Archive for December, 2005

Saturday, December 31st, 2005

Harry Potter and the Spiral of Death (Note: 3AM downtime)

Sorry for the slow-down in the last 36 hours. There was a database issue. Recommendations weren’t being cached right, so it had to remake them every time. That took a lot of processing power. For example, to produce a recommendation for one of the Harry Potter books it had to retrieve and do math on the libraries of nearly half of of all LibraryThing! And when a page doesn’t come up immediately many users hit refresh over and over—the spiral of death.

I fixed the immediate problem, but it will be a little while before the cache is full again. I’m going to fix the larger problem by adding a second, “thinking” server, that will get a new copy of the book data ever night and sit around all day thinking about recommended books, related tags and so forth. LibraryThing’s slowness—when it’s slow—is all about these tasks. Looking at your catalog, adding books and so forth don’t tax it much. I also like the idea of a server that sits around all day thinking about books. It might even develop opinions.

Finally, I’m going to make some more tweaks at 3am EST tonight. This means that people in California will not be able to add books while watching Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. For this I apologize.

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Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

Edit tags from within your catalog! (it’s Ajax-tastic)

I’ve made a new feature to make tagging your books easier. You can now edit the tags within your catalog without having to “go into” each book individually.

The tag list now includes a link to “edit.”

Click “edit” and type your changes into the box that pops up. When you submit it both changes the screen and the database without leaving or refreshing the page.

“Ajax-tastic”? Programming and “Web 2.0” junkies will recognize this as “Ajax,” a term that is supposed to mean “Asynchronous JavaScript and XML” but has come to mean “changing the page without refreshing it” or “acting more like a desktop ap.” Expect to see more of this sort of thing.

Bugs? As with most new features, my ears are open for problems. I tested it, but not on every possible browser/OS combination (memo to self: buy ten computers). And people end up doing things I never anticipated. So, for the next day or so, treat it as a beta feature. Don’t change 100 tags without checking whether the edits are “sticking.”

Ideas? In theory, I could make every field editable this way. But I’m concerned about a cluttered user interface. What do you think?

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Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

Downtime at 3am EST

I’m taking the site down for an hour at 3am EST (9:00 GMT). With luck, I’ll have some new features to announce shortly!

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Sunday, December 25th, 2005

Holiday tag suggestion

If you want to share your holiday loot, consider using tags like Christmas 2005, xmas05, Chanukah 2005, etc. We’ll tag combine and compare notes!

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Saturday, December 24th, 2005

PCWorld does the LibraryThing

Christmas presents from the Mainstream Media! PCWorld’s February issue (on the web, if not the newsstands) has a feature article Scott Spanbauer “New, Improved Web,” on “Web 2.0” applications. The “Collaboration & Community” section covers companies like Flickr,, Facebook—and LibraryThing!

For book lovers, it’s a LibraryThing: This site is similar to, but for the tweed set. If you love books, and love people who love books, LibraryThing is for you. Start by using the service to catalog your book collection: Tag your books by topic, share your catalog with others, and then endlessly browse the titles that they have on their shelves. The utterly book obsessed can add the LibraryThing widget to a blog to show visitors what they have been reading lately. Listing up to 200 books is free; listing any number of books beyond that costs either $10 per year or a one-time $25 fee.”

Except for the part about the “tweed set”—are readers as marginal as that?—that’s pretty sweet.

In related news, LibraryThing has been picked up by a third Welsh-language blog (see the buzz page). It makes more sense than you might think; the National Library of Wales is one of the 30+ libraries LibraryThing accesses. And the Welsh are big readers—Hay-on-Wye, the world’s greatest bookstore-town is located there. And they probably wear tweed a lot too.

(Hat tip to Steve Cohen’s LibraryStuff for the link.)

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Wednesday, December 21st, 2005

Flash developer wanted!

I’m looking to make a new, better LibraryThing blog widget. Have you seen those Flickr badges? I’ve got one over on the right, although it may not work*. If it’s not working, here’s a verbal description: The badge presents a grid of small photographs that come and go dynamically and randomly. From time to time a square of four photos fades out and is replaced by a larger photo, which then shrinks back to full one of the small squares. You can click on a photo at any time to jump to Flickr’s page for that photo.

