Archive for May, 2006

Monday, May 29th, 2006

The Monde fait Le LibraryThing / Scheduled downtime

Francis Pisani’s blog at Le Monde picked up LibraryThing, prompting a small deluge of French visitors. I’m not quite sure how Le Monde’s blogs work, but it’s apparently an official one. Pisani also writes columns in El Pais and Reforma.

“Je sais, Amazon à l’art de me suggérer des titres susceptibles de m’intéresser sur la base de ce que j’ai déjà acheté des titres auxquels je me suis intéressé, mais maintenant c’est moi qui explore. C’est pas incompatible. C’est différent. C’est mieux.”

I wish LibraryThing had more French sources. This is, however, mostly a function of there being few open Z39.50 connections to French libraries. If you understood that know of any I’ve missed, I’d love to hear from you.

Lastly, if you’re French and love LibraryThing, how about helping out with a French-language version of the site? Shoot me an email and let’s talk.

Scheduled downtime. LibraryThing will go down for 10-20 minutes at 6pm Eastern (midnight in France?) for an extra backup.

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Sunday, May 28th, 2006

Books back from the grave

There was a minor crash. No books were lost. In fact, the problem is just the opposite. If you deleted a book on Saturday, you will find it’s back. The same goes for book-data changes made Saturday (excluding tags, reviews, comments, summaries and any combinations); these changes will have “snapped back” 24 hours. Also, if you added a book on Saturday, and tagged it after—not while—adding, you may find the order of the book’s tags has shifted. This is what happens when the main system fails, but the backup systems (writing all new books to a file and having backups in CA and NY) do not. I’ve learned some lessons from this one too, so future problems should have less impact.

I’m looking forward to the coming week. On Monday Abby finally comes up to Maine, and we buy some cheap Staples furniture. On Tuesday, LibraryThing officially hires two people. Announcements to follow..

PS: It’s a little slow this morning. It needs to build up a “cache.”

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Tuesday, May 23rd, 2006

Authors who LibraryThing (“It’s MySpace for authors!”)

I’ve introduced LibraryThing Authors, a list of members who are also authors. The new “LT Author” button now marks off the author and profile page of these individuals.

I’ve started the list with twenty users whose profiles speak about being authors. These include authors like saralaughs (Sara Donati), anndouglas (Ann Douglas) and misia (Hanne Blank). I’m sure there are many more already on LibraryThing, and I hope others will be drawn by the opportunity to connect with their readers through their libraries. (I’m gunning for Neil Gaiman. He blogged about LibraryThing—won’t he join?)

Although I had mulled the idea for some time, the impetus for implementing it came at Book Expo America in Washington, DC. Abby and I spent a lot of time walking the floor, introducing ourselves to publishers. Having to explain LibraryThing so many times really focues ones thinking. We needed to simultaneously explain it and convince publishers that they should care. We found the best simple hook was to compare it to MySpace.*

“You know how MySpace helps bands promote themselves and stay in touch with their fans? Well, LibraryThing does that with authors.”

How to become a LibraryThing Author. To become a LibraryThing author, you must be a member of LibraryThing who is also a published (or about-to-be-published**) author, having at least one book listed on Amazon or in the Library of Congress. You must also have cataloged at least 50 books. (I’ve waived this requirement for some early entrants.) You don’t need to be a paid member; a free membership will do just fine.

LibraryThing authors do NOT need to allow comments on their profiles. (Go to “edit profile” to change that.) But they do need to let others browse their collection.

Email me for more information or to get that yellow button.

*This tended to work best on people under 35. Over that, it was often necessary to mention Friendster as well, and to watch their eyes for recognition. If recognition wasn’t forthcoming, things could get difficult…
**One of the most receptive publishers was Prometheus Books (Pyr). Prometheus was, among other things, promoting the upcoming novel Infoquake, described as a “science fiction business thriller.” Coming back, I found the author, David Louis Edelman, had signed up with LibraryThing the day before. Edelman is also a web programmer, so he gets my plug; let’s hope LibraryThing helps his book out!

