Otis and I met at the O’Reilly TOC conference. He is both very smart and very nice. I wish them all the best.
Tuesday, July 1st, 2008
Jason was the organizer of this year’s BIGWIG Showcase, an innovative “camp”-style session at the American Library Associations conference in Anaheim. He is also the co-author of the recent Library Blogging, with Karen Coombs (who gets the first-author love).
It’s my plan to talk with interesting people from all parts of the book “world.” Casual blog readers should be aware, though, that this is a very library-focused talk.
We spent the first 14 minutes talking about BIGWIG and about library conference talks generally. Then we got into his book and I tried to stir things up a bit by challenging him on library blogging. We closed with the death of the library—and what can prevent it.
I may need to sit down with Library Podcasting to figure out the best way to make podcasts available. Until then, I’m just going to throw the file up as a MP3 here (here) and through this nifty flash plug-in.
Friday, June 27th, 2008
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…
Thursday, June 26th, 2008
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:
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.
Thursday, June 26th, 2008
|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 Amazon.com—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:
- Covers are great for recognition, because visual memory is faster than reading.
- 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?
Monday, June 23rd, 2008
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, parkour, the 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.
*Or Weezer, which ought to count ten times.
Monday, June 16th, 2008
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,” 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:
- Young adult fiction involving magic — fiction, magic, young adult
- Fiction related to France during World War II — France, WWII, fiction
- Nonfiction related to France during World War II — France, WWII, -fiction
- Classic 19c. Russian novels — 19th century, classics, novel, russia
- Parenting from an Evangelical perspective — christian living, parenting
- Human sexuality from an Evangelical perspective — christian living, sex
- British colonialism — britain, colonialsm
- “Dog memoirs” (a big genre recently) — dogs, memoir
- “Drug memoirs” — drugs, memoir
- Non-religious homeschool books — homeschool, -catholic, -christian, -religion
- Chick lit taking place in Greece — chick lit, greece
- Romances involving zombies — romance, zombies
- Romances involving zombies and taking part in Greece — Null set
Saturday, June 14th, 2008
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?)
Saturday, June 14th, 2008
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?
“(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.
Saturday, June 7th, 2008
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.