Archive for October, 2005

Monday, October 31st, 2005

State of the Thing, Month 2

This innaugurates a new tradition: a monthly “state of the state” for LibraryThing. I’ve added a checkbox in “edit profile” in case you want to get this by mail. The default is “off,” of course!

Massive growth. What launched two months ago as a folly has become something of a hit. With no advertising and no coverage in the offline press*, LibraryThing has shot to 9,000 users and 665,000 books. It will surely hit a million before Christmas. Today it even nosed into the Alexa top 10,000.

Whether by luck or tireless improvement, LibraryThing has largely bested a surge of recent launches, none of which exceeds 50,000 books. (Veteran Bibliophil, online since December 2001, has 306,000 books.) Particularly gratifying has been the lack of significant damage from “Bookshelf,” one of the two showcase aps launched with Ning, the hot, well-funded startup of Marc Andreesen, the founder of Netscape. Ning gave me sleepless nights, but now, as I joked to a friend, there are two people who’ve beat Andreesen—Bill Gates and me.**

In all, LibraryThing is now one of the top non-commercial book sites on the web. Here is Alexa’s ranking chart, comparing it with BookCrossing, a much-loved and world-spanning project where you “read and release” books.

I mention this not because BookCrossing is a competitor—not at all—but because BookCrossing has received a huge amount of press. Won’t someone write an article about LibraryThing? David Pogue, Xeni Jardin, Walter Mossberg, Hiyawatha Bray—where are you?*** There’s something really cool going on here!

New features. In the last month I have added the following major features, and some minor ones.

  • Power editing, so you can tag a whole bunch of books at a time
  • Book-by-book suggestions based on LibraryThing users data
  • Detailed book suggestions based on your entire library’s contents
  • Five-star book rating, with a nifty AJAX implementation
  • RSS feeds, presently restricted to recent additions

Development priorities: I don’t want to telegraph too much, but this month’s development priorities include:

  • Better search functionality
  • “Groups” or “tribes,” so book clubs, offices, clubs and others can create “virtual libraries”
  • A way to handle “wishlists” and other non-owned books
  • Giving every book full cataloging data (LC subjects, Deweys, etc.), even if the initial data came from Amazon
  • RSS feeds for every catalog page and for a number of other pages
  • Improved “folksonomy” support, including pages for tags
  • Author pages
  • A user forum

Thank you. Thank you all for using the site, for blogging about it and telling your friends. Most of all please continue to send me your comments, criticisms and suggestions. Your thoughts have been critical to LibraryThing’s growth.

An aside: I used to work on software that users mostly hated. We didn’t solicit suggestions and a thick, outsourced layer of “tech support” kept complaints at bay. When we needed reactions we assembled paid focus groups and sat behind glass screens while some (outsourced) expert bumbled through our software. Developing LibraryThing has been a transformative experience. I will never EVER develop software like that again.

Conclusion. In conclusion, the state of the thing is strong! Thank for you using it, and happy cataloging.

*Excepting an article in Brazil and rumors of one in Italy, two countries for which LibraryThing has no library. I’m not sure if Andrew Brown’s excellent piece in the Guardian‘s email digest “The Wrap” counts as mainstream media, but it was online mainstream media.

**Speaking of Bill Gates, don’t imagine LibraryThing is making me rich. Far from it. The reward has been that, at least for now, I no longer feel guilty about working on it. That’s good, as I basically work on it every waking hour.

***Maybe I can call up Randall Schwartz again—he must know one of them. Randall Schwartz! Randall L. Schwartz! Learning Perl! From the dark aether I call you! Ia Ia Cthulhu fhtagn!

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Monday, October 31st, 2005

Book rating added; no “pencil” required

I’ve added a five-star book rating system. The pro vote was overwhelming. If you don’t want it, don’t add the field to your catalog. I was against it, but once the feature was up I found myself obsessively rating my whole collection.

The system is technically cool. You can add stars to multiple books without leaving the catalog page. You do not need to use the “edit” pencil. There’s no “submitting,” “saving” or anything like that. Just click to add stars one by one; at five it cycles around to none again. (Loosely, the technique I’m using is called AJAX, and is very “hot.”) I’m going to be adding similar on-catalog editing soon for tags.

Your catalog may not be currently showing the ratings field. If not, go to change fields and add it.

