Tuesday, October 31st, 2006

Congratulations to Reddit

TechCruch breaks the news: Reddit has been acquired by Condé Nast. Reddit is a community-driven news and what’s-cool site—something like Digg, but better. (For starters, Reddit hasn’t hyped up an untrue story about one of LibraryThing’s competitors!) I’ve followed them for some time, ever since meeting the founders at a Paul Graham/Y Combinator event in Cambridge. I’m pleased good things happen to good people.*

UPDATE: See this blog post. They’re still rich, but it appears they’re going to be tortured with office nonsense until their get-out-of-jail date.

Apparently Reddit had a prior relationship with Conde Nast, making Lipstick.com, Reddit for celebrity news. It doesn’t have a lot of users yet, so I’m thinking a few hundred Thingamabrarians could get together and vote up our celebrity story—appearing in OK Magazine on the same page as Lindsay Lohan. Ready? Set? Go!

*I’m also impressed by their blog entry on the role of users in Reddit’s success (“we’re not kidding ourselves: you all have made it everything that it is”). Much more gracious than YouTube, IMHO.

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Sunday, October 29th, 2006

1,000 librarians / LibraryThing rumors

The Librarians who LibraryThing group now has 1,000 members. I ask you, can 1,000 librarians be wrong?

Not to bring up an example, but an alert LibraryThinger wrote us about some rumors circulating about LibraryThing, and given out at one of the many recent library conferences. Here are the rumors, and the truth behind them:

  1. LibraryThing was started by Simmons graduate students. False. LibraryThing was started by me, Tim Spalding, and I don’t have an MLS. Some months later, Abby, who has an MLS from Simmons, joined as LibraryThing’s first employee.*
  2. LibraryThing is staffed purely by librarians. False. Of three employees (me, Abby and Chris), Abby is the only librarian.
  3. LibraryThing gets its MARC records from OCLC. False. LibraryThing has expressed interest in working with OCLC, but we do not currently do so. LibraryThing gets its records directly from libraries’ who make their records available through Z39.50 connections. We connect to about 60 libraries and library consortia. The most commonly used of these is the Library of Congress.
  4. Abby and Tim know all the words to Hips Don’t Lie. No comment.

*The second employee was supposed to be a Simmons grad, but it fell through. We’ve found it very hard to hire library tech people. The best ones may not be paid what they’re worth, but convincing someone to leave a secure, 40-hour, sometimes unionized job at a library for a small startup that won’t pay you more, but where you are expected to work 80 hours per week, with no promise your job will be around in a year… well, it’s hard.

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Thursday, October 26th, 2006

Embedded Library and School Library Journal

Tim and I were at Tufts a couple of weeks ago for NEASIS&T’s “The Dawn of the Embedded Library” program – he was gave a talk, and I was on a panel with all the speakers at the end. It was a lot of fun, we got to hear from Annette Bailey and Godmar Back, creators of the LibX extension for Firefox (she created it for a job interview – how incredible is that?). Nicole Hennig was impressive – she’s doing all sorts of crazy things at MIT, trying out all sort of new tools, using bits and pieces and mash-ups, and putting themselves “where the users are.” The whole day was recorded, and the talks are all online at NEASIS&T’s blog. Thanks to Caryn Anderson for pulling the whole thing together!

The speaking tour has just begun – next week Tim’s off to talk to the Delaware Valley chapter of the ACRL about the future of the catalog, and I’ll be with the Wisconsin librarians at a water park. I mean, a conference. Then in November I’ll be part of “OPAC 2.0: Reinventing the Library Catalog” for NELINET. Any Thingamabrarians going to be at any of these? We really should start having meet-ups or something. The BBQ in Maine over the summer was fun.

In other belated news, LT made it into October’s issue of School Library Journal. In the article, “A Book Lover’s MySpace“, Kathy Ishizuka calls it “one of the Net’s sleeper hits, a testament to both the word-of-mouth power of the blogosphere and the enduring passion for books.” Not bad! Plus, if you can get ahold of the print copy, you get to see a photo of my shining face. She also includes a link to a podcast with John Klima, who’s using LT to recommend books to the teens in his library.

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Thursday, October 26th, 2006

Overheard at IDEA2006

From Bruce Sterling’s Wired blog post, Overheard at IDEA2006:

“They’re able to do things I’ve never seen any library do. LibraryThing moves at the speed of light.”

