Archive for the ‘weinberger’ Category

Friday, September 30th, 2011

The Velocity of Books

The Harvard Library Innovation Lab recently posted a talk I had with David Weinberger, the co-director, freelance philosopher and author of Everything Is Miscellaneous. We talked about social reading, ebooks and libraries.

You can find the talk here:
http://librarylab.law.harvard.edu/blog/2011/09/20/library-labthe-podcast-007-the-velocity-of-books/

It’s an odd interview, having been edited down from an hour-long, wider-ranging conversation. A lot of David’s questions and all of his longer opinions have been edited out, which is unfortunate because he’s smarter than I am and more interesting to listen to. And it makes some of my answers seem a bit random and disconnected. But the core of the conversation is there, the discussion is fast-paced and should be interesting to fans of the topic.

Labels: talks, weinberger

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

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

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

Libraries as Conversations: Gorman, Hives and Catalogs


This is a disturbing ad.

This was my introduction to a twenty-minute talk on social cataloging and LibraryThing given at an ALA RUSA MARS (gesundheit!) session called “Harnessing the Hive: Social Networks and Libaries,” with Meredith Farkas and Matthew Bejune. The meat of the talk—showing and talking about tags on LibraryThing—got all the attention (one blogger called it “jaw-dropping”). The introduction didn’t, despite attacking a former ALA president and being something of a rant. Comments appreciated!

Gorman and Knowledge. Former ALA President Michael Gorman wrote a piece recently for the Britannica blog titled “Web 2.0: The Sleep of Reason.” He takes a curious starting point.

“Human beings learn, essentially, in only two ways. They learn from experience—the oldest and earliest type of learning—and they learn from people who know more than they do.”

There is something attractive about this conception. Some people have experiences, and they pass it on, directly or through writing. Knowledge happens. We get it one way or the other.

But this has never been quite right. Learning and knowledge, at least important learning and knowledge, are a conversation.*

The education of scholar is an ascent through this conversation. We start with encyclopedias and straightforward books of facts—books that talk at us; certain books. We move to monographs, which seem at first like books of facts, but which we soon learn are really “arguments.” We learn to write papers that are arguments too—”Don’t just say what you know, have a thesis!”

At some point we discover academic journals, and our eyes are opened to just how complex and contentious and uncertain this certain thing is. And, if we go on long enough, we graduate to conferences, and we learn that knowledge is an actual conversation, with alcohol.

Conversations work because, at their best, they know more and produce more than their members. They work because the knowledge is in the conversation. It happens in the very interplay of ideas—asserting, contesting, extending, simplifying and complexifying the dizzying whirl of fact and opinion, creative and synthetic, smart and dumb, right and wrong, from this angle and that. Literature works like this too, but can be even more meaningless without “conversational” context—genre, alusion and immitation and so forth.

So, quiet or not, the library is a buzzing cocktail party—better and better the more people are there and the more they interact. It is already “hive” this session promises. It is, in point of fact, very much like the web.

I think Gorman is wrong. But there is a lot of productive debate to be had about what digitization, mass amateurization and similar trends “do” to knowledge. There are downsides and reasons for concern. But we should not forget that the greatest thing the library has to offer—has ever had to offer—is not the relative fixity and contested reliability some now stridently set against the web, but the bubbling river of conversation it embraces.

To go back to the beginning, Timon of Phlius mocked the “many cloistered bookworms twittering in the bird-cage of the muses.” And he had a point. But today we rather admire the Library of Alexandria, with all its damned twittering.**

The catalog as conversation. If the contents of the library is a conversation, the online catalog is not. It is, at best, a tool to get you to the conversation. Is this the way it has to be? Can the catalog be a conversation too?

When I was a graduate student, I did not usually figure out what books to read in Classics by looking through the Library of Congress Subject Headings or going to the shelf and poking around. I got them from fellow graduate students, professors and from the books, reviews and articles I was reading.*** (Like many graduate students I occasionally read a book’s footnotes looking for interesting reading suggestions and SKIPPED the text!) But I did—and do—check out the subjects and the shelf order for topics I know less about.

I think that, in finding books, we ascend through a conversation. The library catalog is too often an encyclopedia, talking at you. It’s useful in the first staged of discovery. But as we ascend through a topic we gravitate to more conversational forms of discovery—reviews, articles, footnotes, bibliographies and the recommendations of others. And, I think, we leave the catalog behind. For some things, like finding new fiction, almost everyone skips the catalog right off, and reads reviews and talks to friends.

LibraryThing is called “social cataloging”—one small step toward the catalog as conversation. Let me show you what I mean….


*I’m channeling David Weinberger in much of this. Indeed, if there is one thing that irks me about his Everything is Miscellaneous it is the sense that “swimming in the complex” is new. Digitization has kicked things up a notch—made us more aware of the arbitrariness of categorization, the necessity of thinking for yourself and the value of conversations—but these are old lessons.

**I’ve removed the end of his quote, which hits the poets and scholars of the Museum—a sort of branch of the library—for getting paid. Still, the Library of Alexandria didn’t merely gather Greek knowledge and art together. It kicked off the fanastically allusive—that is, conversational—creature known as Hellenistic Poetry. Suddenly, the books were all together and they started jabbering at each other non-stop!

Since we’re on the topic, it also deserves mentioning that the Hellenistic Age saw a shocking increase in the quantity of *bad* writing. The barriers were lowered, and a lot of junk got through. In general, the good stuff rose and the bad stuff sank. The blogosphere anyone?

***I particularly recall how one of my professors tended never to know the *titles* of books she’d recommended to me. She’d say “that new book on Athenian demes by so-and-so.” The authors were all colleagues and friends of hers. She had followed them for years. She was completely in the conversation, and it was about people and ideas, not book titles. It didn’t help that the titles in academics are often bland affairs, “aiming higher” than their obscure topic in the hope of appealing to a broader audience—”Art, Difference and Culture” subtitled, “16th-century non-guild stonemasons in Malta,” etc.

Labels: ala, ala2007, libraries, michael gorman, rusa mars, weinberger