Archive for February, 2009

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Flash-Mob Cataloging

I’ve just created a group dedicated to Flash-Mob Cataloging. Flash-Mob Cataloging is when a horde of LibraryThing members descend on some small library with laptops and CueCat barcode scanners, catalog their books in LibraryThing, eat some pizza, talk some talk and leave them with a gleaming new LibraryThing catalog.

Why do it? There are many small libraries that use LibraryThing as their online catalog–museums, organizations, churches, schools, synagogues, temples, even some embassies! It’s an easy cheap solution to library automation. (More on organizational LibraryThing accounts here.) And having a flash-mob do the cataloging makes it easy and fun to do the data entry! Emphasis on the fun, trust me.

We’ve done two so far (Rhode Island Audubon Society and St. John’s Church in Beverly MA), to great success. Both were in New England because, well, that’s where the most LibraryThing employees are located. But the concept isn’t limited by location! Anyone can organize one–hence, the new Flash-Mob Cataloging group. So come join us and plan your own flash-mob event. We’ll help you get organized, blog it for you so you can get the word out, and we’ll even send you some CueCats, tshirts, and laptop stickers to give away.

Labels: flash mob, flash-mob cataloging

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

Flash-mob cataloging: We did it!

We did it! Eighteen flash-mob catalogers descended upon the Audubon Society of Rhode Island and left having cataloged a wonderful 2,500-book library (available here).

I’ve posted my photos here. (UPDATE: link is here.) Jeremy has a nice blog post and some photos. Brian, the “Swiss Army Librarian,” posted his photos here.

For me the highlights were:

  • The diversity of people—LibraryThing nuts, local librarians, Audubon people.
  • The Audubon people were grateful, if a little stunned. Katya, who drove five hours to get there, floored them.
  • The Audubon library had its own bespoke classification system–I’m trying to get hold of it. They translated it to tags, which rebellious LibraryThingers added to as necessary (ie., no moths, pshaw!)
  • The couple—librarian, programmer—who competed to do the most books. The programmer won. How did he do it? “I pretended I was killing orcs.” With reference to multi-volume sets (echoing Gimli) “It only counts as one!”
  • It was great showing one retired librarian to cataloging books on LibraryThing and have him say “That’s it?”
  • The books were different. Our last flash-mob cataloging effort was for an Episcopal church, which had a lot of overlap with my library and interests. The Audubon Society shared only two of those books, and only one with me (The Diversity of Life). My dad’s (partial) library overlapped a lot more.
  • What do we make of the Personality of insects? Carl Sandburg also had a copy. But LCSH does not allow “Personality” to be so subdivided. Species-ists!
  • Most Legacy Libraries share no books. Darwin and Hemingway do, of course. And Walker Percy who has, I think, the best library of the Legacy Libraries, excepting maybe Jefferson.
  • As Jeremy points out in the notes, Audubon shares with Ian Flemming James Bond’s Birds of the West Indies. (Yes, that’s where he got the name.)
  • Again, Katya did all the “hard” cataloging, including two not in WorldCat.
  • Books with rulers. News to me.
  • Taxidermy animals. My son, Liam, should have been there.
  • Mike and I fixed bugs in real time–and pushing collections (again) by mistake. (We pushed a major speed-up for the Audubon library alone; I’ll be looking at extending it to all members.)

Next time we do this, we need to plan for a group-wide dinner/drinks afterward. With no group event, Mike, Jeremy, Katya and I headed to Cafe of India in Harvard Square for dinner, and a brief prowl of Harvard Book Store. Mike and I learned a lot, as usual. If librarianship were to be extinguished from the earth, I bet Jeremy and Katya could bring it back–with all the rigor it ever had (although it would be friendlier to tags).

Thanks to everyone who participated. You gave a day’s worth of your time, with only a CueCat and a t-shirt in return–and the knowledge that naturalists throughout Rhode Island will be able to search the Audubon library from home, something many public libraries in New England still don’t allow!

What’s next? With a church and an Audubon society under our belt, I want to do something different, like a historical society.* Katya and Jeremy both had good ideas there–something in Maine perhaps? Stay tuned!