Well, whoever said that—even if you didn’t mean it—you made our week!

UPDATE: Aha! We found it. It’s from a talk Ed Vielmetti (Superpatron) gave at IDEA2006. The full quote is:

“LibraryThing moves at the speed of light compared to library vendors … [They're] able to do things that I haven’t seen any library do.”

Also nice:

“Most library catalogs are not fun to browse through—you can sort of struggle to find what you want. I can spend hours on LibraryThing and come up with a huge list of ‘Oh, I wish I’d read that,’ ‘Do I have that book or do I need to check it out from the library?’ .. There’s a big opportunity for systemmatic change within libraries, to incorporate some of [these] ideas.”

Wow, and the admiration flows both ways. Wouldn’t it be great if every library in the country had someone like Vielmetti?—an unpaid, expert, passionate patron helping to move the library’s technology along. It’s almost unfair he’s in Ann Arbor. Without him they’d still be one of the most technologically vibrant libraries in the country. When the Revolution comes, comrades Vielmetti and Blyberg will be redistributed!

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Wednesday, October 25th, 2006

I smell a cease-and-desist letter

Have you seen MsDewey.com? It’s an odd, somewhat diverting “search engine,” with terrible results, but featuring a funny—and hot, albeit scary-hot—actress who flirts with you, insults you and generally hams it up to the questions you give her. Play around, but ones like “Kiss me!,” “How old are you?” and anything mentioning Bush have specific responses. The calculator to the right came out in order to insult my manhood!

Anyway, I’ll eat my socks if this thing doesn’t go down in a jiffy. Dewey is a registered trademark of OCLC, and trademarks—unlike patents and copyrights—must be actively defended if they are to remain valid. If OCLC doesn’t act, the Dewey Decimal System* could end up like the “elevator” trademark. Notably, OCLC sued the Library Hotel (OCLC Press Release), for daring to decorate and number its rooms by Dewey, citing the need for trademarks to be “vigorously defended.” After a public-relations debacle—OCLC sued them for three-times profits!—the parties settled.**

From a WhoIs search it appears the site as put together by San Francisco-based EVB. Searching some more, I discover that Microsoft has confessed to sponsoring the site, writing:

“Who says search can’t be fun? At Windows Live we are constantly exploring new and creative ways to promote our search offering and deliver relevant information in an interesting and engaging way. The Ms. Dewey website is just one example of these efforts.”

I’m AMAZED Microsoft would make a legal blunder like this. And if OCLC approved it, there’d be a ® symbol somewhere, don’t you think?

*I object on principle to the trademark, and to the IP issues generally. Melvil Dewey died in 1931. The core of the system long since passed into the public domain everywhere. You want more bitching? See here.
**Their press release quotes the hotel as saying:

“We do not believe that our use of the Dewey® trademarks in our beautiful boutique hotel near the New York Public Library infringes OCLC’s Dewey® trademarks. … But acknowledging OCLC’s Dewey® trademarks and making a charitable contribution to promote reading by children, rather than spending money litigating, seems to be a reasonable way to resolve this matter.”

Considering that everyone says that you only need to use the ® symbol once, having them use it three times in a row looks a tad forced.

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Monday, October 16th, 2006

Georges Perec and Classification

The brilliant, eclectic French writer Georges Perec is best known for his unconventional novel Life: A User’s Manual. Others may know him as the guy who wrote a novel, La disparition, without using a single e–which is at least as hard to pull off in French as it is in English—and followed it up with the shorter Les Revenentes, which used e as its only vowel! (La disparition was translated into English by Gilbert Adair as A Void; Les revenentes hasn’t been translated.) He wrote a 5,000 word palindrome—much harder to do before computers—and a fake paper on the “yelling effect” produced when a soprano is pelted with tomatoes. He died of lung cancer in 1982 at age 46.

What does any of this have to do with classification? Well, for much of his life Perec worked as a archivist and classifier for a scientific laboratory. He thought deeply about classification and its consequences, a topic which appears often in his essays and other (unclassifiable) short pieces, published in English as Species of Spaces.

