Monday, December 4th, 2006

Is your OPAC fun? (a manifesto of sorts)

A few weeks ago I spoke at a conference on “The Future of the Catalog,” hosted by the ACRL Delaware Valley Chapter, and I’ve been meaning to blog about it since. It’s to late to blog it overall*, but one topic keeps bothering me.

At the close of a panel discussion, we were asked how a reinvented online catalog (an “OPAC”) could serve a nineteen year-old. All I had to do was put “findability,” “millenials,” “Google,” “ease of use,” “anywhere” and “now” together, and I was done.

Well, I snapped. Here’s what I said or wished I had:

What distinguishes LibraryThing from other OPACs isn’t tagging, user reviews, book recommendations, RSS or any of that. What distinguishes it is this: Everyone else’s OPACs people have to use. LibraryThing is optional. LibraryThing is an OPAC people WANT to use. They even pay. LibraryThing is the fun OPAC!

OPAC conversations center around “findability.” The OPAC’s job is to help you find and get what you want–and get out of the way. It’s the job of a dental drill. A good dental drill does not dilly-dally; nobody ever has a “driveway moment” with a dental drill.

It’s also the logic of the card catalog. The card catalog was there to help you find something, not to be fun.** And like so much else, this principle was translated to the digital world, perhaps too successfully. For all their drawbacks, OPACs do exceed card catalogs in finability. But they really come into their own in being surpassingly unfun!

Sure, it would be nice if OPACs made things findabile. A findable OPAC is at least not torture to use. But why not aim higher than findability? Nineteen-year-olds may use Google because it’s easy, but that doesn’t explain MySpace.

Why not be fun? The library itself is fun. (I simply don’t care about the library experience of people for whom books are a “task.”***) The catalog is a condensed representation of that fun. It’s not the books, but it has a lot to say about them, and it can be the springboard for so much more. I enjoy reading and thinking about books. I want to remember what I read, much as I want to remember my vacations. I want help finding new ones. I want to put my books out there for all see. I want to express myself about them. I want to find people to talk about our books. I might even want to date someone who reads the same things I do.

Surprise surprise, but I’ve just described what LibraryThing does. It is the fun OPAC.

How can your OPAC be fun? (No, not with Flash animations.****) Here are some first thoughts:

  • Provide blog widgets and RSS feeds so patrons can show off what they’re reading and what they thought of it.
  • Let people find what they want, but let them also get entertainingly lost. Encourage exploration, serendipity and lost-ness.
  • Give authors, subjects, languages, tags and other facets their own pages. That stuff’s interesting, and can lead one delightfully astray.
  • Allow patrons to interact with the catalog via tags, ratings and reviews. (And would it kill you to give them patron pages?)
  • Link outward. The web is fun. Point to it.
  • Allow (static) inbound links. What are you, a bouncer?
  • Let patrons access your data via API. Some clever patron will do something fun you hadn’t thought of.
  • Give patrons a reason to check in every day—something about the books, and ideally about them and the books, not some “trick” like free movie passes.
  • Talk to patrons in their own language (eg., with tags), not in some crazy argot, where “cooking” is “cookery” and “the internet” is “the information superhighway.”
  • Give patrons fun, high-quality recommendations.
  • Give patrons enjoyable metadata. I don’t intend to read any of the books in today’s NYT Book Review, but I loved reading about them.
  • Let users interact socially around the books they read. (Obviously, anything social needs to be voluntary.)
  • Make it usable and finable too.

Am I crazy? Discuss?

*It was a blog-worthy one. The panel included Thom Hickey of OCLC, Emily Lynema of NCSU and Karen Calhoun of Cornell and the Calhoun Report. Hickey presented some very exceptional work, including (fun!) author pages for WorldCat. I had not met Lynema or Calhoun before, and found their presentations and company most enjoyable. Emily and I shared a cab back to the airport. (I hope she gets a blog soon, so I can keep up with what she’s doing.) Others blogged about the conference here, here (Hickey), and here (ACRL).
**Going all the way back to (my hero) Cutter’s Rules for a Dictionary Catalog (1876). The same applies to today’s Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records, summarized as “find, identify, select, and obtain.” (How about amuse? Waste some time? Get laid?) In retrospect, card catalogs seem fun. Hard-core bibliothecophiles***** “miss the feel”–flipping through the cards, sliding the drawers in and out, occasionally sliding one all the way out and carrying it with you to devour it in private, like a cat.
***Students who hate learning shouldn’t find their books quickly. The OPAC should spit out a nonsense call numbers, and they should wander in circles until their eyes light upon some other book–the book that changes everything–or until they collapse to the ground in punishment for their sins.
****Witness the Orange County’s Library’s snowman, much praised in liblogger circles. It’s not that I dislike it—I liked it—but what does it have to do with libraries? Someone there has a real sense of fun. Why waste it on some separate, siloed Flash ap?
****A perfectly good word as far as I’m concerned, but Google has only two uses, both in French.