Anyway, I’d like to do something similar for LibraryThing books—a Flash-based dynamic widget. It need not act like the Flickr badge at all, but it should be dynamic and fun—a little moving window into someone’s library. I would handle the server end.

I’m open to different ways of doing this. If there was enough interest I’d do a contest or sponsor an open-source project. But I lean toward a straight contract job at market rates. Rather than post the job somewhere, I thought I’d start here. That way the money can go to someone who loves books as much as I do.

What do people think of my plan? How do you think a dynamic widget should work? Are you interested in the job? Do you know anyone who might be interested?

* It’s trying to show all the public photos tagged “librarything,” but it just shows “no such photos.” For the life of me I can’t figure out why it’s not working. The process is simplicity itself—I CAN’T be doing it wrong. Does anyone know what’s wrong here? Maybe it’s just a server issue and it’ll be working soon.

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Tuesday, December 20th, 2005

Customize your blog widget

Blogger Julie Meloni (No Fancy Name) has written a detailed guide to customizing your LibraryThing blog widget. As she explains, LibraryThing provides three preset styles and a “don’t style it” setting. She explains how to use the “don’t style it” setting to customize the widget to your taste, in the process providing a smart but low-impact introduction to Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Ms. Meloni is a graduate student in English who also writes computer guides—a great combination!

Check it out at .

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Monday, December 19th, 2005

Upload your own book covers

Use your own book covers. By popular request, I’ve added a feature to let users add their own book covers. You can upload covers from your hard drive or by providing a URL.

The feature is available from a book’s card, edit or social view. Underneath the present cover there’s a link for “change cover image.” At present, you can only upload covers to your own books, and the covers remain yours and yours alone. I’m working on the “big project”—user-determined editioning. When I get that working I’ll also provide the ability to snag and share covers when appropriate.

Here are some covers I found for books that didn’t have any. If you don’t have scans, Google is a good way to find them. Often Barnes and Noble or the publisher has a cover when Amazon does not. For now, I’ve left the feature open for all to use. If people abuse it with non-cover images, I’ll have to restrict it to paid members.

Profile improvements. You’ll also note that the image-uploading in your profile has been improved. Huge pictures are now shrunk, and a handy “view larger” link. A few photos got lost in the process—my apologies. If this happened to you, please be so kind as to upload the image again.

Review improvements. Reviews are now dated and sorted by date. I’m working on an RSS feed for reviews of books you have.

“Returning to catalog.” I changed the way the system handles it when you jump from your catalog into a book. The point is to “keep your place” in the catalog, no matter how many jumps you make between books. The previous system had various bugs. The new one is conceptually much cleaner, but may have some bugs too. Let me know if you find any.

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Sunday, December 18th, 2005

Tags again: GLBT vs. LGBT

I reversed an attempt to combine the tags glbt and lgbt (“gay lesbian bisexual transgender” vs. “lesbian gay bisexual transgender”). In fact, although neither has gotten much use (queer and gay have done better) this is a perfect example of seeming synonyms having a very different nuance as tags.

Here’s the top 20 lgbt books. Only 3 (in bold) also make the glbt list.

This is exactly where tags shine. Could this sort of social nuance be teased out of a Library of Congress subject heading?

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Sunday, December 18th, 2005

Combining tags (heresy!)

I’ve added a “combine tag” feature, allowing users to combine VERY similar tags to be merged on the global level. (No users’ tags are actually changed.) As with author disambiguation, LibraryThing users make the decision. The choice isn’t pushed very hard; most users won’t see it, even if they benefit from it.

You can combine when you see this below the list of related tags:

As blog readers are familiar, I take a hard, idealistic line on tagging. Tags are about memory—your memory. Automated or suggested tags (other than your own) interfere with that process. If you’re gonna use someone else’s mental categories, use an expert’s, like say, the Library of Congress’. I buy Clay Shirky’s essay/talk extolling the “signal in the noise” between tags like cinema and movies.