Two essays are particularly relevant: “Think/Classify” and “On the Art and Science of Classifying ones Books.” Both are personal and non-systematic. “Think/Classify” is (intentionally) an unordered grab bag of thoughts on the topic—Sei Shonagon’s lists, French place-names, the organization of the 1900 World’s Fair, his personal filing system, etc. “On the art…” aligns nicely with what Thingamabrarians say about what really happens when you try to put your books in order (below). I also enjoyed his discussion of what books are easy or hard to arrange on a shelf–”the big Jules Verne’s in the red binding” vs. “journals of which you possess only a single issue.” Haven’t we all felt that?

Some choice bits:

All utopias are depressing because they leave no room for chance, for difference, for the “miscellaneous.” Everything has been set in order and order reigns. Behind every utopia there is always some great taxonomic design: a place for each thing and each thing in its place. ["Think/Classify"]

Disorder in a [personal] library is not serious in itself; it ranks with “Which drawer did I put my socks in?” … Opposed to this apologia for the sympathetic disorder is the small-minded temptation toward an individual bureaucracy: one thing for each place and each place for its one thing, and vice versa. Between these two tensions, one which sets a premium on letting things be, on a good-natured anarchy, the other that exalts the virtues of the tabula rasa, the cold efficiency of the great arranging, one always ends by trying to set one’s book in order. This is a trying, depressing operation, but one liable to produce pleasant surprises, such as coming upon a book you had forgotten because you no longer see it and which, putting off until tomorrow what you won’t do today, you finally re-devour lying face down on your bed. ["On the art..."]

So very tempting to want to distribute the entire world in terms of a single code. A universal law would then regulate phenomena as a whole: two hemispheres, five continents, masculine and feminine, animal and vegetable, singular plural, right left, four seasons, five senses, six vowels, seven days, twelve months, twenty six letters. … Unfortunately, this doesn’t work, has never even begun to work, will never work. Which won’t stop us continuing for a long time to come to categorize this animal or that according to whether it has an odd number of toes or hollow horns. ["Think/Classify"]

Taxonomy can make your head spin. It does mine whenever my eyes light on an index of the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC). By what succession of miracles has agreement been reached, practically throughout the world, that 668.184.2.099 shall denote the finishing of toilet soap, and 629.1.018–465 horns on refuse vehicles; whereas 621.3.027.23, 621.436:382, 616.24—002.5—084, 796.54, and 913.15 denote respectively: tensions not exceeding 50 volts, the export trade in Diesel motors, the prophylaxy of tuberculosis, camping, and the ancient geography of Japan! ["Think/Classify"]

*Perec shares a lot with my favorite author, Vladimir Nabokov–verbal gymnastics, the sense of literature as game, the indirect way they dealt with personal tragedy in their work. Nabokov too had an abiding interest in classification, at one point being forced to choose between careers in writing and butterfly biology, in which he pioneered classification by sex organs. It was therefore spooky and sad to find at the end of Perec’s essay “Things I Must Really do Before I Die” (written the year before he did):

“Finally, there are things it’s impossible to envisage from now on but which would have been possible not so long ago, for example:
36 Get drunk with Malcolm Lowry
37 Make the acquaintance of Vladimir Nabokov”

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Thursday, September 28th, 2006

Librarians and the CIA

David Weinberger (Small Pieces Losely Joined) has an interesting blog post on a recent stint as consultant to the CIA on social software. It turns out David and six other experts* were called in to engage some 50-odd CIA analysts about wikis, blogs, tags and “linking linking linking.”

“This was a totally fascinating set of sessions. The CIA folks there included visionaries (e.g., Calvin Andrus), internal bloggers, the people behind Intellipedia (an in-house wikipedia), folks from the daily in-house newspaper, and some managers not yet sold on the idea of blogs and wikis and tags. … The people we met with are serious about understanding the opportunities, experimenting, piloting, and evangelizing.”

First thought: The CIA has an in-house Wikipedia!?

Second thought: When CIA analysts—a process-oriented, authority- and expertise-driven profession if ever there was one—get serious about social software, isn’t it time for mainstream librarians to get interested?

And the water-boarding? Okay, maybe librarians should avoid following everything the CIA does.

*My invitation lost in the mail, I’m sure.