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Wednesday, November 29th, 2006

The OPAC sucks, LibraryThing inspires tattoos

Lyrics here. (From the Laughing Librarian, who also created Zen Librarian Koans; hat-tip Jessamyn.)

By contrast, an enthusiastic Thingamabrarian sent me this photo of her new tattoo:

ImageChef.com - Create custom images

Okay, I faked that. (Hat-tip Steve Cohen.)

UPDATE: Comment on this post pointed out the homepage pic of the University of Wales, Newport. Gah!

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Monday, November 20th, 2006

How to get your bookstore on LibraryThing

Today we launched simple integration with Shaman Drum Bookshop of Ann Arbor, MI. Basically, users can put themselves down as customers and get availability and pricing information on work pages (see right). There’s are no strings or costs to the program; we’re just trying to give give people a better service.

To integrate you need to have an inventory system that can write a file to the web. To make it work, we need a simple XML feed. For performance reasons we can’t be querying an API book-by-book.

The format of the feed is very simple. Here’s an example:

<isbnlist>
<isbn count="1" price="29.95">3598710364</isbn>
<isbn count="2" price="19.95">351911304x</isbn>
<isbn count="1" price="69.50">3519112892</isbn>
<isbn count="4" price="69.50">3519112906</isbn>
<isbn count="1" price="59.50">3519112884</isbn>
...
</isbnlist>

We are open to modificatons (eg., if you can post availability, but not prices). In addition to the feed, we’ll need to have URLs to link to the book pages, and a URL for searching. We willl grab the file between midnight and 2am every night.

LibraryThing isn’t going to double your sales—you’ve probably already have the loyalty of the Thingamabrarians—but it’s a nice service to give your customers.

In the near future, I’ll be producing some stats for bookstores, like holdings patterns against work popularity, that might be interesting or useful to them.

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Friday, November 17th, 2006

Arguing against tags

I just read the short “Beneath the Metadata: Some Philosophical Problems with Folksonomy” by Elaine Peterson (D-Lib, Nov. 2006), which demonstrates that “A traditional classification scheme will consistently provide better results to information seekers [than a folksonomy].”

I hardly know where to begin, but take this idea:

“[I]f users can continuously add tags to articles, at some point it is likely that the whole system will become unusable. A folksonomic system threatens to undermine its own usefulness.”

The reasoning is that, as more tags are added, the number of wrong tags will incease. More bad tags mean less usefulness, eventually sliding all the way to complete uselessness—our old friend, the map of China that is the size of China, gets a mention. But tags are deployed statistically where possible, not by the one-for-one correspondence of a card-catalog subject heading. All arguments in favor of tags and all significant efforts to find and order information with tags (eg., Del.icio.us, LibraryThing, Flickr, CiteULike) are predicated on the heavy use of algorithms and statistics. This is a key part of the argument for tags, but Peterson’s article doesn’t mention it.

Imagine an argument against subject headings with a similar deficiency of key information—”LCSHs won’t work because most of us live too far away to visit the Library of Congress regularly.” I don’t think this misunderstanding is any less basic. Once you factor in statistics you’ll understand that as tag density increases, it becomes easier to spot and discount noise, not harder. If the census visited just one house in Maine, it might decide state residents were all Aleutian Islanders. As they visit more, the chance of coming to that conclusion swiftly vanishes.

I need to decide how to approach this stuff. I do not have, and never will have an MLS. This is a real disadvantage. There are also political minefields to be negotiated. When you’re in a discipline you know whom you can safely argue with, and whom you can’t.

I was contacted by an academic publisher today, interested to find out if I had a book in me. A proposal to discuss user-contributed metadata, particularly tags, in the library catalog did not prove interesting. I had meant to bow out anyway—I have no time!—but being refused lit a fire under me. Someone needs to write a good book on the topic. If not me, who? All I need are a dozen more plane trips without wifi. Fortunately or unfortunately, it looks like I’ll get that.

