Some examples for how people create book lists / shelves on their own sites.

Other things of interest:

  • IndieWeb microformat for ‘read’, which you could aggregate into lists.
  • Bookwyrm, an ActivityPub based federated book club platform. Can be self hosted. Allows creation and curation of ‘shelves’ and lists. It isn’t primarily meant for cataloguing or as a data-source for books, but it does do both of those things to some degree…The application is set up to share book and author data between instances, and get book data from arbitrary outside sources. Right now, the only connector is to OpenLibrary, but other connectors could be written.
  • Open Library of the Internet Archive has list making functionality, as well as book records in json and rdf.

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.

Back in 2012 E and I gave about half of our many books away as part of a BBQ party. We kept what we hadn’t read yet but still found interesting, as well as reference books and books we had read and felt attached to. In the decade since I’ve bought a lot of new books, based on interests, recommendations, or because they were mentioned in books I did read, and of course based on arbitrary reasons like the title and design jumped out at me while browsing a bookstore. Even though E and I don’t regularly descend anymore on a bookstore like a swarm of locusts on a field, something we did frequently in the past, over the years the collection of unread books I have has grown significantly. Those stacks of unread books carry a certain weight on my mind, a nagging backlog of books to read. I stopped buying for a long while because I ‘should’ read the others first.

Taleb in his book The Black Swan comes up with the concept of the Anti-Library. I don’t remember that specifically from reading The Black Swan, but I came across it again in this posting at Ness Labs. I do remember reading Taleb’s anecdote about Umberto Eco’s enormous book collection though, which concludes with the concept of the Anti-Library.

An Anti-Library is your personal curated collection of books, papers etc. that you haven’t read. Taleb posits that what you haven’t read, but did have reason to collect and adopt into your library constitutes a research tool. Because it has more potential value (in terms of new insights etc) than what you’re already familiar with and have read.

This puts the focus on how I can actively use the stacks of unread books around the house and on my devices, while at the same time letting go of the feeling of guilt attached to it (“I really should read that book I bought soon….”). This switches the perspective from ‘I bought this book to read immediately’ to ‘I bought this book so it’s there when I might need it’. From ‘backlog’ to ‘shelves of opportunity’.

Thinking in terms of an anti-library also allows paying attention to how you deliberately enlarge the collection of unreads, which is a curation task. The unread books aren’t random choices, they are a selected set of personal resources concerning themes you find interesting or that make you curious.

I de facto already have an anti-library, as the result of procuring books faster than reading them. To make it fully visible as such to myself and use it as a research tool, I probably just need to add a few tweaks. Such as:

  • Maintaining an index of unread books. I created a collection ‘Anti-library’ in Zotero, which also contains other collections with the references to things I did read. Zotero works well with both books and (academic) papers. I already had in my notes a list called ‘my reading list’ which is an overview of books I think would be useful to read at this moment in time, which I moved to Zotero. And I could make an additional round through my e-ink devices, and our home to add to the list of unreads.
  • When adding a new unread book, jotting down why I thought to add it. This is helpful context in evaluating it later. I do the same for bookmarks I store for later reading/turning into notes, where I write down why I thought it relevant and to which other things I think it might be connected.
  • Keep doing what I already do, which is checking out recommendations from peers, and what other books the ones I enjoy currently reading are referencing
  • I now post here about books I read sometimes, maybe I should do the same for books I acquired but didn’t yet read, and share the reason I think it might be an interesting book. Have an anti-library stream
  • When exploring a new question, consider which unread books may contain relevant insights (next to exploring what my notes already contain on the question at hand)

Book Case
The other side of a book case, image by Ton Zijlstra, license CC BY NC SA

Peter in his bookmarks points to a description of Bookfeed.io by Swiss blogger Lukas Mathis. Bookfeed.io lets you make a list of authors you are interested in, and then provides you with a RSS feed that will alert you to new books published by those authors. It uses the Google Books API. It’s a clever small personal tool that Lukas Mathis built. I like it. I’ve added a handful of authors from the top of my head, and subscribed to the resulting RSS feed. I also added a monthly reminder to my task list to add or remove authors from the list.

Liked Company of One – Why staying small is the next big thing in business. by Frank Meeuwsen (diggingthedigital.com)
"The real key to richer and more fulfilling work could be to not create and scale something into a massive corporation, but rather, to work for yourself, determine your own hours, and become a (highly profitable) and sustainable company of one."

Pre-ordered for next month. This is something that I’ve been engaging with for 10 years. At one hand I’d like colleagues/staff to speed things up, but it also always increases your needs. Having employees is a relentless responsibility. Networked working prevents those additional needs, but usually also has less effect in increasing speed and versatility, as the connections create more overhead than in the case of employees. I’ve seen peers find themselves with dozens of staff, and no longer doing the stuff they love. I’ve seen individuals struggle to keep moving for lack of impulses that a ‘normal’ company would provide. Now, the blurb and preface of this book reads as someone able to ditch a lot of hassle because of privilege, and trying to turn an individual experience into a theory and ascribe outcomes to one’s own individual ability to act. (And then there’s the awful, red flag like, up-sell to ‘take my course’ after you order the book) Whereas context and your starting position matter a lot. Not all of us can afford a move to beautiful Vancouver Island. But the trajectory is very familiar. My friend Robert Paterson left the banking world for PEI and working from home, and found that it greatly also reduced the cost of living as many expected behaviours or symbols of status in a city and in the banking world no longer applied to him. Reducing the level that is ‘enough’ to somewhere much more manageable. There are many more like that in my peer network as well. So I am at least curious.