Learn More: LibraryThing

December 10, 2007

[This is one in a series of self-paced discovery exercises for library staff venturing into the social web.]

There have been many software attempts to help people organize their books, but recent social networking sites have finally made the job convenient and — believe or not — fun. LibraryThing is only one of several social cataloging sites, but it is probably the most consistently innovative of the lot.

A member of LibraryThing can enter her titles or ISBNs and let the cataloging muscle of 140 large libraries around the world provide the bibliographic detail. Then she can tweak the content, add tags, browse cover art, rate the books, or write her own reviews. She can even search her books (or anyone else’s) from any Internet connection.

In many ways LibraryThing works like a standard library catalog. But it’s a personalized catalog; they’re YOUR books, after all. How cool is that?

The social side of LibraryThing lets members browse other catalogs, find members who share the same books, chat in book discussion groups, and swap recommendations. Since the site was designed for book-lovers, readers can engage in all the socializing without the pressure to buy anything.

Meaning for libraries

I’ve taught two-hour LibraryThing for librarian workshops, so filling this space could easily get out of hand. I’ll limit myself to just three broad ideas:

  • Rethink the catalog. Library catalogs have always been tools to find resources. Social cataloging sites breathe an element of fun into the old tool. Sure, a patron can find specific books quickly, but he can also write and read reviews, discover titles recommended by thousands of other members who share reading interests, and interact with those readers. Tim Spalding and his team at LibraryThing are always tinkering with new features that the library world would be remiss to ignore. You’ll see features here and wish your library’s PAC could keep pace.
  • Book clubs. Encourage members of your book clubs to get accounts. They could leave messages for each other between meetings or might enjoy writing their own reviews when the big monthly group discussion is over. The group might even use the recommendation tools within LibraryThing to find future club titles.
  • Reader’s advisory. Librarians could track the books they read and tag them based on reading level or interest. When asked to recall a good book, their personal lists will be at their fingertips. Some people list books they own; others track all the books they read. Many (myself included) do both.

Learn more by participating

If you love books (you work in a library, don’t you?) you might get carried away with this project. That’s all right. Go at your own pace. Three or four 20 minute visits to LibraryThing might be enough for you to do a little of everything listed below. Of course, if you get the cataloging bug you might burn through all your free time for the next month in LibraryThing. Hey, I’ve seen it happen!

  1. Open a LibraryThing account. (It only requires a username and password. You aren’t even asked an email address!)
  2. Start adding books. Entering ISBNs will help you find exact editions, but title and author keywords work, too. (You might even be able to use a CueCat barcode scanner.) It’s not impossible to enter a dozen or more books in just 15 minutes.
  3. The cover art visible on “Your Library” page is usually supplied to LibraryThing by Amazon, but you can benefit from other members’ covers, too. Upload your own cover if you’ve got a rarity.
  4. Add tags to your books. (Remember tags from the previous lesson? LibraryThing’s tags number in the tens of millions and uses them well.) These don’t need to be precise subject headings. Use whichever words are meaningful to you: “dogs, pets, beagles, love, funny, favorite, read, bedroom bookcase”
  5. Explore the LibraryThing tag cloud.
  6. Look up a few titles in Search and read some reviews.
  7. Try the BookSuggester a few times and see what comes up.
  8. Add info to your profile page. Be as public or as private as you choose.
  9. On your profile page you’ll see links to other members who share your books. Click a few and visit their catalogs.
  10. Maybe someone shares your favorite book. Leave a message on their profile page.
  11. Partner with someone else doing this exercise and add each other as friends.
  12. Wander into the discussion groups and read some entries. Join in, if you want.

Most of all: Have fun with your books! It’s your web now.

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Social Crosswords Made Easy

December 5, 2007

Alex Byrne, Youth Services librarian at the University Place Library (WA), decided to tape a crossword puzzle and a pencil to the wall. Anyone is welcome to add a word if they know one, turning this into a social crossword puzzle. How simple!

He plans to add a magnetic chessboard to the wall, too. Teens might enjoy the novelty of playing chess on the wall.

Not all collaboration has to be online, but offering fun ways to participate at the library — that’s cool!


Learn More: Tags and Tag Clouds

December 3, 2007

[This is one in a series of self-paced discovery exercises for library staff venturing into the social web.]

