Archive for January, 2007

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

You are what you read

We’ve always pushed the idea that your books are you. Well, now you can see yourself on a single page.

We were inspired by two very cool projects: LibraryThing author David Louis Edelman‘s post about creating photo mosaics of himself from his book covers, and a post by Adam of Tailors Today about creating a poster of every book he’s ever read.

In both cases, one of the challenges was dealing with LibraryThing’s 100-cover limit in “Cover view.” So we made a special nothing-but-the-covers page.

The new page doesn’t replace the “Cover view” in your catalog (which remains the easiest way to visually browse your library), but book cover arts and crafts projects like this will be a little easier with everything consolidated in one place.

Check it out, discuss it here and let us know if you do anything as cool as David and Adam.

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Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

Sci-Fi and Fantasy “Rooms” on Abe

Our friends over at Abe have created two new “rooms,” one for Science Fiction and one for Fantasy. Both sport a modest but low-key and engaging grab-bag of content. Notable among them are an interview with Elizabeth Bear (also a LibraryThing author), info on Sci-Fi and Fantasy award winners—something LibraryThing should do—and a list of the most expensive Science Fiction and Fantasy Books Sold in 2006. A $8,258.40 copy of 1984 tops the list.

Classifying 1984 as Science Fiction rubs me the wrong way, but I shouldn’t complain too hard. Three hundred thirty-eight LibraryThing users also see it that way, and tagged it so. Even so it falls low on the tag page for Science Fiction, because it has a relatively low “tag salience”—it’s tagged Science Fiction a lot, but not compared to the book or the tag’s popularity overall. By contrast, 1984 heads up the dystopia tag, which makes a lot of sense, I think.

Lastly, the pricey books page has a sidebar with the most expensive sci-fi and fantasy books listed on Abe. The winner is a $75,000 copy of Philip K. Dick‘s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, inscribed to Tim Powers, “the warmest, the most witty, the most human & least android person I know, the best friend I have ever had.” That does sound like a remarkably find (and no, we’re not getting a cut for saying it).

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Monday, January 29th, 2007

BHM bookpile photos

I’m feeling generous, so I’m extending the deadline for the Black History Month bookpile contest photos by a day. You now have until Tuesday the 30th at 3pm (EST). Post ’em to Flickr, tag them “LibraryThingBHM“, and we’ll post the winner on the blog on the first of February.

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Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

LibraryThing Hires John McGrath (Wordie/Squirl)

The many faces of John

Abby and I have hired John McGrath (user: JohnMcGrath), the man behind Wordie and Squirl, as a full-time developer. LibraryThing isn’t “eating” either site, both of which will remain independent, but we’re getting their developer.

I’ve blogged about Squirl and Wordie before*. Squirl, which he co-founded with Steve de Brun, is “LibraryThing for collectibles.” You can catalog things like scrimshaw and Pez dispensers. Someone entered their Hobo sculptures. You can do books too although—between you and me—LibraryThing does them better.

Squirl caught my eye when it came out. The guy lived in my town! (Portland, ME is not exactly a Web 2.0 mecca). More importantly, it was the rare (semi-)competitor that “didn’t suck®.” But Wordie is my favorite. Billed as “Flickr without the pictures,” Wordie is basically LibraryThing for people who collect words. Here is my list of products named after their (purported) place of origin and another users’ words that describe flow.**

John attempts to entertain Liam. Doesn’t he look French?

I was impressed by the idea; it’s silly in a good way. And I appreciate the way he put it together–quicky and guided by users. When MESDA asked me to talk about building web aps, I invited John to split my time. We ended up saying the same thing, differently. With Wordie especially, John had come to embrace playful, breakneck and user-guided development, but he was a little more careful about it.***

Over the next months with John, you can expect things to get smoother. Our code and databases, the core parts of which have been done by one person, has acquired a fair bit of “cruft.” Cleaning this out may slow us down in the short run, but there are two of us now, and a cleaner, more orderly under-programming will provide a better platform to do what LibraryThing is known for–relentless, playful, creative and user-assisted innovation.

Incidentally, John did not replace Chris. Although John’s got good Unix chops, he’s not a database administrator. (This week, however, he’s been playing one on TV.) A one-time Java developer, John developed Squirl and Wordie in Ruby on Rails****. In joining LibraryThing, John has been forced to cage his agile mind in the rubber prison of functional PHP programming. He’s taking it like a man.

So, welcome to John. Although we’ve started out with a couple months’ employment contract—there’s a chance he’ll have to take off—I expect him to be around a while, do some great work and make you guys happy.