PS: I’m going to see Abby (and John Blyberg) talk tomorrow at a NELINET event, “OPAC 2.0: Reinventing the Library Catalog.” I’m thinking I’ll tape her talk on my MacBook. I wish the iSight camera faced outward. As it is, I’ll have to film myself reacting—pensive! amused! shocked! itchy!

Update: The article is similarly (if more politely) panned on Dystmesis. The blogger also wrote a paper on LibraryThing’s tagging, which I’ll blog soon.

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Monday, November 13th, 2006

Shaping the future of Maine’s economy?

Out of the whole LibraryThing thing, I am most proud of the buzz page, which collects some 750 positive quotes about LibraryThing, almost all from blogs. Second to that are the invitations Abby and I have had to speak at library conferences. (Invite us to more! We sleep on sofas and eat like birds.)

But this has to run a close third: being select by the Maine paper Mainebiz for its “Next List.” Apparently I’m one of the “ten people shaping the future of Maine’s economy.” (Here’s the story in Google’s cache.) Mainebiz threw an awards party at the Portland Museum of Art, with wine and canapees and people in suits.* None of the party pictures turned out, so here is my son reacting to my lucite trophy-award-paperweight.**

Great as the honor is, I can’t avoid thinking “If I’m moving it forward, Maine’s in big trouble!” LibraryThing has only two employees in the state (a third makes her home among our former collonial masters).

Fortunately, LibraryThing and I are proxies for something far larger and very real: you can launch a web startup in Maine. We attended with John McGrath and Kristy Dahl of Squirl, another good example. That’s not quite a trend, but could it become one? I think so.

Maine is supposed to be a VERY bad place for tech start-ups. Loose talk about the “anihilation of distance” notwithstanding, startups cluster very strongly, with places like Silicon Valley and Cambridge, MA far in the lead. As Paul Graham put it, startups happen where you find “rich people and nerds.” Having both in abundance is, as Graham writes, quite rare. New York City has rich people, but no nerds. Pittsburgh has nerds, but no rich people. Compared to either Portland is a desert. Forget rich and nerdly—Portland hardly has PEOPLE. We’re the largest city in the state, and have 63,000 residents (compared to more than 100,000 for Cambridge, MA alone).

So why and how is Portland a good place for tech startups? LibraryThing worked because we began as a one-nerd operation. (Later, after much effort, LibraryThing hired Chris Gann, a Silicon Valley “blow in.”) And it worked because we didn’t NEED a rich person. It cost almost nothing to set up, and made money from the start. Back in the dot-com years the servers alone would have required angel funding. Now they don’t. (There’s a good NYT story on this phenomenon.)

Once you dispense with hiring and funding, it’s all about where you want to live. Fortunately, my wife is an author and can live anywhere. Portland is cheap—rent is about half what we were paying in Brookline, MA—and was close enough to Boston for me to continue freelancing for companies there. Later, when LibraryThing started, cheap rent helped balance the checkbook.

We chose Portland over other options because it’s just such a great city. We live two minutes from the Eastern Prom, a gorgeous tableau overlooking Casco Bay, and a great place to walk when you need to get away from a computer to think about data structures. We’re five minutes from the center of Portland, which is small but “real,” with funky businesses, an independent theater and an excellent internet cafe, known as “Tim’s second office.” And actually Portland DOES have rich people. The New Yorkers and Bostonians stop by on the way to the summer house or skiing, and some very nice restaurants have sprung up to serve them.***

All-in-all, not a bad place for a start-up.

I didn’t meet all the other winners****, but congratulations to architect and Renaissance-man Mitchell Rasor (MRLD.com) and Jeffrey Wood, founder and web developer for the worthy non-profit eHope.

*Who knew Mainers had suits? You hardly see them, even downtown. Where are these people hiding?
**Right after this photo was taken, Liam pushed it across the flooboards and I discovered that lucite scratches easily. Oh, well. Sic transit gloria plastici.
***If there were a decent Chinese restaurant, it would be paradise.
****And I completely dropped the ball on meeting Tom Allen, our congressman. Librarians may now scold me for it. I want to button-hole him about his vote for DOPA, the bill forbidding social networking sites in libraries which would, inter alia, illegalize many of LibraryThing current uses and future plans.

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Thursday, November 9th, 2006

FRBR, OpenFRBR glug glug glug


Photo by yashima on Flickr

Check out the the most recent LibraryGeeks podcast, a conversation between Daniel Chudnov and William Denton. Denton, who writes the FRBR blog, recently announced the OpenFRBR project, a incipient—very incipient—effort to create “a complete free implementation of FRBR.”