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Tuesday, May 16th, 2006

LibraryThing and Abebooks… The Deal

The short version
LibraryThing is getting a partner. The partner is, the Canadian company that matches booksellers with booklovers. Abe has taken a minority (40%) share of the company; I retain 60% and majority control. With the financial security and resources Abe brings to the table, LibraryThing’s future looks very bright—increased membership, decent servers and two-three employees working on exciting new features.

There is no down side. LibraryThing’s stringent Privacy Policy remains intact and in effect. The contract forbids LibraryThing from giving Abe ANY user data—not one user name, real name or email. Reviews will not leave the site without explicit permission (ie., not some buried legal clause). LibraryThing will not suddenly sprout Abe ads all over the place or prevent you from buying from other booksellers. Rather, LibraryThing will provide Abe with certain anonymous and aggregate data, like book recommendations or tag clouds, to help Abe users find books they want. Abe and I think we’ll be able to make both our websites better.

I want to make it clear I did not just get rich. (I’m walking away with just enough to cover my legal fees and some new shirts for Book Expo America, where we’re announcing this.) I did this to grow the site, and to have some security that I could keep doing what I love for years to come. Before Abe a few bad weeks would have ended development and sent me scrambling for web design work for maple syrup companies. Now I’ll have a stable job and a smart, dedicated team helping me make great things.

LibraryThing remains a community of booklovers. I’m grateful for all the help people have given the site, but you’re not off the hook. You control the catalog data, not me, and I’m not going to stop asking for your thoughts and ideas—they drive the site forward in a way employees can’t. For starters, I want to know how you want LibraryThing to spend its new resources. And just because they’ll be three developers doesn’t mean there won’t be bugs to catch. (There will be three times as many!)

Post about it here. If you want to ask questions, come over to the Google Group.

The back story
Since LibraryThing took off I’ve been wooed by various entities and characters. Early on I made the decision not to look for venture capital money.* I didn’t want to end up owning 5% of an over-funded behemoth, with the 95% owned by people who don’t care about books and want to see profits next week or they’ll turn the servers off. I also rejected every offer to swallow, popularize and commercialize LibraryThing—the idea being that if LibraryThing were less about book lovers and what they wanted, and more about video games and “special deals,” it would somehow be more appealing to “regular” people. R-r-right.

Abe was the first potential acquirer to spot LibraryThing—way back in November. They invited me up to Victoria—Seattle-ish—gave me a tour of their offices—literary quotes painted on the walls—and initiated open-ended conversations about the future of LibraryThing and what Abe and LibraryThing could do together. Hannes (CEO) and Boris (COO) worked hard to find a deal that would be good for both of us.** We eventually found a structure we both liked and wrote a deal around it.

Who are Abebooks
Abebooks ( calls itself a “dating site for booksellers and bookbuyers.” They list books from over 13,000 independent booksellers around the world, helping you find what you want at a good price. Once just for used, rare and collectible books, they now do new ones as well. They run British, French, German and Spanish sites.

From previous conversations***, I get the impression that many LibraryThing users are suspicious of commercial entities, particularly ones that destroy small businesses. Within this context, Abe is the good guy. Check out this Guardian article about Abe and its competitors—how they’ve refuted the idea that the internet would destroy small, independent booksellers; instead the booksellers kept their homey stores and found new markets on Abe.

What will change
As of ten minutes ago, LibraryThing finally hired Abby full-time as its “Head Librarian.” Later this month I’ll be hiring two more developers, including a librarian-developer. I’m assembling my dream team, and together we’re going to kick this site into the stratosphere. For now, LibraryThing’s headquarters are going to be in the apartment above mine, in Portland, ME (so I’ll be able to sneak down and give my wife a break with Liam). If you’re in the area, stay tuned for the “startup barbeque announcement.” At LibraryThing we not only catalog your books, we flip your burgers.