Labels: Audubon Society, flash mob, flash-mob cataloging

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Flash-Mob Cataloging Party: Rhode Island Audubon Society

It’s time for another cataloging flash-mob*! This time we’re heading to the Audubon Society of Rhode Island to add their small lending collection to LibraryThing.

LibraryThing members can help catalog around 2,000 items at the beautiful Powder Mill Ledges Wildlife Refuge, where I’m told we can take a nice walk for a break if the weather cooperates.

Need a little motivation? Read about our previous flash mob cataloging party in November here.
* The LibraryThing wiki page for the event.
* The day: Saturday, February 21st.
* The time: TBD, probably 10:00 a.m. till 4:00 p.m., but come whenever you’re able.
* The place: Rhode Island Audubon Society Powder Mill Ledges Wildlife Refuge, 12 Sanderson Road, Smithfield, RI (Google map)
* Lunch will be provided by the Audubon Society

RSVP to sonya (at)

*What’s a flash mob?

Labels: Audubon Society, cataloging, flash mob, party, Rhode Island, RI

Monday, February 9th, 2009

February Early Reviewer books

The February batch of Early Reviewer books is up! We’ve got 68 books this month, and a grand total of 1760 copies to give out.

(Not enough books to choose from, you say? Check out our new Member Giveaway program as well. Member Giveaways is like Early Reviewers, but isn’t limited to select publishers–any author or member can post books! We launched it last week, and currently there are 285 copies of 70 books being given away. Combined with the February batch of Early Reviewer books, that’s 2045 copies of 138 different books available right now!)

First, make sure to sign up (one sign up for both Early Reviewers and Member Giveaways). If you’ve already signed up, please check your mailing address and make sure it’s correct. Then request away!

The list of available Early Reviewer books is here:

The deadline to request a copy from the February batch of Early Reviewers books is Wednesday, February 25th at 6PM EST.

Eligiblity: Publishers do things country-by-country. This month’s batch of Early Reviewer books has publishers who can send books to the US, Canada, the UK, Israel, Australia, France and Germany. Make sure to check the flags by each book to see if it can be sent to your country.

Thanks to all the publishers participating this month!

St. Martin’s Press Candlewick Henry Holt and Company
Tyndale House Publishers Crossway Bethany House
Beacon Press Springboard Press Doubleday Canada
Hyperion Books Firecrest Books PublicAffairs
Other Press DiaMedica HarperCollins
Faber and Faber Harper Bond Street Books
DK Publishing Demos Medical Publishing Orbit Books
Picador Grand Central Publishing W.W. Norton
Springer The Permanent Press Hampton Roads Publishing Company
Shambhala MSI Press Pomegranate
Atria Books Curbstone Press St. Martin’s Minotaur
Andrews McMeel Publishing Ballantine Books Orca Book Publishers
Tarcher B&H Publishing Group

Labels: early reviewers, LTER

Monday, February 9th, 2009

One million facts

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!” — first paragraph of DickensHard Times

Three cheers for LibraryThing’s dilligent members. Our Common Knowledge system has hit 1,000,000 member contributions.

Common Knowledge is an innovative “fielded wiki” for book information—collaborative, piecemeal “cataloging” of information about books and authors. We created it back in October 2007—Chris did most of the coding—and it has exceeded our expectations.

The focus is on things not found anywhere else—not cataloged by librarians or publishers. The system’s biggest strength is probably is series coverage, 26,890 and counting. More comprehensive than paid series data, it is also often of higher quality. There is surely no library in the world that accounts for the Star Wars series (plural) better than what LibraryThing members have assembled! Common Knowledge also tracks some 8,860 awards, from the Wolfson History Prize to Nestlé Smarties Book Prize.

Fun, if not quite as full, are lists of 78 books with Lincoln in them, and 23 with Emma Goldman and Puck. Almost 1,700 books take place in New York, 90 in Mars and 49 in Hell. Some 626 authors went to Harvard, three were gas station attendants and four were burried in Uppsala Cathedral. No doubt, there are more of all, but the data is starting to really pile up—a confirmation that Social Cataloging is no joke.