As the saying goes, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” Reworking the related tags feature got me thinking about “tag synonyms.” Is there any difference between wwii and ww2? What about world war two, world war ii and world war 2? Is some trivial nuance really worth the social loss—World War II buffs thinking they’re alone, worse recommendations, and so forth? After all, the top World War II tag (wwii) is used only 1,300 times, but all the tags together hit 3,100!

So, I came up with a “combine tags” feature. It works like the “combine author” feature, except that the combine page has half a page of “philosophy” on it, begging users not to combine merely similar tags. There is also a tag combination log, allowing finicky LibraryThing-arians to follow the action, and separate tags at need. Like a wiki, it’s easier to correct damage than to do it. The combination log records users who combine tags, but not those who separate them. Go ahead and separate a tag; nobody will know you did it!

I’ve already separated some. In my book Farsi is not the same as Persian. Although Persian is a term for Farsi (perhaps more commonly applied to “old” and “middle” Persian than the modern language), Persian is also a general adjectival form of Persia (which, incidentally, has a totally different flavor than Iran). I also split to be read and unread. To be read implies intent to read. Unread does not.

Well, that was fun. Now back to the book-cover issue…

Algorithmic tangent: There are various ways of thinking of “relatedness” between tags. For the tag pages, I key it to “works” (Platonic books, as opposed to individual books). Tags are related to the extent they are applied to the same works. Using this model, one might think of synonymous tags as tags that often occur together by work but rarely by user or individual book. A little play found this to works okay, but not well enough to be definitive. So I’ve resorted to user control. In essence, I’m using one user-driven process to correct for occasional mistakes of another.

Has any other tagging site ever done this?

Perhaps someone can direct me to where people talk about this stuff; I certainly haven’t found it. LibraryThing’s tag algorithms have all been ex nihilo. This is scary. I mean, if it were up to me, sorting would probably have never gone past the “bubble sort.” Hello? I studied Greek and Latin in college!

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Friday, December 16th, 2005

Four improvements

Searching someone else’s library. You can once again search someone else’s library or tags from their catalog. You can do this with your own too. The search itself is still sub-optimal (eg., not indexing 3-letter words). That’s next up.

See more now the default. Some users discovered that if you clicked “see more” you’d get more information and buttons within your catalog, including the number of users per book and a delete button. But most never users never played with it, and missed out. I decided to remove the button and turn the feature on all the time. I think it’s better. It’s simpler and seeing at a glance how many user have one of your books is just plain fun. As for the delete, that’ll cut an hour off my weekly email load…

To make an omlette, you have to break some eggs. I got rid of the your review icon, which indicated when you had reviewed a book. It added clutter without much funtionality. To check what books you’ve reviewed, go to the profile and see your reviews page.

Widget now shows random books for tags. A user asked for it, and I like to please. You can now make a widget that shows a random book, but only within a given tag.

Related tags improved. I changed how related tags are computed and ordered. The old way surfaced too many popular tags, like fiction and read at the expense of less common but more juicy ones. Take the tag vampires. The old system kicked off with the unhelpful fiction and fantasy tags, and includes others like romance and read high up. The new way exposes the pale white neck of tagging: vampire, horror, anita blake and buffy. Check out the difference between the old and new science tag.

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Thursday, December 15th, 2005

LibraryThing contest (not mine)

I love the way the blogosphere goes in strange directions. So, the LibraryThing book pile contest ended. The top-winner (there were six in all), lucytartan, won two lifetime memberships. As she just posted, she’s decided she’s going to hold her own contest to give them away, one at each one of the group-blogs she writes for. Quoting her:

At The Valve the contest is “tell us your best library anecdote.”
At Larvatus Prodeo, the contest is “tell us about your favourite book.”

So there’s a plug for her blogs. I swear, I didn’t know any of this until she told me.

Lucytartan got hers for artful photography, but I’m open to giving free memberships if other popular blogs want to run contests. Send me an email with your idea. I could use the exposure and the site gets more valuable with every book added. (No it’s not going to become completely free; I got needs, needs!)

