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Open Library Demo: Attempting a Wikipedia for books

by David Sturtz

Earlier this week, the Open Library project has launched a demo (I think they meant to say “beta”) version of their site. The project basically aims to create a more open, wiki-fied version of a WorldCat-style, comprehensive library catalog. The “State of the UI” page is probably among the most informative as to how the finished site might function.

I played around on it a little, but found it a little frustrating in its current state. It’s easy to see the possiblities, but it’s not quite there yet. I had a copy of Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture nearby, but I couldn’t find it in the search (probably too new). I located the author page, and there were several of his books listed there and a couple that weren’t. I couldn’t find a way to indicate that those books belonged to another Henry Jenkins. I did eventually figure out how to add a book and entered it (it still doesn’t appear in a search, however). Now what?

The Open Library seems to be aware of the shortcomings of the current site: no advanced search, no ability to filter results to find only books with full text content available, and the lack of relationships between a “work” and the various “editions” in which it appears (see What is FRBR? [PDF] for one proposed way of handling these relationships).

A notable distinction between this project and Wikipedia is the handling of “expert users.” While Wikipedia does not distinguish between “regular” and “expert” users, Open Library has created a special designation for “registered librarians and other certified information professionals.” (I didn’t see any information on how one becomes registered as an expert.) Clay Shirky has argued that as far as Wikipedia is concerned, oversight for such a distinction would be an unnecessary waste of time and energy.

This may work for Wikipedia, which is mostly a universe unto itself, but the data contained Open Library needs to be interoperable with a multitude of systems and standards. Allowing only experts access to what they’ve termed “hard” data (metadata, cataloging info), the Open Library hopes to maintain interaction with these systems while still allowing freedom for all to contribute to the “soft” data (reviews, biographies, etc.).

As the conversation on the project’s discussion lists has made clear, the issues surrounding copyright and licensing of the inbound and outbound data will be the first major hurdle to surmount. Once these policies are in place it will be much easier for everyone to understand how their contributions to the projects will be handled.

What thoughts does this project spur for you?

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