What won’t change
LibraryThing’s Privacy Policy remains in effect. The crucial part reads:

“LibraryThing will not sell any personally-identifiable information to any third party. This would be evil, and we are not evil. We reserve the right to sell or give away anonymous or aggregate information.”

I’ve been so insistent about this our contract PROHIBITS me from giving them anything with a username, let alone user emails and the like.

Other protections:

  • You will not be receiving any emails from Abe unless you consent to it, and we’re not asking.
  • You will still be able to buy your books from other booksellers.
  • LibraryThing will not be plastered with Abe ads.
  • We may feature some Abe content–like links to their author interviews–but nothing too intrusive or annoying.
  • LibraryThing will never make you “friends” with a softdrink, or even a book.

The deal moves LibraryThing closer to booksellers, so I’m compensating by hiring two librarians and redoubling our efforts to provide library-quality data. Abby and I are already signed up to speak at two library conferences, and LibraryThing remains very interested in seeing LibraryThing content in library catalogs.

Lastly, LibraryThing will not be ending its membership fee for libraries over 200 books. I feel $10/year or $25/life is a good price for the service, and users seem to agree. And LibraryThing needs it; Abe gave LibraryThing some expansion capital, not a blank check. Lastly and importantly, paying for something makes you a customer and a member, not a “user.” It turns preference into loyalty. You get a stake and a say.

Thanks to all
LibraryThing has grown because users pushed it on their blogs and on their friends. I have a lot of people to thank, starting with OakesSpalding—its first paid user—and effulgent—its first paid user not related to me. The list of long-time supporters is very long. I’ll mention LanguageHat, saralaughs, wyvernfriend, stevenmcohen, jkcohen, lilithcat, sunny, MMcM, hippietrail, rjohara, ryn_books, nperrin, btripp, wombat, bluetyson, BoPeep, debra_hamel—the longer I make this the more hurt people will be if they’re not on it! My friend ben_a was instrumental in helping me think through business issues and weigh the various “deals.” I’m supposed to buy Ben an elaborate gold sculpture. All other LibraryThing supporters should come up to Portland this summer and drop by the office for a beer. We’ll call it “customer relations,” and expense it.

Lastly, I need to thank my wife Lisa. Without her believing in me, we would have never moved up to Portland for me to work on ideas like LibraryThing. That I managed to develop the site AND arrange the deal owes a lot to her support. Oh, and she managed to have a baby in the middle of it too!

* Particularly after Paul Graham’s Startup School, with Olin Shivers’s wonderful slide: “Venture Capitalists: soulless agents of Satan or just clumsy rapists?” For a great piece on the growing irrelevance of VC, see Graham’s The Venture Capital Squeeze. The irrelevance of VC is very much the LibraryThing story, but whereas Graham presumes hot web ap. startups will get eaten by big corporations for big money—and, one assumes, swiftly lose their cool—Abe provided a better road.
** I also had good conversations with the founders of, an innovative book-search company (PERL hackers!) Abe recently bought it, and even though they have it all, kept it independent.
*** The response to my
April Fool’s post about being acquired by Walmart springs to mind…

UPDATE: Abe’s press release in Spanish! (Wish LT had more Spanish library coverage…)

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Monday, May 15th, 2006

Voice of America does the LibraryThing

VOA makes LibraryThing its Website of the Week, interviews fool. I love how the reporter can’t quite explain it, and sort of throws his hands up: “This is actually a site that’s easier to understand if you take a look.”

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Sunday, May 14th, 2006

Tags and taxonomy: Together at last!

There’s two parts to this story, a new feature and an intellectual level having to do with one of the burning questions of library and information science. I’ve introduced the intellectual question below, and Abby is going to look at it from her perspective over on LibraryThing’s new “ideas” blog Thing-ology.

