I’ve been meaning to write this housekeeping post on changes, upgrades, and new sections of the site for awhile, but I’m very excited that it’s also the announcement of a new tool called Otlet’s Shelf, a bookmarklet and Tumblr theme for Amazon.com created by Andrew LeClair and I.
Transition to Tumblr
When Lined & Unlined launched (five years ago this November), it had a section called the Library with a selection of favorite books from my bookshelves. It was immediately the most popular area of the site, prompting nice notes from friends and readers saying they also loved this book, or thanks for pointing out that book, and for this reason it was my favorite area of the site as well. It was easy to browse, easy to update, and, because of Amazon’s Affiliate program, helped to passively support my activities writing and editing the site.
Originally both L&UL and the Library ran on Wordpress, and the Library was dependent on an outdated WP plugin that made the entire WP install difficult to upgrade and inflexible in general. Eventually in 2009 the site was hacked because of this inflexibility, and it had to go offline for several weeks. Every time the intrepid Randy Hunt and I tried to remove the malicious code from the site, it would be hacked again in a few hours and we’d take it offline so that cleanup start afresh.
In the meantime, I started to re-evaluate my decision to use Wordpress. It had never been a tool I liked writing in for one thing, and it seemed way too overloaded with features for the relatively simple writing I was doing. Meanwhile, my friends Liz Danzico and Frank Chimero had both been managing their blogs using Tumblr, and not only did a I like the look of their efforts, but I also liked their focus on writing and the elegance of their understated, language-driven designs. I suggested to Randy that we try moving the site to Tumblr and he was immediately enthusiastic, installing a WP plugin called Tumblrize that allowed me to quickly move all 800 or so posts over to Tumblr in an afternoon and leave the malicious code, buggy plugins, and Wordpress software behind.
Unfortunately, it meant leaving the Library behind too, at least in the short term. For one thing, the database inside Wordpress where the Library’s books were stored was corrupted and unusable. For another, while Tumblr made it simple to post almost anything from the internet to my blog using its bookmarklet, that simplicity didn’t extend to adding books from Amazon.com. What I wanted to was a something as simple as Tumblr’s bookmarklet that would work similarly to the earlier WP plugin, grabbing the title, author, description, and cover image from a book using Amazon’s Product Advertising API and adding with my Affiliate code in a single click.
I set the project aside and worked with Chris McCaddon, a designer at Project Projects, to gently redesign the site to work even better on Tumblr, simplifying the look of posts, adding some of Tumblr’s notes and feedback (which work far better than the comments I had always avoided adding to L&UL on Wordpress), and making the tags a more prominent design element as the site focused increasingly on a number of specific topics and disciplines.
Enter Otlet’s Shelf
Still, I missed the Library. And this summer, when Andrew LeClair joined us at Project Projects from RISD’s Graduate Program, I was eager to see if we couldn’t get it back up and running. We discussed many ways to structure the project and looked at a few sites that do a great job of handling book-related content, including A Working Library and Thinking for a Living. In the end, we opted for a solution that mirrored Tumblr’s own: a bookmarklet.
Once we got the bookmarklet working we quickly adapted the look of L&UL to begin receiving books on its “infinite shelf”, but we were also eager to make the tool we’d built available to other Tumblr users out there. Since I’d relied so much on other people sharing their tools in building and maintaining the site, it seemed only right to share one of my own.
Sharing it was pretty simple. We designed a Tumblr theme pre-built to handle the incoming content from Amazon.com. The theme has a number of different configurations — users can have shelves flow in an “infinite scroll” and can make book covers link directly to Amazon.com if they wish, along with having control of styling, layout, header, etc. Then we set up a website where users can enter basic info and get the bookmarklet. The only question was what to call it.
We looked at many, many names, but, in the end, it seemed fitting to name it after a librarian, and there was one that stood out as an early favorite. A few years ago I’d linked to a talk by Alex Wright, which was part of The Long Now Foundation’s Seminars on Long Term Thinking. In it Wright described a Belgian librarian named Paul Otlet whose visionary work in the early 1900s anticipated the networked knowledge and hypertext.
According to Wright, Otlet felt that librarians were too fixated on the book as an object. He felt what was important was the information inside books and the connections between them. He also felt that the efforts people spent interacting and annotating their books were as important and legitimate as the energies spent writing them, and that these energies of interaction and annotation could also be used for classification and exchange. Wright suggests that Otlet believed that people’s “trails through a document would become a new kind of document.”
To manage this, he conceived of a unique “electric telescope” that would allow people to view answers to questions by telephone on 3x5 cards housed in distant buildings called “radiated libraries”. He even built one: The Mundaneaum, which thrived for a short time before being closed in 1934. Tragically, it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1940, an early precursor to the internet.
Like Otlet, I think the way people use their libraries is often as meaningful and interesting as the information inside the books themselves. I hope the creation of Otlet’s Shelf makes more libraries, reading lists, and collections available for use. As another librarian, S.R. Ranganathan, writes in the Five Laws of Library Science,
- Books are for use.
- Every reader his or her book.
- Every book its reader.
- Save the time of the reader.
- The library is a growing organism.
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