organization whose main business isn’t producing information, but instead hosting and aggregating information for many thousands of users on the web. Users upload content, and use the service to make that content public worldwide, and, likewise, to find other users’ content. Then one day the large organization decides to change the rules about how that information is shared, giving the organization more rights–to the point where it sounds to some people like the organization is trying to claim ownership of the users’ content, rather than simply hosting it and making it available on the web.

A small but vocal and influential group of users object to the policy change. The organization protests that it isn’t their intent to fundamentally change their relationship with their users and that legal documents tend to sound scarier than they really are. Most customers are either unaware or unconcerned by the change in policy, but the outcry continues until the organization backs down a bit, sticking with the old policy for the time being. The future, though, is up in the air.

Facebook? Or OCLC?

Perfect, just perfect.

Labels: facebook, oclc, open data, steve lawson

Monday, February 16th, 2009

Portland, not the other one!

American City Business Journals has named LibraryThing’s home town, Portland, ME as the 10th-best place to start a small business. Best of all, Portland beat “the other Portland.” (And did you know they were named after us?)

Three cheers for Portland. But at the risk of being ejected from the ranks of Portland, Maine’s tech startup community, I think that—wait, there’s no local startup community to be ejected from! There’s LibraryThing. There’s Foneshow (two guys?) and that’s about it! What businesses are they talking about anyway?

This city has grown on me. It’s scenic, quirky and cheap. My wife and I think we can find both the right school and the right house, and avoid some of the craziness of Boston. But the business climate here leaves a lot to be desired, especially if you aren’t in tourism.

American City Business Journals must be talking about some industry I’m not in, with very different inputs. For a tech startup the labor market is a train wreck—way too small and illiquid. Even if you could hire them, the people are wrong. There aren’t any top-notch universities spitting smart young hackers out into the local community.* And there are too many people who want “quality of life,” which is great if you can get it, but hard-driving companies want hard-driving employees.** As Paul Graham wrote, ambition is a big city phenomenon. New Yorkers want to get richer. Cambridge people smarter. I still don’t quite understand what Portland people want. Smart, ambitious people tend to leave Maine—it’s a big problem.***

I’m sorry for the harsh tone of this post, but I generally don’t hide my feelings. Do you run a local small business? A local tech business? Send me a comment and I’ll buy you lunch. As we both know, there are some amazing places to eat around here.


*There are, it’s true, more local tech people that it seems at first. But, like Alexandria, they’re mostly “in” not “of” Portland—Bostonians who moved to Portland and still service Boston-area clients.
**That comment will no doubt draw objections. But nobody with knowledge of the community in Cambridge or the Valley work can dispute it. Startups work because people make them their lives. Any anyway, when startup people aren’t working, they want to hang out with other driven people.
***Back in 2003, a study concluded that “half of the state’s college graduates in 1998 wanted to live and work in Maine, but three of four ultimately left.” Subsidizing Maine graduates who stay in Maine probably helps, but it’s not the answer.

Photo by PhilipC, from Wikimedia Common (link).

Labels: maine, portland

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

Can your Kindle read to you?

The new Kindle apparently can “read out loud”—that is speech-synthesize—its books. Paul Aiken, director of the Author’s Guild, told the Wall Street Journal they can’t do that:

“They don’t have the right to read a book out loud. … That’s an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.”

Renowned (and Newbery) author Neil Gaiman begs to differ:

“When you buy a book, you’re also buying the right to read it aloud, have it read to you by anyone, read it to your children on long car trips, record yourself reading it and send that to your girlfriend etc. This is the same kind of thing, only without the ability to do the voices properly, and no-one’s going to confuse it with an audiobook.”

My opinion. Gaiman is right on the way it should work. The Kindle, with its DRM model, undermines what Gaiman got from “buying” a physical book, but it’s certainly strange to imagine people can own a piece of text free and clear, but not be allowed to run a program that reads it aloud.

On the legal grounds, however, I fear Aiken might be right. As a rule authors grant publishers highly specific rights. These limits generally include countries, copies, covers, formats and timeframes. That’s one reason eBooks took so long to take off—a million contracts needed to fly here and there before publishers could sell their books in the new format.

Anticipating future media is hard. My favorite passage in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (okay, the only passage I remember from that deeply weird work*), predicts a world of freedom in which

[L]ovely apparitions…
Shall visit us the progeny immortal
Of Painting, Sculpture, and rapt Poesy,
And arts, though unimagined, yet to be.

In the real world, I fear, “arts, though unimagined, yet to be,” require a contract addendum.


*The passage made it into the LibraryThing terms of use. I love my job.

