Sunday, April 19, 2009

Library Services

My emotional favorite: Two young people, tremendous technical skill and creativity. Not the richest site, but it's terribly easy to use, and the enthusiasm they have for their product is palpable.  I love the clean design.  I wish there were a few more controls over layout and content, and that their search engine had all the features of LibraryThing, but wow, it just feels good to use.  It has two features I absolutely love (and I seldom love things about software): 1. I can download my library data, so it's not captive, and 2. it goes to Amazon every night and produces a value estimate, which I then squirrel away for my insurance company.  I also really like their integration into other social network software... so much so that I broke a personal rule and authorized their application on my FaceBook page. Nice work, folks.

My technical favorite:  Vast power at your fingertips.  Elegant integration with lots of libraries. They should license the webcam barcode scanner from GuruLib--if they had, I might never have gone looking and found GuruLib in the first place.

Not enough time spent yet:

A note on the GuruLib webcam tool: this is just an excellent piece of UI design.  It opens a small window with the current image from your webcam, with a blank beneath and a single "add" button.  You hold a book up to your webcam until the ISBN barcode fills the image. When it recognizes a barcode, it beeps, snapshots the frame, draws a scan bar across the barcode showing what it is interpreting, and holds until the image changes significantly (e.g. you move the book away), whereupon it goes back to a live webcam view. Then, if you agree that it got the right barcode value, you can click the add button and it locates your book using its user-defined search source list (Amazon, Library of Congress, and hundreds of public libraries). It is excellent primarily because of the way it manages the "conversation" with you, the user.  It doesn't require you to do anything with your hands except handle books and click the add button.  When I use it, my mouse never moves, so I just punch the mouse button to add.  It provides great feedback: it tells you what part of the image it used, you can evaluate if the image is clean and bright enough to be accurate, and actually compare the interpreted barcode value to the value printed on the barcode itself if that isn't enough.  It doesn't bother you with extra notifications or weird visual tics. I didn't even notice the switch between snapshot and live scan until I started thinking about why I like it.  It does just what you expect it to do quietly, cleanly, and efficiently.  Sweet.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Managing the books

I have a few thousand books.  About a thousand of them are on shelves in the house.  Over the past few weeks, I've been VERY slowly sorting them on the shelves so I could find what I'm looking for... and last night I finally realized I needed help doing it.

That's what the Dewey Decimal system is for, right?

So then it occurs to me (naturally) that the web must've already solved this problem.  So I went looking.  And boy have they... as long as you're near a computer, don't mind a short wait for each search, and are willing to enter thousands of books by hand--at least partially.

The good news is there's lots of free services which can generate a complete listing for a book, including Dewey decimal number, summary, keywords, and all the bibliographic information you could want, as well as links to purchase sites (no thanks--I already own the book) give a title fragment or ISBN number or really any basic identifying information. For a small fee, you can also buy a barcode scanner (or adapt your webcam, with a bit of ingenuity), to scan the ISBN numbers which became ubiquitous on dust covers sometime in the last decade or two, which covers maybe 50% of my library.

The bad news is that while that helps a lot, I still have to get the data into the computer somehow--and it doesn't really solve my filing problem.

I want a solution which (a) gets me bibliographic data on all my books in searchable form, (b) doesn't cost thousands of dollars, (c) will allow me to find what I've indexed. RFIDs paired with an existing on-line system seem like the natural choice.  And RFID reader can be got for as little as $50 (and as much as $1000 for a hand-held proximity unit).  Tags cost quite a bit--so much that they violate criterion (b), so that solution has to go on the shelf for now. The price is falling dramatically as manufacturers find ways to print them on labels and manufacture them without a silicon backing, though, so I'm hopeful this will be practical in another couple of years.

For now, I'm experimenting with (my favorite so far),, and as tools for getting me enough data for good filing.  And I'm still looking for a real solution to the problem.