If you don’t know, FRBR is a library-science idea that can relate books, starting from something like LibraryThing’s “works” concept, but attempting to do a great deal more. Although FRBR doens’t say prescribe one way, FRBRization of library data has tended to be done algorithmically. There are just too many books out there for librarians to revisit manually, and LibraryThing’s crowdsourcing solution has not caught on elsewhere.

Denton is a FRBR dynamo and whatever comes of it, I’m sure it will be interesting. I only wish he didn’t plan to do it in Ruby on Rails. Does the library tech world need another programming language to fit all its old data formats and communication protocols to? I also have philosophical problems with FRBR, for understanding relationships in mechanical, “binary” ways. (I’ve never managed to communicate this right.) Even so, LibraryThing will be watching closely how we can both help and use the OpenFRBR project.

Dan’s interviews are wonderfully offbeat—library technology meets the Charlie Rose Show. A good part is devoted to a series of standing questions, including “What do you want to hear when you arrive in heaven?” He did it to Abby and me and he does it with William—to the limit. It was recorded at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa last month during the Access 2006 conference. Music tinkles in the background. Waitresses come and go. The conversation is deep and interesting. It’s My Dinner With Andre!

At one point wine is ordered, and is poured deliciously into a glass right next the tape machine. Don’t listen to this podcast unless you have easy access to your own wine too—it’s torture.

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Thursday, November 9th, 2006

The LC’s new search

Check the Library of Congress’ new search, designated “beta.”

It’s got some great features:

  • “Federated” searching of different “buckets” of content, including the online catalog, prints and photographs, and the LC website.
  • A refreshingly clean, simple and attractive interface that works just as you expect—it’s Google-y!
  • Rather than wait for everything to come back from the different systems, the search results Ajax in. It’s slick, and a good way to avoid making the system hostage to whatever sub-service is sluggish that day.

Some drawbacks:

  • Eventually results dump you into the original systems. Obviously, they weren’t trying to reengineer everything. Maybe, if the elegant new search becomes popular, it will prompt action to improve the online catalog itself.
  • It presents only a few catalog results by default, and they aren’t relevancy-ranked. (I don’t think they’ve done anything to the search per se, but just “pulled it in” to the new UI.*) So, search for “cookery” (the LCSH term for “cooking”) and you get four hits, all in what I take to be Burmese, apparently because of character-set sorting issues. Just image if Google returned results like that!
  • “Word junk.” You don’t need to say “Note: These results are sorted in alphabetical order,” you can just say “These results are sorted in alphabtical order,” “Results in alphabetical order” or even “sorted alphabetically.”*** A little message below a heading and above a piece of content is by definition a note! Do street signs say “Street sign: Main Street”? Ditto messages like “Select Sources to Search” over a list of sources above a search box. Say “Select Sources,” “Search” or go cold-turkey. And, while we’re on the topic, someone should cut the capital-letter budget. Capital letters have a grammatical role in sentences. Treating them as all-purpose markers of authority and importance misunderstands orthography as design. In design, “header-ness” is communicated by size, positioning and other visual factors. In any case, Studies, Have Shown that Reading Slows Down When Information is put in Unnecessary Capital Letters. So, how are you doing?****
  • Brobdingnagian ULRs. 143 characters for an all-sources search on “cookery”? On the plus side, the URLs appear permanent, rather than the LC’s usual “expiring” URLs.

My criticism may be more verbose than my praise, but it doesn’t outweigh it. The LC’s new search is commendable effort to wrangle simplicity and elegance from systems not on speaking terms with either.

*From the error results, I’m wondering if they’re using Z39.50 to access their own catalog?
**Character-set sorting issues?
***LibraryThing would say “sort: title | author | date | scrumptuousness,” making a message double as a UI element; the new search has no alternate sorting, however.
****Pardon the rant. This is a real bête noire of mine.

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Tuesday, November 7th, 2006

APIs and easy linking page

Abby wrote up a page on LibraryThing’s APIs and “easy linking” methods. With luck, it will give these important features more prominence.

I particularly want to plug easy-linking, which is particularly great for bloggers—letting you reference books without doing a search on LT first. Basically, you can link to a work like these:

The latter is very flexible, you can even do something like

And it guesses well what you mean—in this case Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

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Saturday, November 4th, 2006

Back from safari

So I’m back from my whirlwind trip to Wisconsin, where I spoke at WLA’s annual conference. Thank you everyone for such great hospitality (especially Nichole Fromm)! The Kalahari was the most bizarre place I’ve ever stayed – I missed the live baby lions that they bring in for photo shoots ($60 to get a photo of your kid with a cub – no joke), and I never ventured into the waterpark (the biggest indoor waterpark in America!), but at least I got to see the bellhops running around in safari gear, and to eat here. And my hotel room was huge. My apartment here in Boston would have literally fit inside this suite.