We explored social bookmarking last week and briefly mentioned tags. Let’s look at tags — or folksonomies — a bit more closely now.

Formal cataloging involves experts who assign subject headings based on approved lists and hierarchical taxonomies. It’s an organized and presumably consistent way of storing and retrieving materials and information. But there are many ways of classifying things. I might look at a photograph of a lake in winter and think of the words lake, frozen, and cold. You might prefer lake, winter, and ice. We often rely on experts to iron out our differences. Unless we think like the expert who cataloged the item, however, we still might not find what we’re looking for.

Now suppose everyone participated in cataloging. You might imagine people attaching notes to everything (much like the two girls in a delightful video from Harris County Public Library). With folksonomies, you tag things the way you want, and I tag them the way I want. If enough people participate, we might collectively describe any content with greater depth, color, and nuance than formal subject headings.

Consider J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. The book’s formal cataloging in WorldCat shows:

Caulfield, Holden (Fictitious character), Runaway teenagers – Fiction, New York (N.Y.) – Fiction

The collective input of 1000+ people tagging the book in LibraryThing offers all these words:

Because content creators and users generate the tags, folksonomies often present information that the average person finds most relevant. Visual representations of tags (like the one from LibraryThing shown above) are called tag clouds and may give us even more information because they display frequently-tagged words in larger fonts. More people thought those words were important.

Visitors to social networking sites tag content for their own reasons. Each person adds words relevant to him/her, and the aggregation has a powerful organizing effect. If you’d like to know more about tagging and organizing digital information, I recommend Everything is Miscellaneous [LibraryThing/WorldCat], a very readable book by David Weinberger.

Meaning for libraries

Libraries cannot possibly classify everything. Even the enormous Library of Congress (with several hundred catalogers sorting through about 7,000 new books each day) could not handle the volume of Flickr, the photo-sharing website we discussed a few weeks ago. Flickr receives a few thousand photographs every minute. Tagging makes possible the organization of all those pictures.

YouTube members tag videos; Delicious users tag websites; LibraryThing members tag books; bloggers tag their posts. Tagging is everywhere on the social web.

It’s vital for library staff to understand tags. They should know the strengths: that tags accumulate quickly and offer a wide range of keywords. They should be aware of the weaknesses, too: tags can be ineffective when very few people are involved and offer inconsistent word choices (examples: Should we search car, cars, or auto?; Which meaning of the word spring was intended?).

Libraries might also explore ways to incorporate tags into software where appropriate. Some libraries have or soon will have tags and tag clouds in their catalogs. My own library has tags on its staff intranet site.

Learn more by participating

You’ve read enough by now, so this week’s activity can be done in short exploratory sessions of mouse clicking.

  • Explore your Flickr tag cloud. Assuming you created an account for an earlier lesson, log into your Flickr account and go to the “Your Tags” option in the “You” menu. This cloud was assembled with the tags you added to your own photographs. Common themes among photos shine through. Click any word to find all photographs marked with that tag.
  • Look at Flickr’s communal tag cloud. This will call up other Flickr members’ photos. It’s great for browsing, but there’s a search box, too, in case the word you’re looking for isn’t there.
  • Explore tags in your Delicious account. (That was a previous lesson, too.) Your tags appear in a clickable list or cloud on the right side of the screen. You may also click the “saved by X other people” link shown for any particular bookmark and see the collected tags from everyone else who saved that bookmark. Click one that interests you and see what other sites come up.
  • Add more tags to your Flickr photos and Delicious bookmarks. It will make them easier to find and others to stumble upon.
  • Explore Dave Pattern’s biblioblogosphere tag cloud. Pattern’s software regularly scans library blogs and updates the communal tag cloud. A glance at the cloud can give you a sense of the topics librarians around the world are currently chattering about. Clicking any word in the cloud takes you to those blogs doing the chattering.
  • Create a text cloud. Just for fun, copy the text of a long memo or email into TagCrowd and see the cloud it produces. The longer the text, the more likely the prominent words will be meaningful.

IM in the catalog

December 1, 2007

I love this idea and David Lee King‘s library made it reality yesterday:

“We added a Meebo widget to unsuccessful keyword searches in our library catalog. This way, when a customer searches our catalog and doesn’t find anything, they can contact us via IM and ask for help (we also display our phone number if they want to call).”