First up, John, together with a superstar contractor, is going to be making everyone unhappy, taking the site down for a few hours. He will announce the time later on today. Don’t kill the messenger. The action is necessary and will increase the system’s underlying stability, which has not been very good in the last few days.

*According to John, the LT plug was actually a big factor in Wordie’s success. Wordie eventually landed in the Wall Street Journal, but on Christmas Day. That’s like making a hole-in-one when your best friend is looking the other way.
**Anyone who uses boustrophedon is a friend of mine, and lo and behold 15 other people have it on their lists!
***If John was Socrates, I was Diogenes, “the insane Socrates.” Diogenes threw aside convention by living in a tub and defecating in the street. I don’t use Subversion. The parallels are unmistakable.
****The Java link is Paul Graham’s great talk on “Great Hackers,” which is, inter alia, a savagely funny attack on Java developers. I was looking for similar pages about hating Ruby, to tweak John, and all I could find were pages like that one—”I hate it because it’s spoiled me.” Damn. Can something be so universally acclaimed and STILL be good? Note the blogger’s sexist but not wrong comparison: “Coding in [Rails] is like talking to a intelligent, beautiful woman. Coding in PHP is like talking to a pretty but stupid girl. Coding in ASP.NET***** is like trying to explain quantum mechanics to a miserable failure.”
*****Another of our competitors is in .NET, something Microsoft has started touting. Look, a site with 1-5% of LibraryThing’s books, traffic and users runs on our software! Paul Graham’s anecdote applies here:

“A couple years ago a venture capitalist friend told me about a new startup he was involved with. It sounded promising. But the next time I talked to him, he said they’d decided to build their software on Windows NT, and had just hired an eminent Windows NT developer to be their chief technical officer. When I heard this, I thought, these guys are doomed. One, the CTO couldn’t be a first rate hacker, because to become an eminent Windows NT developer he would have had to use NT voluntarily, multiple times, and I couldn’t imagine a great hacker doing that; and two, even if he was good, he’d have a hard time hiring anyone good to work for him if the project had to be built on NT.”

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Monday, January 22nd, 2007

Thanks to Chris

If there’s one thing I hate it’s “corporate HR” emails, those icky coded messages about comings and goings. Did that guy quit? Was he fired? Is he leaving for the competition? Was he caught behind a fica plant with the CFO’s niece? Meet me in my cubicle and I’ll give you the scoop!

The scoop is that Chris no longer works for LibraryThing. He wrote about it on his own blog, Aspiring CTO. I disagree with much said there, particularly the idea that I don’t like him. But I can’t stand up for users tagging however they like and deny that everyone sees things the way they see them.

As he writes, he loved LibraryThing, and did a lot for it. Most notably he architected and implemented the transition to a scalable server and database structure. The traffic data below, taken from our stats program, is a trophy of sorts to that:

Chris did everything from July on. And during that period, server problems actually went down. And Chris did a number of other valuable projects. When I finish the user-interface, I think he will be best remembered for his elegant LiveJournal-friendly widget.

So, my thanks to Chris for the work he did for LibraryThing. I wish him the best in his future plans. PillHelp in particular seems likely to take off. Since more people take pills than want to catalog their books, I suspect he’ll have some even more challenging scaling issues to deal with.

Members saw his post and started thanking him on Talk. Go ahead and leave comments here or there.

*November is in some metrics higher than December because we got Slashdotted, producing a gigantic two-three-day wave that didn’t last. The underlying fundamentals—users, books in system, money—have continued their accelerating acceleration.

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Thursday, January 18th, 2007

City Lights Bookstore in North Carolina

City Lights in Sylva, North Carolina

We’ve just added City Lights Bookstore of Sylva, North Carolina (map) to our local bookstore program.

City Lights is a great illustration of what we’re trying to do—help local, mostly (but not necessary) independent bookstores and the LibraryThing members who love them. City Lights describes Sylva as:

… a small Main Street town nestled between the Great Smokies and the Balsams, two mountain ranges in the highest part of the southern Appalachians. Our goal is to share the literature of the Appalachian region with the world and the world of good books with our community.

If you’re in the area, go ahead and edit your profile to have availability and pricing information shown on all work pages.

Thanks to Chris Wilcox of City Lights for finding out about us and sending us a data file out of the blue. (We like it when the data comes to us! )

For more information on our bookstore program check out Thingology for the XML format. We are also now accepting standard Booksense data feeds, a simple tab-delimited format booksellers upload to Booksense.