I also got to hang out on State Street in downtown Madison with Jessamyn and Nichole before flying back. We visited the Madison Public Library and the University of Wisconsin Madison Memorial Library, which was great. It was nice to see more of Wisconsin then the touristy Las Vegas-y Wisconsin Dells, where the conference was.

My talk went pretty well – I tried to balance demoing all the cool things that LibraryThing is and does with talking about some of the issues LibraryThing raises in the library world.

I talked a bunch about “harnessing collective intelligence” – letting users create and upload content, and how the wisdom of the masses is pretty damn impressive. LibraryThing is so powered by users. Users – you – translate the site into a staggering number of languages, you combine author names, tags, and works, you upload author photos (and go to great lengths to obtain permissions) – you make things more findable and accessible, and you contribute your knowledge and expertise, and that’s what makes LibraryThing.

I read an article on the plane on the way to Wisconsin about why people contribute to Wikipedia – why they spend 30+ hours a week writing for something with no bylines, and where someone else can wipe out all their hard work with a single stroke. What’s the motiviation to do that? (The article talked about the connection with how scientists view their work – contributing to a greater good, and receiving credit and acknowledgment for their work). And I think it’s a lot about becoming part of the online community. The more LT grows, the more I think about it as a community. When we launched Talk and Groups this summer, there was an explosion of TALK among you all. You clearly feel connected to each other, and to the LT community. I feel like we know some of you – Tim and I refer to you by your names on LibraryThing, we say “oh, did you see what she posted yesterday? She’s right, we should really start doing that / create that / change that.” And I love that about my job – that sense of community.

All in all – it was a great trip. I even got an elevator ride with Sandy Berman,! And the library of the International Crane Foundation – I’m waiting for you to create your non-profit organizational account!

Next up – I have to figure out what I’m going to say at NELINET’s “Reinventing the Library Catalog” – the panel includes John Blyberg, Michael Kaplan (Ex Libris), Gregory Crane (Tufts), and Laurie Allen (PennTags), so it should be a lot of fun.

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Saturday, November 4th, 2006

Getting Real, Getting an ISBN

I just received my copy of Getting Real: The Smarter, Faster, Easier Way to Build a Successful Web Application by 37signals, presumably mostly Jason Fried. Getting Real was originally offered as a $19 PDF*. It’s now available for free in HTML. I ordered it from Lulu as a book. I like books.


Is it just me, or does Lulu remind you of Loompanics?**

Fried has a contrarian, but highly influential philosophy on web application development, encapsulated in phrases like “underdo your competitors,” “feature food” and “there’s nothing functional about a functional spec.” (A good introduction to Fried-ism is his talk “Lessons Learned Building Basecamp,” available as audio on IT Conversatios.) I find Fried a maddening mix of good and bad ideas, expressed with equal dogmatism. I disagree with him, but he’s sharpened my thinking. OPAC developers should read him and get scared that someone’s going to Basecamp the OPAC.

I’ll write a detailed review later, but I’ll start with appearances. Flipping through I’m annoyed at how flip and padded everything is. It reads like a speech. It bristles with paragraph-separated lists, long quotes from other books and miscellaneous indented matter. There are dozens of chapters and each one starts on a new page. The font’s too large, the margins too spacious. It’s like a teenager with a term paper that needs to be ten pages long. Whom are they kidding?

Finally, a LibraryThing raspberry for not having an ISBN. It’s called a book, it’s reviewed as a book, you can buy it as a book, but it has no ISBN? You can’t find Getting Real on Amazon, the LC—anywhere. Someone on LibraryThing entered it manually and others have been copying the record. (Copy my copy, it’s got better data.***) I guess ISBNs are another feature they’re underdoing.

*They apparently sold more than 20,000 copies. Since the PDF costs were zero, this nets a profit of $380,000. Did I mention I want to write a book about LibraryThing?
**That’s How to Start Your Own Country by Erwin S. Strauss, a guide and encyclopedia to “Micropatrological” projects, like Sealand and the Republic of Minerva. This is the sort of topic books used to be written about—now it’s web pages.
***Any catalogers want to help out by coming up with a reasonable Dewey and LCC?

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