The Library is Open: The genetic librarian

Posted by – February 18, 2010

It is hardly a secret that there are certain areas I focus on which could be explained by genetic disposition - with me being the son of a librarian and a school teacher. A university education was sort of in the cards, and it seemed likely that literature would be a part of it.

A somewhat less expected side effect (although that might also have been spotted on the horizon) was a fetish for… metadata. This has popped up occasionally - from time to time I have written about bibliography applications like OOo’s Bibliographer, JabRef, KBibTeX and the like - but it was my discovery of The Open Library that got me thinking.

Open Library is a website with an ambitious goal: To have a page representing every book in existence - with a picture, description, search tags and library categories for the most common library systems. The goal is to have a high quality source which libraries can access and use to have as exact metadata as possible. I have made a few contributions, among others the page on Catherine Andreyev: Vlasov and the Russian Liberation Movement. Soviet Reality and Emigré Theories, where I added some additional information and a table of contents.

A worthy goal. This is not a project anyone can disagree with. Though it is a hugely ambitious task, it is not a hugely complex one, and adding and editing new entries is actually easier than adding to Wikipedia (even if lacking knowledge never kept anyone from posting there).
Considering how to deal with data like that will naturally bring up a longer discussion, and voila, enter a new, fascinating element: The professionalism of librarians. Looking at the OpenLibrary discussion mailing lists (powered by GNU MailMan, of course), you come across debates like a long discussion on how to deal with doubles in the entries, is a different version of a publication a new book and, by extension, how should a book be uniquely identified in the system, how should OL interact with Google Book Search in a fashion that would make usable, non-amputated metadata available, if a text is freely available, should it be linked/inkluded - and so on. And on.

The entire material is published under a Public Domain license, so under all circumstances it is freely accessible. I would routinely prefer to use Creative Commons licenses, but public domain offers a different level of freedom… perhaps. Well, that is another discussion for you there. I would assume the licensing is chosen to to sync it with the rest of the Internet Archive.

In conclusion: This is an interesting project which I will be keeping an eye on and contributing to. A highly qualified professional discussion of how to deal with this kind of data makes it even more appealing.
The project has also made me aware of the technical implications of the registration of library data, and though it will hardly be interesting to everyone, I have found some interesting articles in the Code4Lib magazine - mostly articles on principle, since I am hardly a library hacker - and the website of Karen Coyle, the OL metadata guru, came to my attention. She has some interesting observations - also of interest for those who are into the copyright discussions going on at the moment.

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