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Monday, January 15th, 2007

MLK day and new book pile contest

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (the first since the death of his wife, the NYT reminds me), we announce a Black History Month bookpile contest.

Post your photos to Flickr, with the tag “LibraryThingBHM” by 3pm on Jan. 29th, and we’ll announce the winner on the blog on February 1st.

We have a whole bunch of bookpile contests queued up now, so if this one doesn’t strike your fancy, you can start preparing your piles for the upcoming celebration of 10 million books, Valentine’s Day, Women’s History Month, and more. We’re also always looking for ideas for contests, so send those along too (I’m perfectly willing to have a Groundhog day contest, for example, if anyone thinks they could pull together a book pile for that)!

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Monday, January 8th, 2007

Nine million books / hiring reminder

Yesterday we hit nine million books cataloged. We’re plan to make a HUGE deal out of ten million—a super-duper book pile contest, games, prizes, hay rides, a moon walk—but I’ll let nine million slide with the following:

  • Going from eight million to nine million took less than a month. We’re speeding up!
  • The book nine million was the espionage thriller Triple by Ken Follett. It was added by long-time foxsilver, who gets a free gift account for his luck.
  • If LibraryThing were a “real” library, we’d now be the 10th largest in the country (ALA fact sheet)

Reminder: We’re looking for a database and systems administrator. If you are one, or know of one, let us know. We’d love to get someone local, but telecommuting is also a possiblity. LibraryThing runs on Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP. We offer health, dental and boredom insurance.

My apologies on some projects (author disambiguation, search) taking too long. We’re pretty consumed with the job hunt right now. We did just hire a new developer so once we can get back to developing, we’re going to gallop.

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Monday, January 8th, 2007

Books with similar library subjects and classifications

I’ve added a new and often powerful recommendation engine. It has a long and awkward name: Books with similar library subjects and classifications.* So far, I’ve only got it on Suggester pages.

It feeds off three pieces of “traditonal” library data:

  • Subjects (mostly Library of Congress Subject Headings),
  • Library of Congress Classifications (LCC), and
  • Dewey Decimal Classifications (DDC)

The recommendations are special in a few ways:

  • They can be very “targeted”
  • There is no “popularity” threshhold; books with just one copy in the system often have recommendations**, and it will recommend obscure stuff too
  • It works better for non-fiction than for fiction
  • It fails in interesting ways

At its core, the system looks for shared library data. So if book B has subject S, all the other books with subject S get a “vote”; the winners are the books that share the most subjects with the suggesting book. The algorithm goes beyond this by leveraging the inherent hierarchy of the three systems, apportioning successively “smaller” votes to ascending levels of the hierarchy. Popularity is also taken into consideration, but as little more than a tie-breaker.

At it’s best, the system is spooky. So Into Thin Air‘s other recommendations are spread over Everest, general mountaineering and adventure books. But the “Similar subjects and classifications” recommendations leads with Kenneth Kamler‘s Doctor on Everest : emergency medicine at the top of the world : a personal account including the 1996 disaster, a reasonably obscure (5 members) personal account of the same 1996 expedition. Other times the results are mixed or even odd. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason pulls up commentaries on itself, but also the acclaimed but seemingly unrelated seminal work on the anthopology of magic, E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, oracles, and magic among the Azande. Why? Because both receive the Library of Congress Subject Headings:

Strange bedfellows, perhaps.

*Got a better name? Let us know, seriously.
**Ironically, twice as many works have recommendations (219,000 vs. 120,000 for “people who have X also have Y”), but because they are more evenly distributed by work popularity, half as many books have recommendations (2.6 million vs. 5.9 million).

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Saturday, January 6th, 2007

We’re hiring a sysadmin/DBA

We just added a web developer—anouncement coming*—and we’re hiring again. This time we’re looking for a crackerjack systems and database administrator, ideally one based near Portland, Maine. (We can hope, can’t we?)

  • LibraryThing runs on Linux, PHP and MySQL 5 over a small cluster of servers located in Portland, ME.
  • You must have extensive experience in MySQL database administration.
  • You must be able to step into a high-volume site in transition and experiencing rapid growth.
  • You must be comfortable with rigorous demands of a startup and of sysadmin work.
  • Web development chops, love of books and knowledge of library systems valued.

We’re looking to fill a full-time position, but will also consider contractors, particularly if they’re in the area.

Salary and benefits negotiable. But I’ll tell you, you can see the sea from the LibraryThing headquarters and we’ve got gold-plated health and dental!

We’re looking to fill this soon, so act now. Contact tim[at] or call 207 899-4108.

*Hint: He’s been mentiond on the blog before…

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