After I built a proof of concept of using OPML to share and federate book lists yesterday (UPDATE: description of the data structure for booklists), Tom Chritchlow asked me about subscribing to OPML lists in the comments. I also reread Matt Webb’s earlier posting about using OPML and RSS for book lists.
That results in a few remarks and questions I’d like to make and ask:

  • OPML serves 2 purposes
    1. In the words of Dave Winer, opml’s creator, OPML is meant as a “transparently simple, self-documenting, extensible and human readable format that’s capable of representing a wide variety of data that’s easily browsed and edited” to create and manipulate outlines, i.e. content structured hiearchically / tree-like.
    2. the format is a way to exchange such outlines between outliner tools.
  • In other words OPML is great for making (nested) lists, and for exchanging them. I use outlines to build my talks and presentations. It could be shopping lists like in Doug Engelbart’s 1968 ‘mother of all demos’. And indeed it can be lists of books.
  • A list I regard as an artefact in itself. A list of something is not just iterating the somethings mentioned, the list itself has a purpose and meaning for its creator. It’s a result of some creative act, e.g. curation, planning, writing, or desk research.
  • A book list I regard as a library, of any size. The list can be as short as the stack on my night reading table is high, as long as a book shelf in my home is wide, or as enormous as the full catalogue of the Royal Library. Judging by Tom Critchlow’s name for his booklist data ‘library.json‘ he sees that similarly.
  • A book list, as I wrote in my posting about the proof of concept, can have books in them, and other book lists by myself or others. That is where the potential for federation lies. I can from a book point to Tom’s list as the source of inspiration. I could include one of Tom’s booklists into my own booklists.
  • A list of books is different from a group of individual postings about books as also e.g. presented on my blog’s reading category page. I blog about books I read, but not always. In fact I haven’t written any postings at all this year, but have read 25 books or so since January 1st. It is easier to keep a list of books, than to write postings about each of the books listed. This distinction is expressed too in Tom Macwright’s set-up. There’s a list of books he’s read, which points to pages with a posting about an entry in that list, but the list is useful without those postings.
  • The difference between booklists as artefacts and groups of postings about books that may also be listed has impact on what it means to ‘subscribe’ to them.
    • A book list, though it can change over time, is a steady artefact. Books may get added or removed just like in a library, but those changes are an expression of the will of its maker, not a direct function of time.
    • My list of blogsposts about books, in contrast is fully determined by time: new entries get added on top, older ones drop off the list because the list has a fixed length.
    • OPML is very suited for my lists as artefacts
    • RSS is very suited for lists as expression of time, providing the x most recent posts
    • Subscribing to RSS feeds is widely available
    • Subscription is not something that has a definition for OPML (that you can use OPML to list RSS subscriptions may be confusing though)
    • Inclusion however is a concept in OPML: I can add a list as a new branch in another list. If you do that once you only clone a list, and go your own seperate way again. You could also do it dynamically, where you always re-import the other list into your own. Doing it dynamically is a de-facto subscription. For both however, changes in the imported list are non-obvious.
    • If you keep a previously seen copy and compare it to the current one, you could monitor for changes over time in an OPML list (Inoreader did that in 2014 so you could see and subscribe to new RSS feeds in other people’s OPML feed lists, also see Marjolein Hoekstra’s posting on the functionality she created.).
  • I am interested in both book lists, i.e. libraries / bookshelves, the way I am interested in browsing a book case when I visit somebody’s home, and in reading people’s reviews of books in the form of postings. With OPML there is also a middle ground: a book list can for each book include a brief comment, without being a full review or opinion. In the shape of ‘I bought this because….’ this is useful input for social filtering for me.
  • While interested in both those types, libraries, and reviews, I think we need to treat them as completely different things, and separate them out. It is fine to have an OPML list of RSS feeds of reviews, but it’s not the same as having an OPML book list, I think.
  • I started at the top with quoting Dave Winer about OPML being a “simple, self-documenting, extensible and human readable format that’s capable of representing a wide variety of data that’s easily browsed and edited“. That is true, but needs some qualification:
    • While I can indeed add all kinds of data attributes, e.g. using namespaces and standardised vocabularies like schema.org, there’s no guarantee nor expectation that any OPML parser/reader/viewer would do anything with them.
    • This is the primary reason I used an XSL template for my OPML book lists, as it allows me to provide a working parser right along with the data itself. Next to looking at the raw file content itself, you can easily view in a browser what data is contained in it.
    • In fact I haven’t seen any regular outliner tool that does anything with imported OPML files beyond looking at the must have ‘text’ attribute for any outline node. Tinderbox, when importing OPML, does look also at URL attributes and a few specific others.
    • I know of no opml viewer that shows you which attributes are available in an OPML list, let alone one that asks you whether to do something with them or not. Yet exploring the data in an OPML file is a key part of discovery of other people’s lists, of the aim to federate booklists, and for adopting better or more widely shared conventions over time.
    • Are there generic OPML attribute explorers, which let you then configure what to pay attention to? Could you create something like an airtable on the fly from an OPML list?
    • Monitoring changes in OPML list you’re interested in is possible as such, but if OPML book lists you follow have different structures it quickly becomes a lot of work. That’s different from the mentioned Inoreader example because OPML lists of RSS feeds have a predefined expected structure and set of attributes right in the OPML specification.
    • Should it be the default to provide XSL templates with OPML files, so that parsing a list as intended by the creator of the list is built right into the OPML list itself?
    • Should we ‘dumb down’ lists by moving data attributes of an outline node to a sub-node each? You will reduce machine readability in favor of having basic OPML outliners show all information, because there are no machines reading everything yet anayway.

I think for the coming weeks I’ll be on the lookout for sites that have book lists and book posting feeds, to see what commonalities and differences I find.

13 reactions on “On OPML and RSS for Federated Bookshelves

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