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Wednesday, September 27th, 2006

Library Camp East

Tim gets points for blogging his trip to Denver before he’s even home, while I’ve been back from Library Camp East for two days now. Better late than never? I had a great time in Darien (which, by the way, is a looong drive from Boston). Don’t worry, I wasn’t neglecting LT while I was gone – you’ll notice the computer on my lap in this somewhat blurry picture (play Where’s Abby!)…

John Blyberg (winner of Talis’s mashup contest!) talked about making library content available in outside the catalog, and showed off PatREST, Casey Bisson talked about OPACs, and demoed his WPopac. I got to meet people I’ve had conversations with, but never met in person, like Dan Chudnov of Library Geeks fame (who talked about OpenURL and COinS), and Jessamyn West (who’s a LibraryThing Author to boot!). Oh, and Sharon, I promise, I can help you find your old LT user name. I’m a great detective. Lichen blogged all day, and lest I forget anything, there’s a good summary of the blog coverage at Life as I Know It.

All in all, it was a great mix of people, and well worth the drive. The only downside was the moment was in my car, halfway home, getting off the phone with Tim (did you know you’re not supposed to talk on a hand held cell phone while driving in CT?), when I realized that I ran out without getting my mug. And it used Blyberg’s catalog card generator! I’ll have to settle for pining for it. Sigh.

UPDATE: Alan Gray, the head of technology at the Darien Public Library, and organizer of LCE06, is mailing me a mug! Because, as he says, they are “berserk about customer service.” How great is that?? Now I can stop pining and get back to work.

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Wednesday, September 27th, 2006

Presenting to the TLC CARL Users’ Group

I flew out to Denver for a few hours, to present to the The Library Corporation‘s annual CARL Users’ Group. TLC and LibraryThing haven’t inked any deals, but TLC’s customers, like the customers of other library ILS and OPAC systems, are hearing a lot about “Library 2.0,” and the ideas around it–tags, user generated content, FRBRization, and so forth. I was glad to fly out and do the LibraryThing dog-and-pony show. The site went down in the middle of my presentation, but it didn’t turn out TOO bad. I hate demoing products, but love talking about the “issues” of LibraryThing. It reminds me of being a graduate student instructor. I wish I could demo LibraryThing on a blackboard, with chalk.

For the next ten days, Abby and I will be hopping between speaking events. Next up, we’re at Tufts for “The Dawn of the Embedded Library: Integrating Library Services into People’s Trusted Networks” (thrown by NEASIS&T). Then I’m off to Germany for the Frankfurt Book Fair. But don’t worry, we’re working on features night and day. To get back to Portland, I somehow lucked into a 12-hour overnight layover in LaGuardia. Nothing to do for twelve hours but drink coffee and program!

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Sunday, September 17th, 2006

Alert the New York Times: Zebo falling like a stone

Today’s New York Times covers Zebo.com, “The World’s Largest Repository of What People Own.” Zebo is not a competitor, and I wish them well. But somebody needs to hold the NYT’s coverage to a higher standard.

Here is Zebo’s Alexa traffic chart, as of today.


Was the article titled “Zebo Falls like a Stone” or “Social Shopping Site Fails to Keep Users”? No, it was a glowing and hopeful profile—a site that’s going somewhere, not the red-stomached belly-flop it really is.

The Times cites the founder that “four million people” have joined since January. Check the blogosphere. Google Blog Search knows of only 47 bloggers linking to the site, compared with 4,785 for LibraryThing, a site with 2% of Zebo’s stated users. Is it possible people who join LibraryThing are 5,000 times more likely to blog about it? Did they discover the perfect user repellent?

I love the New York Times. I get it nearly every day, and read it voraciously. The LibraryThing office is literally strewn with old copies. I can’t imagine a world without it. The Circuits sections is, even now, one of most important ways I learn about new trends in Technology. But this article—and one about swap site Zunafish earlier—have me stumped. How do they come about? Can there be any explanation other than good PR and lazy reporters? Besides Alexa and Google Blog Search, there’s Technorati, Feedster, Media Metrix, Del.icio.us (14 people to LibraryThing’s 4,843!) and on and on. A check on any of those should would have thrown the story in a very different light.

It should be hard to spin on the web. If you product isn’t working online, it should be very hard to hide it. Even from the New York Times.

PS: LibraryThing’s never been covered by the Times. I rely on my still substantial trust in their journalistic ethics not to hold this blog post against me.

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