As with tags and reviews, ratings are totally optional. If just here to catalog, more power to you.

I haven’t added stars to any statistics pages yet. I’ll do this as the data warrants it.

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Sunday, October 30th, 2005

Gratuitous back-pat / help on two coming features

Noticed that clicking on a tag is suddenly quicker? That query alone was responsible for about half the server load. Clicking on a tag like “fiction” in a “global” context brought the machine to a standstill for everyone. It’s much better now. Fiction’s still takes a second, but that’s better than 30.

Feature 1: Ratings
Okay, I cave; you win. I’m going to add ratings. I propose they be 1-5 stars, with no stars being unrated. I’ve decided on stars—thumbs are too dorky—but I’m going to avoid the “Amazon” look. Nor will I be importing star data from them. LibraryThing is not Amazon!

The stars will be easily mass-editable, either in power edit or by a new “AJAX” way. However I do it, you’ll be able to rate a whole bunch of books at a time—zip zip zip.

Feature 2: Tag pages
I’m going to add a page for every tag, showing related tags, top books with that tag, etc. The only trick is how to get to it. I want the tag links to still function as a search, at least within a personal catalog. I may kill system-wide catalog tag searches, making them go to the “tag page” instead. (They still take up a lot of resources; there are almost a million tags now!) Your thoughts are welcome. What do you want to see? How do you want to get to it?

Comments, criticisms, anecdotes—go ahead.

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Sunday, October 30th, 2005

Book pile photo contest returns!

A few weeks ago I started a book pile contest/meme: take a photo like the one on the LibraryThing homepage, show off and win a free membership or two. Quite a few people sent me files. Others posted the photos directly to Flickr. I just finished posting the files to Flickr. Since I’ve never had a Flickr account before*, they are awaiting some sort of review for pornography and other objectionable material. (The pile of books on top of the toilet, maybe?!) Pretty soon, however, you’ll be able to see every one of them at . If you get only three pages, the new ones aren’t there yet.

I’m going to give this a few more days. More than half of LibraryThing’s members joined after the contest! If you want to participate, do NOT send me files. Instead, post your photos to Flickr, tagging them “librarything.” Go ahead and leave comments over there too. Some users put literally hours into this exercise, and there are some really cool juxtapositions and effects.

For a few I didn’t have the LT username and I didn’t think it was right to post the users real name. If one is yours, add your LibraryThing name if you want.

*”He made a tag-based site without ever being a member of Flickr? Has he no shame?” Oh, I only just signed up for too. I should be SHOT!

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Friday, October 28th, 2005

Power Tagging / Editing has Arrived

“Power Tagging” / “Power Editing” has finally arrived. Now you can select 20 books and add the same three tags to all of them, or take them away.

Instead of making it a “special feature” it is integral to how the catalog works. The feature is available on the gray and yellow control pad, as so:

When you click it, you enter a special mode, and get a special control panel for adding and removing tags. Below that can click on or off the books you want.

When you’re in “Power Edit” you get ALL the books that fit your current criteria, without “pages.” Generally this means it shows all your books. Sometimes it might mean all the books that have a certain tag or etc. If you have 1,000 books, it can be slow. If you have a lot of books, it’s also advisable to pick a layout without covers, so you don’t need to wait for them to load.

“With great power comes great responsibility.” I tested it thoroughly. But LibraryThing users continually surprise me. If you find a bug please give me as much detail as possible, including your username, what you were doing and what browser and OS you are using. “I tried to add a tag and it didn’t work” is pretty hard for me to act on.

Since it’s integral to the catalog, it’s also quite extensible. I plan to add a tab for deleting multiple books—useful for people who uploaded the same file twice. Other suggestions for power edit features are most welcome.

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Tuesday, October 25th, 2005

Three new features

Email comments: You can now have LibraryThing email you when people leave comments on your profile. Go to your profile and choose “edit profile” to enable this feature.

The profile now also allows you to choose whether to make your email public or not. Whether you make it public or not, I recommend everyone add an email, in case you lose your password.

Show number of copies: When looking at your catalog in list view, select “more options.” Not only does this add some buttons, including the delete button, as before. It now also lists by every book how many other users have it, as so:

You can click on the row-title “shared” to sort by this.

Recommendations: Book-by-book recommendations have improved again, with a lot of the pointless stuff removed. I also added a number by each book, showing the ratio of owners of both books to the owners of just the recommended book.