Wherever Common Knowledge goes, it will not be locked up. All Common Knowledge data is free for reuse outside the site, with a handy API as well.

Picking up. The one-millionth entry came early. Edits picked up dramatically when, ten days ago, I introduced a Dead or Alive? page for every member, allowing you to find out how your authors break down on the living/dead scale. They went through the roof when I introduced a similar Male or Female? page. CK also attracted some interest from the initial release of distinct authors—a method for distinguishing between distinct, homonymous authors. (It was a busy weekend.)

The one-millionth Common Knowledge entry was added at 6:47pm (EST) by ladybug1983, who assigned the contemporary romance Taking the Heat as the third book in the series O’Neil Family.

Hey LadyBug, want a t-shirt?

Labels: common knowledge, social cataloging

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

Male or Female?

I’ve added a new meme page for “Male of Female?” (see yours or mine).

The page is similar to Dead or Alive?. It’s based on our Common Knowledge, an editable, fielded wiki for author and work information. So if someone shows up under “Uncertain” you can edit in the right gender.

This feature is, of course, frosting. The cake was released Saturday: Introducing Distinct Authors. Check that out.

Labels: authors, new feature, new features

Saturday, February 7th, 2009

Distinct authors, phase 1 / Steve Martin is funny again

Short version. I’ve added a mechanism to “split” distinct authors with the same name. You can find it on the right of any author page, under “Author Disambiguation.” The feature is only partially rolled-out, without separate pages for distinct authors or other rammifications for the LibraryThing system.

Long version. Since its inception, LibraryThing has been plagued by the “Steve Martin” problem. We all know Steve Martin, the comic and author of Shop Girl. But what about Steve Martin the author of Britain’s Slave Trade, Sold! How to Make it Easy for People to Buy from You or some book about Newfoundland ships. Why was the original wild-and-crazy-guy writing such evidently unfunny books—or who were these other people?

The problem is deep in the data. Libraries have a system for disambiguating authors, called Authority Control, based on coming up with authorized forms of a name and adding dates and other metadata to make them unique, and then applying these forms across the books. Authority control is a good idea—if often problematic to implement—but it falls down in the face of LibraryThing’s data. Libraries don’t coordinate their authority control as much as you’d think, and LibraryThing draws from almost 700 libraries. And even if authority control worked in libraries, 90% of LibraryThing content comes from other sources, mostly Amazon. This data has no concept of authority control. (See Steve Martin at Amazon, for example.)

In solving the problem, I decided to ignore how libraries solved the issue and concentrate on how LibraryThing could do it most easily. Authority control requires librarians to assemble data (eg., birth and death dates) about name variants before a split is made. (Thus was born librarians’ unfortunate policy of putting out hits on individuals they could not otherwise distinguish.*) Although LibraryThing members have done an amazing job finding birth and death dates, it was still a lot of work. And a full authority-control solution would have members updating each other’s records with the “authorized” forms of the names!

I felt a better way could be found. Instead of establishing unique names and pushing them to records, members could split works arbitrarily, and the authors would come to be known by the name they share and the works that cluster under them. This is actually an old system—calling someone “the author of Ivanhoe” or “the one who wrote the Parthian history.” And, as with other features of LibraryThing cataloging, it accords with how regular people talk about. In a real-world situation, like a meeting of Newfoundland commedians, you wouldn’t refer to “Martin, Steve, 1945-” and “Martin, Steve, 1947-” but “Steve Martin, you know, the one who wrote Shopgirl” and “Steve Martin, the one who wrote that book about that boat.”

How it works. To split an author, find the area on the right labelled “Author Disambiguation.” It will take you to a splitting page; here’s Steve Martin’s. This page allows you to assign all the author’s works to numbers. As you assign the works, LibraryThing assigns separate colors, making it easy to see at a glance how the thing is going.