Labels: drm, kindle, neil gaiman, rights

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

Why Wirral? One partial explanation.

A recent article in the Telegraph describes a worrying fall-off in library books and library usage in the UK.

Over the past six years books in public libraries in the UK have fallen 12%, from 116 million to 103.2 million. Library check-outs have fallen faster—16.5%. According to the Telegraph, UK librarians are bracing for another round of declining numbers, coming amid budget shortfalls across the board—and expecting to get their budgets slashed.

Reflecting on these problems, the CEO of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) told the Telegraph:

“[W]e live in an age where books can be bought cheaply from supermarkets or the internet so the reasons to visit a library have changed for many users.”

Wirral as a microcosm. Cuts have started. The Wirral council system in NW England (LibraryThing Local), is closing 11 of 24 branches.

They sure don’t deserve it. Taking a look at the Wirral Libraries website, anyone can see they’re doing a lot of things right. The branches look well-organized and inviting. They’ve got a fair number of computers and free Wifi. They have a special outreach program for the house-bound. They even lend toys!*

But they are doing one thing very wrong—namely that Wirral, like most libraries, isn’t really “on” the web.

People are finding things in supermarkets and the internet because it’s easy to do so. On the internet, one-stop shopping means that a huge panaply of useful and interesting things are available from a single, unified and well-understood interface—from local bars, to local bands, to some 600 pizza and 400 curry joints in the area (Man, I love Britain!). Many of these resources are not only in Google searches, but Google will plot them on a map for your convenience.

What isn’t online are library books! The Wirral Libraries’ catalog, a Talis Prism OPAC, hardly registers in Google, which knows only 7,000 pages, from a library with more than 300,000 items. Worse, virtually every Wirral page in Google is broken. On the right are a representative sample of what Google knows about from the Wirral catalog. Each link has the same title. And each links to an expired session that proclaims:

You can, of course, get to the Wirral Libraries catalog if you know that’s where you want to go—fifth link down, then the top rounded button on the right. That’s not the same thing.

And even if you find a book, you can’t bookmark it for yourself or forward it to a friend–the links will die off in a few minutes. In refusing to allow links and spider, the Wirral website sets itself apart from the other websites Wirral residents might use. The rest of the web just works—it’s in your search box, where most internet-aware people do most of their information finding.

Lastly, where is WorldCat in all this, the “switching mechanism” and “point of concentration” (Karen Calhoun) OCLC provides libraries as an alternative to the “lunacy” (Roy Tennant) of libraries being on the web for themselves? Nowhere. None of the Wirral Libraries are in it, and WorldCat doesn’t list a copy of Harry Potter in the Deathly Hallows closer than 60 miles away (postal code: CH46 6DE?). One may speculate that Wirral wasn’t willing to pay for the service, which anyway gets quite insignificant traffic.***

Who’s to blame? Wirral Libraries’ misfortunes are no doubt many, and not being part of the web is not the largest. But it’s a part. Wirral citizens aren’t seeing their library appear in their search results. They aren’t as aware of its riches as they might otherwise be. If they were aware, it’s likely they’d use these resources more, and the system would be easier to defend politically.

It won’t do to blame Wirral for this. Library vendors have long handicapped their products in this way, and Wirral Libraries surely bought their Talis Prism system a while ago.** Budgets are short—and getting shorter. Both the web and this recession have hit libraries by surprise.

But refusing to participate in the central information technology of the age has its costs. And the leaders of Libraryland who advocated and continue to advocate for closed solutions, closed data and staying out of search indexes—except as “negotiated” with Google—have contributed to this situation. The respected guides have taken libraries off the great river of information, and left them grounded on the shore. Now someone’s coming for the boat.

I hope the residents of Wirral fight like hell to keep their libraries open. Then they should fight like hell to make their libraries truly open.


*I don’t know how common this is in Britain. I get the sense it’s not too common in the US, but it happens. The Hingham Public Library in Hingham, MA lends practically everything, from toys to paintings on the wall.
**It’s ironic that Wirral’s OPAC was made by Talis, now one of the more progressive and forwarding thinking library vendors. I’ll put this in a footnote to avoid “shilling,” but if Wirral can get a new OPAC, I’ll arrange for them to get LibraryThing for Libraries for free until they get back most of their funding. Maybe Talis would kick in an incentive to upgrade their OPAC?
***WorldCat is supposed to be the central website of Libraryland, but third-tier websites like LibraryThing and Dogster—the social network for dog lovers!—are currently beating it.

Labels: indexing, oclc, riverine metaphors, web, wirral, wirral libraries