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Thursday, December 15th, 2005

Book pile contest results

The LibraryThing book pile contest is now officially over. Users submitted a lot of great photos—128 in all. You can see them all at the Flickr tag “librarything” (

It was very hard to choose, or even to figure out how to choose. So I decided to double the number of winners. I’m sorry I can’t double it again; there were so many good shots.

I favored head-on photos of discrete piles, as I said I would. This excluded some great photos of books on shelves, books in nightmarish piles (Constance Wiebrands) and of LibraryThing members’ libraries (Geoff Coupe), however much I want those built-in bookcases. Partial photos (Chamisa Flower) and photos from strange angles were discriminated against; books with clear, legible titles were favored.

Babies and animals were in woefully short supply. I love Dovegreyreader’s cat-and-pile shot. But the image doesn’t fit in the frame and its hard to see the books. Also, I’m a dog person. CrazyMaisy gets credit for her cat bookend, looking back on Sibley’s Birds and The Art of Raising a Puppy. Intentional?

The original deal was one winner who gets two free memberships, and two runners-up who get one each. That was back when all memberships were lifetime ones. I decided to keep to that, and add three one-year memberships for “honorable mention.”

The winner: lucytartan
Lucy did an eye-popping pile, arranged by color and helpfully snipped out of its background. This idea is not new—a crazy bookstore tried organizing their whole collection that way—but it was nicely done. Extra points for Nabokov, Orwell and Aristotle.

Runner-up: Micketymoc
Micketymoc did a number of cool shots, all in focus and very helpfully snipped from their background. This fish-eye one hit the sweet spot. Indeed, if I have a complaint, it’s that it’s too professional. If I used it, people might think LibraryThing was a serious business, one that hired photographers. I’d lose my indy cred!

Runner-up: kencf
Kenneth’s ordinary book piles violate my aspect-ratio preferences. I can forgive that. But pull back a bit and you can see what the piles are sitting on. Was the the bathroom really the only white space in Kenneth’s place? Ought one to put The Origin of Christology on top of a toilet? (Kenneth replied that books in the bathroom worked for Luther; the Catholic in me has a rejoinder to that!)

Honorable mention: AuntDodi
Here’s a good, sharp mish-mash. Tales from the Clit and Yertle the Turtle? If you didn’t know what a clit was, they could be the same genre!

Honorable mention: Hanz
Capping a pile of Christian books with a Bible manages to inject a message into the very order of the pile, and the angle reinforces the message. One of the cool things about LibraryThing is how different political and religious groups use it without “bumping into each other” too much. Tales from Clit does not often meet Calvin’s Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life. This is probably for the best. But what would Calvin have thought of Yertle?

Honorable mention: Rachael (Chamisa Flower)
There were two excellent gastronomic piles. Chamisa flower won over Selkie30 for being easier to see the titles and without the shadow. But I was please to hear of the existence of the Star Trek Cookbook. I also like Chamisa Flower’s writing-themed pile.

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Wednesday, December 14th, 2005

Gift memberships now available

LibraryThing now offers gift memberships!

Lifetime memberships ($25)
Yearly memberships ($10)

Gift memberships make excellent stocking-stuffers, “top presents” and “balancers.” (I always have a few gifts I can shift between family members when I weigh the piles on Christmas Eve.) Wouldn’t they make a nice present for everyone in your office, library or academic department? Yes, they would, and prisons too!

I particularly recommend them for friends and family with so many books you can’t risk getting them something they already have. Once they catalog their collection, you’ll never have that problem again. When does a present give so much back? Never, I tell you.

Gift memberships means I can finally close the “book pile contest.” Drumroll please…

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Wednesday, December 14th, 2005

Playing hooky in Ireland

Well, I’m back from traveling. For most of it my wife and I were vacationing in Ireland. Then I did some business traveling. Our plan in Ireland was to take it easy. In the afternoons, my wife would would write and I would work on LibraryThing by wifi. Riiiight. In Dublin, that sometimes worked—I treaded water on emails. But in Connemara? See photo below for my startling discovery: the density of wifi and of rocks and sheep are inversely related.

Well, I’m back, rested and ready. Things are gonna speed up again. Thanks for keeping the faith while I was gone.

PS: 81 comments on the last post?!

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