More to do. This is just a first step. The “distinct authors” feature has to “go” all sorts of places on the site. First up will be separate pages for distinct authors–and a “disambiguation page” (a la Wikipedia) tying them together. Once that’s done we can move to separate author metadata, such as Common Knowledge, bettween distinct authors.

Quite frankly, I’m going to do a few more things and then let this sit for a while. My main focus right now—and Chris’—is to see “collections” to the finish line. When I realized I could bang out the first phase of distinct authors in a long evening (it’s after 5am now), I went ahead and did it. But now I need to refocus on collections.

Talk about it. I’ve set up a New features post to discuss the change, and its potential rammifications. I suspect that the Combiners! group will get in on the act quickly as well, working out various technical issues. They have a number of threads (here, here and here, at least), in which members have made lists of “identically named authors.” They would be a good starting-point.

*The hits are, of course, carried out by OCLC.

Labels: distinct authors, new feature, new features

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

Member Giveaways: Early Reviewers for everyone

We’ve just introduced a major new feature: Member Giveaway, a simple but flexible way for authors to get review copies into readers’ hands, and other members to clean out their attics!

Member Giveaway is built on top of our Early Reviewers program, which invites publishers to send LibraryThing members pre-publication copies of upcoming books. It has been a huge success, often giving out more than 1,500 books per month. But Early Reviewers has strict rules on participating, quantity and release dates, to keep up quality and encourage publishers to send out as many copies as they could spare.

Member Giveaway differs from Early Reviewers in a couple of ways:

  • Any LibraryThing member can participate.
  • There are no quantity restrictions. You can post a single book or a hundred.
  • Books do not need to be pre-release or even new.
  • Members are encouraged to review Giveaway books, but not reviewing them cannot hurt you.
  • Giveaway selection is random, not based on a similar-books algorithm. To discourage sockpuppetry, requesting members must have cataloged at least fifty books or be a premium (ie., paid) member.
  • Early Reviewers has a bird, but Member Giveaways uses squirrels. As you know, squirrels are lovely, sociable animals who share books readily.

Some other fun details:

  • If you’ve signed up for Early Reviewers, you are ready for Member Giveaways. The two programs have the same sign-up.
  • When you post a book you have a lot of options, including length of time it will last and where you’re willing to send it.
  • The sending member is responsible for all shipping. If you request and receive a book, the sending member will get your shipping address.

We made Member Giveaway for authors who couldn’t get their publisher to sign on to Early Reviewers, couldn’t get enough copies together or whose book was already out. (Early Reviewers also does not allow most self-published works, which has angered a few members, but both publishers and members reacted strongly when we included self-published books before.)

Publishers and authors aside we wanted to give regular members a chance to send good books to good homes. We have long pondered whether LibraryThing should enable book-swaps. But our friends at BookMooch do that so well already, and swapping is very hard to get right. But many members still wanted a simple way to get their old books to new homes. So, we set up a system to do that too.

We’ve started Member Giveaways off with seven great books.

Cancer is a Bitch and Beef were offered by my friend Larry Weissman, literary agent to both authors.

Released this Fall, both have already drawn great reviews from LibraryThing members and others. LibraryThing member skrishna wrote of Cancer Is a Bitch: “It’s funny, witty, sarcastic and will have you laughing out loud. Read this book. That’s all I really have left to say.” Of Beef, a microhistory in the tradition of Salt, the Boston Globe praised its “bovine evolution is riveting stuff.” called it an “eloquent, poignant and influential account of man’s historical relationship with the cow.”

The other five books all come from a single member, keigu, Robin D. Gill, of Paraverse Press, which promises bilingual books “at a monolingual price.”

The books consist of Japanese text and English translations of hundreds or thousands of short Japanese poems—haiku and senryu on various topics. The publisher, who is also the author, sent LibraryThing a huge box some time ago, in anticipation of such a program. Abby and I, custodians of the books for so long never got around to reading them, but we will sorely miss people’s reactions at finding tall stacks of The Woman Without a Hole and Rise Ye, Sea Slugs!.