The Feature. I’ve reintroduced LC Subject Headings*, those things in library catalogs that look like

Great Britain–History–Stuarts–1603-1714–Fiction

Except on LibraryThing, they get webbed into

This feature shows up in your catalog, but also in a new subject section (eg., subject: Aesthetics), on tag pages (eg., tag: aesthetics) and elsewhere. Note that the subjects are read-only. It might be interesting in the future to allow users to add their own subjects, so long as the difference is tracked.

The intellectual element. Second and more importantly, LibraryThing now provides something that has long been the Holy Grail of certain librarians and information people: a direct, statistically significant comparison between user-created tags and formal, professional classificiations—between “folksonomies” and taxonomies—and in the book space to boot. Every tag now shows related subjects, and every subject shows related tags—all with statistical data shown or a click away.

The issue is a hot one, with a large amount of debate on the relative merits of tags and professional classifications, like the LC subject headings. Are tags better than subjects? Are subjects better than tags? Are tags just a fad? Will tags replace subjects? Are tags evil? Are subjects evil? (Believe me, the idea is out there.) Librarians have become deeply emeshed in the debate, with partisans on both sides. Until now, there hasn’t been much in the way of hard data, at least for books. LibraryThing provides that.**

Let the analysis begin! Over the next few weeks, I want to explore the issue. I hope other library and information bloggers will also take it up. If you ask me, the answer is what many of us long suspected—tags can be useful, but they’re different. Tags are here to stay, but they’re not going to kill professional classification either. In my mind the interesting questions are: When do tags work better? When do they fail? Why? Can tags and subjects work together somehow, or are they eternal enemies?

* In fact, all “Subject Access” (600s) fields, so there will also be National Agricultural Library subjects, Canadian Subject Headings, etc. There is an issue with foreign-language headings which will be fixed together with other LT character set issues.
** I don’t want to get bogged down with shortcomings and contemplated impovements here. (Go to the Google Group for that.) Here’s a short initial list: (1) There are language issues (above), (2) There are some character-set issues, (3) Because of how LT gets its information, not every work has subjects that could.

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Sunday, May 14th, 2006

Thing-ology: Our new “ideas” blog

Announcing a new LibraryThing blog, Thing-ology.

For a while now, Abby and I have been itching to do more “ideas” posts, a place to work through what we’re thinking and learning every day. We want to talk directly about Web 2.0, Library 2.0, tags, social networking, user-driven cataloging, suggestion algorithms, web application development and all the other meaty stuff that LibraryThing raises. We also want a more blog-to-blog interaction, where we can notice interesting posts by John Blyberg, Steve Cohen or David Weinberger. Something like that would be out of place on the LibraryThing blog, where people expect the blog to notice what’s happening with the site, not wax philosophical about FRBR.

Now we can wax. We’re splitting the blog into two parts: the LibraryThing Blog (this) and Thing-ology. I’m going to have the lead on this one, Abby on the other.

In a few hours I’lll be going live with a big new feature with some consequences for information-theory debates. I’ll talk about the feature here, and Abby will talk about some of the implications over there.

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Sunday, May 14th, 2006

A Mothers’ Day tag cloud for Lisa and Mom

(we have a two two-month old; can you tell?)

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Saturday, May 13th, 2006

LibraryThing for organizations

Until now LibraryThing’s terms of use prohibited non-personal accounts without permission. Individuals, couples, families and so forth were okay. Churches, schools, law firms and such were not, unless I okayed it. In truth, I granted almost all requests, so LibraryThing has quite a few of these—particularly churches and some nifty museums.

Starting today I have a two stage policy: a slightly different price structure now, followed by a move to a more thorough-going “pro” version in the future. The pro version will be better in the ways organizations care about, such as distinguishing between catalog users and people who can add to the catalog. It will also remove some of the social features, so regular users’ book soulmate doesn’t turn out to be an H&R Block office.