For example, here are the recommendations for Learning Perl. The 16/32 by the Perl Cookbook means that out of 32 copies of the Perl Cookbook, 16 are owned by people who also own Learning Perl.

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Saturday, October 22nd, 2005

Suggestion meme

I love how the blogosphere picks things up and runs with them. I asked for some feedback on the suggestions feature, and it became this independent meme. I particularly enjoy this submeme—listing all the books with little icons next to them—have it, don’t have it, good idea, bad idea, etc.

Are there any others to post here?

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Friday, October 21st, 2005

Suggestions, duplicates and yellow rows

Book-by-book suggestions have improved.

Users with lots of duplicates—mostly from bad imports—were slanting things terribly. I knew this when my novelist wife’s books—hint! hint!—all came up with Spidering Hacks as the top suggestion. This came about because I have multiple copies of both her novels and Spidering Hacks, and do not represent their content. Screening out duplicates has also been applied to profiles. There are some other places where it needs to be applied. Duplicates will soon be a negligible issue. Hooray, I say.

Why are some rows yellow?

Users with duplicates will notice that some books show up with yellow rows. This is just temporary—in the future you will be able to either show the duplicates this way, show just the duplicates or ignore whether a book is a duplicate. It’s as far as I got: “Wallace and Gromit” trump feature addition, at least until later this evening!

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Friday, October 21st, 2005

Book suggestions, library suggestions, new membership structure

I’ve added library suggestions for everyone as well as book recommendations for all books with three or more owners. Both are based on the same “people who own this also own that” algorithm. The library suggestion beta testers are split between those who thought it amazing and those who found it useless; it seems particularly good at guessing the second half of a partially-entered library. As for the book recommendations, I find them randomly either much better or much worse than Amazon’s.

Both features will get better as new books are added, but feedback is still much desired.

In other news, LibraryThing had graduated from the initial $10/lifetime plan. The new structure is $10 for a year’s membership and $25 for a lifetime membership. Those who have already paid their $10 were, of course, converted to “lifetime” status—my thanks for getting LibraryThing off the ground! This change will guarantee LibraryThing stays around for years to come.

PS: I made some final tweaks to the suggestion algorithm, and erased all the old reports. Incidentally, you may regenerate the report one per day. That gives me 24 hours to add that feature…

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Thursday, October 20th, 2005

Schedule maintenance and books you should own…

LibraryThing will go down for scheduled maintenance tonight at 1am Eastern time (6am GMT and, alas, 11pm in California). I expect it to be down for 2-3 hours.

Second, if you got this far, you’re in a very small minority of LibraryThing people—the cream of the cream, perhaps. So, here’s the scoop:

I’ve got an algorithm that tells you what books you “ought” to own. Basically, it looks at people who have similar books, and figures out what books they have that you don’t, adjusting for how close their library is to yours and for how common a given book is generally (the Harry Potter effect). If you want to look at your list, email me. NOTE: TELL ME YOUR USER NAME. I CAN’T READ MINDS!

The list is by email only for two reasons. First, it currently takes about five minutes to create, without breaking the server. (I’m taking the servers down tonight in part to speed such algorithms.) Second, I need feedback before I put the algorithm up.

It’s a lot harder to write a good library suggestion algorithm than I thought. If you like thinking about algorithms, this is an interesting one to think about.

The current algorithm has some flaws. First, it tells you about popular books you are actually avoiding. Thus, my brother isn’t a fan of Roger Zelaney, but his sci-fi heavy bookcase when matched to other sci-fi bookcases tells him he ought to own them. Second, it doesn’t think about different categories of books. Everyone’s library has more than one special section, but a “democratic” algorithm favors the largest section. So, I have a special interest in Greco-Roman divination, but it would never suggest books on that topic because my divination section is dwarfed by my other sections.

I have a number of other algorithms to look at. I’d like to test Dewey clusters (popular books in a Dewey-number range that you have a lot of books in), library suggestions that “bubble up” from book-by-book suggestions, and so forth. I’m not too interested in algorithms based on user ratings. My belief is that, in the aggregate, a library is a fair representation of a given person’s likes and dislikes. Even a “bad” book should inform the algorithm—people don’t buy books randomly.

The goal is to produce a better selection engine than Amazon has. Think big, I say.

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