Three cheers for Mike! Memeber Giveaways was developed by Mike Bannister (LTMike) after I rather blithly tossed out the idea of opening Early Reviewers to everyone on a separate page. It took a while, but i is a beautiful, and solid piece of code.

Its completion frees Mike up to concentrate on Facebook full time, while Chris and me (but my programming time is somewhat hobbled by everythin else I do) continue work on collections.

Come talk about it here.

Labels: early reviewers, new feature, new features

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

The Guardian on homophily

From Ethan Zuckerman’s blog post.

The Guardian (UK) yesterday carried a wonderful column by Oliver Burkeman, “This column will change your life” on a topic dear to our heart—and mentioning LibraryThing to boot.

The topic is “homophily,” the “faintly depressing human tendency to seek out and spend time with those most similar to us.” Homophily informs whom we spent time with and filters our understanding of the wider world. As the author writes, his American friends were sure Obama was going to win:

“[T]hey hadn’t met one person—not one!—who planned on voting Republican. They were right about the outcome, of course. But 58m people voted against Obama; it was just that you didn’t run into them in the coffee shops of Brooklyn.”

Quoting the Harvard sociologist Ethan Zuckerman that “Homophily causes ignorance,” Burkeman adds that it tends to make people more extreme. The internet can increase the effect, allowing dittoheads of various persuasions to “exist almost entirely within a feedback loop shaped by your own preferences.”*

Burkeman closes by recommending the LibraryThing Unsuggester:

“You don’t need technology to do that, but then again, technology needn’t be the enemy: Facebook could easily offer a list of the People You’re Least Likely To Know; imagine what that could do for cross-cultural understanding. And I love the Unsuggester, a feature of the books site enter a book you’ve recently read, and it’ll provide a list of titles least likely to appear alongside it on other people’s bookshelves. Tell it you’re a fan of Kant’s Critique Of Pure Reason, and it’ll suggest you read Confessions Of A Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella. And maybe you should.”

The topic is interesting to me from a number of different angles. First, as a social network that works largely through shared reading, LibraryThing gets the upside of homophily and is subject to the downside too.

Second, with Zuckerman, I’ve fascinated by the notion of serendipity, of “surprising someone helpfully.” As I’ve argued to library audiences in the past, both Amazon-style collaborative filtering and contemporary library catalogs are bad at serendipity—worse, in some ways, than browsing physical shelves can be. As Zuckerman notes, the somewhat mechanical process of subject assignment can break through the “flocking together” tendency of collaborative filtering. But I bet there are better ways too. Is a true “serendipity algorithm” possible?

Third, my own experience is characterized by some rather vexed homophily issues. Zuckerman mentions “02138” at one point, no doubt baffling some internet listeners. It is, of course, the zipcode of Harvard and much of west Cambridge, where I grew up and spent most of my life. A popular t-shirt (I own one) proclaims “02138: The World’s Most Opinionated Zip Code,”** but there can be no mistaking that opinions largely go one way. Growing up in Cambridge, and attending a certain private school, taught me that respect for diversity was at the center of human virtues—something I still agree with—but that everyone had houses filled with books***, Volvo was the nation’s most popular automaker, that large families and stay-at-home mothers were suspect, that religion was for mental defectives, that Mondale was going to win in 1984, and so forth. In a very real way Cambridge taught me how to think—and I’ve spent the rest of my life thinking through what to keep and what to chuck.

For more on this topic, check out:

*David Weinberger has a very good reply somewhere—in Everything is Miscellaneous?—where David argues (as I recall) that this is an unrealistic notion. Conversations happen because of shared ground. I shall avoid thumbnailing any more because I shall surely get it wrong.
**See Flickr user Nabeel_H for the motto on a window, allegedly quoting the NYT. 02138 is now also the title of a Magazine for Harvard Alumni (see it). As a lifelong resident of 02138, but not a Harvard Alumnus, I am considerably irritated that four-years residence in that second-rate sausage factory gives people the right to claim my zipcode.
***Certain books, mind you. I am a great connoisseur of Cambridge bookshelves.

Labels: amazon, ethan zuckerman, homophily, social networking