I floated a new price structure on the blog for a few days. The final price structure’s quite modest, I think.

  • Book clubs, knitting clubs, blog rings, etc. Use a personal account. In the future, there will some “group” features so members can have separate accounts but one joined library.
  • Non-profit and not-for-profit organizations (churches, schools, clubs, classrooms). Free to 200 books. $15/year for up to 5,000 books.
  • For-profit (companies, organized crime). Free to 100 books. $25/year to 500 books. $50/year to 5,000 books.

See more at Can organizations join LibraryThing?

Existing non-personal accounts fall into two categories: those who asked for and received permission and those who didn’t. Those who asked permission keep the rate I gave them (usually a $25 lifetime account).

Those who didn’t ask get to keep it for now. I admit not everyone noticed the terms of use link—and who reads that stuff anyway?—so I’m going to let organzations of both types stay at the $10/year personal rate until their year ends. Organizations without permission that took out a lifetime account will see $15 refunded, and reversion to a $10 rate. It’s going to take a while for me to straighten this out, so bear with me.

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Thursday, May 11th, 2006

LibraryThing now the 100th largest library

See end for updates.

LibraryThing has reached its 2,634,375th book! While 2,634,375 doesn’t look special, it is in fact one more than the American Library Associations’s 100th largest library. In dethroning the Kent State system, LibraryThing steps into place as the new 100th largest library in the United States.

Okay, the ALA probably won’t add us to their list. And, okay, LibraryThing isn’t really a library in that sense. (It’s more like the library consortium OCLC—if OCLC were in Lilliput.) But the milestone is pretty cool nevertheless. In nine months, LibraryThing has gone from zero to 2.6 million books. At this rate, we’ll hit the top 30 by the end of the year, and there’s no reason to believe LibraryThing won’t top the Library of Congress’ 29 million volumes some day.

Of course, everyone knows that private collections must dwarf library ones, but it’s cool to see that demonstrated. Regular people have a lot of books. First-time visitors often fixate on the number of Harry Potters in LibraryThing (almost 20,000). But the “long tail” goes very far out. I once regarded Engel’s Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army as a sort of private possession—I only ever met a handful of people who’d read it, and I studied Greek history. Now I have 10 other people to talk to. (Trust me: the title’s boring, but it’s groundbreaking stuff.)

Incidentally, the 2,634,375th book was Gaugin’s Noa Noa: The Tahitian Journal (Dover, 1985), added by the Boston-based sionnac, a hard-core (1,165-volume) bibliophile in Boston. Whoever the heck you are, LibraryThing owes you a beer! I’m down to Boston all the time, and Abby even lives there. Take a picture of yourself with the book. I’ll post it up here.

Now does anyone know somebody at the ALA?

BTW: Steady yourself. The next week or so is going to be a merciless barrage of announcements and analysis of announcements. I have blog entries stacked up like cordwood here, just waiting to go. Some of you may have seen LC subjects tiptoe back in unannounced. There’s a lot more there.

Update: Please note, talk of “dethroning” Kent State is tongue-in-cheek. I am not asserting that LibraryThing is better than Kent State’s library. I’m not even asserting LibraryThing really is a library—you can’t visit, after all, and you certainly can’t take out books! (As Google would say “yet.”) But I draw the line at the idea that LibraryThing and its libraries are all “arbitrary” and inferior to “actual” libraries. On the contrary, many LibraryThing libraries are assembled deliberately and with the sort of domain knowledge institutional libraries cannot match. For a rather heated discussion of this, check out LibraryTavern’s comments.

Update to update: I was WONDERING why nobody left comments, and now I know. Blogger was throwing the comments elsewhere on my server. So you could see them if you clicked “comments,” but they didn’t show up on the main page. (My mistake, ultimately.) So, apologies to the commenters—you must have thought I was dissing you. The conversation is now a bit involuted, as Lycanthropist and I mostly debated over on LibraryTavern.

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