British Library App for iPad

new iPad app launched this week by the British Library that provides access to scanned copies of original versions of 19th century books. This app is free for now with 1,000 titles, but will soon be a paid app offering more than 60,000 titles.

The stand-out feature of the new app is that it offers full scans of original versions. While you can't search or highlight text, take notes, or get word definitions, you do get to enjoy the real deal: aged paper, author notes in margins, embossed covers, engraved illustrations, and colored plates. I can almost smell it (I admit it, I love the smell of old books). Perusing through 'Woods and Lakes of Maine,' I was struck by how much context and texture is missing from straight-text digitized ebooks.

So this is an immersive way to explore old books on a modern device, but I have to admit that I've been spoiled by the interactivity of digital books à la Kindle and iBooks. The British Library app is almost like reading a real book, which is a great thing. But the lack of ability to draw on pages,  search text, highlight passages, or define words seems like a missed opportunity to harness the platform.

Since many of these texts have already been digitized, wouldn't it be fantastic to offer users the ability to switch (or overlay, or display side-by-side) a scanned original page in a book and its corresponding digitized text? Then we could have the best of both worlds. At a minimum, we need a way to take some notes and add multiple bookmarks. That said, this is a great app for the book junkie. It's free for now.

Vonnegut’s Biographer

Author Charles J. Shields has started a blog about writing 'And So it Goes,' a Kurt Vonnegut biography due out this November. What better name could a Vonnegut biography have, really? I look forward to reading it. I'm always struck by how Vonnegut talked in the same fashion as he wrote. From Shields' post about his first meeting with the author:

He walks rather slowly, loping along, and stoop-shouldered too from writing for nearly sixty years. During the walk, we made small talk. Nothing memorable. I had a strange feeling of not being able to get much of a purchase on the conversation. Vonnegut doesn’t converse with you as much as make pronouncements. Apropos of nothing, he mentioned that only one-third of New York City public school students graduate. “Most of them who drop out are black,” he said. “Slavery was not such a good idea. My hero, Voltaire,” he went on, “speculated in the slave trade.”

When we reached the restaurant, the owner, a tall, slim blonde man in his late thirties opened the door and beamed. No one else was there.

“Welcome on a cold and rainy day,” he said, in a Dutch-accented voice.

“This is my biographer,” Vonnegut said, indicating me.

“Well, it’s about time,” said the restaurateur happily.

“No, it isn’t,” Kurt replied with a shrug. “It’s too late.”

Vonnegut died months after they met. Shields plans to post a new entry each Saturday chronicling his five-year journey to write the biography. 

I've read and own nearly all of Vonnegut's books. Slaughterhouse Five is certainly great, but my all-time favorite is surely Cat's Cradle. If you're a fan, do yourself a favor and get a copy of 'Kurt Vonnegut's Audio Collection.' It includes Slaughterhouse, Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions , and short stories from Welcome to the Monkey House, all read by Kurt Vonnegut. Even if you don't like audio, you owe it to yourself to hear Vonnegut reading his own works.

LibraryThing and Delicious Library

Today is the Ides of March, the day of Julius Caesar's untimely demise in 44 B.C. What's does this have to do with the Mac?

Well, I first thought of Caesar. Then I thought of Colleen McCullough's excellent Masters of Rome historical fiction series, which I recently finished reading. That got me thinking about books in general. Then I thought about Delicious Library and LibraryThing, two excellent bookish tools you can use on your Mac. Hence, this post.

Delicious Library

Delicious Library, from Delicious Monster, is a cataloguing tool that is perhaps the most ingenious use of the Mac's built-in iSight I've seen. Scan the barcodes of your books with your iSight (or any webcam or connected FireWire digital video camera) to create a digital catalog. Then browse through your new digital collection. You can synch up your catalog with your iPod, print out your catalog, and get personalized recommendations based on your collection. If you regularly lend out your books to friends, you can use the tool's loan management system to keep track of who has what. I can't put my finger on it, but I find it oddly enjoyable to scan barcodes on my Mac. Beyond being fun to use, it's a great inventory tool.


LibraryThing is a web-based social 'book club' with a user-based catalogue of 24,000,000 books and growing. Wow. Create a free account to get started, enter some books from your library, write a book review, join a discussion group, get some recommendations based on your catalog. You can choose to add just a few books that you most recently read, or enter your entire library (if you enter more than 200 books, you will need to pay a modest fee). Or just surf around to see what others are reading. I could spend days on this page alone. The strength of this tool is its depth of information: pick a title and check out the book info and social info pages to see what I mean. I don't think you'll find better, non-commercial info about a book anywhere on the web. If you really like books, you owe it to yourself to check this out. It's a great discovery tool.

More Connections

By the way, the series of connections that led to this post led me to think of James Burke. I used to love reading his Connections column in Scientific American (he is probably most well-known for his excellent BBC television series). Burke specializes in tracing the interconnectivity of things: how events and inventions in the distant past lead up to the modern day. The connections he makes can be surprising (an example from the TV series: Burke shows how a test of gold’s purity 2500 years ago leads to the atomic bomb).

Check out the James Burke Institute Knowledge Web project — I've had this site bookmarked for years awaiting it's launch. From the Knowledge Web site: "it will soon be an interactive space on the web where students, teachers, and other knowledge seekers can explore information in a highly interconnected, holistic way that allows for an almost infinite number of paths of exploration among people, places, things, and events."

An Automator workflow for bibliophiles

A few posts back I described my experience trying to create a workflow to automate the process of exporting my Delicious Library (DL) catalog toLibraryThing (LT).

Here is the Automator workflow I created: open up Delicious Library, export the book catalog (an XML file) to my desktop, copy the location path of this newly created document to the clipboard, open my browser (Firefox) to the LibraryThing import page, tab to the appropriate form field (I used tabs so it was not relative to browser window location), paste the path from the clipboard into the ‘Upload File’ field on the LT import page, then use tabs and returns to activate the form and upload the file. Finally, move the exported DeliciousLibrary file to the Trash. Once that’s all complete, I threw in a Growl notification to let me know it was done.

And here is the Mac 101 tutorial for starters. Here are a few sources for more automator workflow actions, tips and tutorials:

  1. This site has some good tutorials and a great variety of downloadable actions
  2. Look for more advanced Automator stuff here
  3. Automator Actions downloads: check out the most popular downloads

Automator Frustration

Delicious Library (DL) and LibraryThing (LT) book catalogs. It’s really not ‘synching:’ LibraryThing can ‘synch’ only in the sense that it can compare a DL book catalog (desktop app) with the LT book catalog (web-based app) so that only new entries are imported. In other words, you can add new DL books to your LT account, but I’m not aware of a way to synch your new LT books back to your DL database. I should note that LibraryThing accepts more than just Delicious Library info. It can import from a wide variety of other web-based and desktop apps.

All things considered, I have to say that LibraryThing serves up a pretty good universal import tool (they call it, appropriately, the ‘Universal Import').

In order to save some time, I think it would be nice to automate this process. I started down this road after reader brab asked if synching between the two services was possible. I originally responded that it wasn’t possible, only to discover that LibraryThing can, in fact, import with gusto. I should have read the manual!

Then it dawned on me that this is an ideal Automator scenario: create a workflow to expedite the process of exporting Delicious Library book catalog to LibraryThing. LibraryThing accepts DL exported data, so it should be easy, right? Two hours later, and I am ready to punch the little Automator robot.

While I used Automator quite often in Tiger, this was my first use in Leopard. I don’t know if I was just tired (and I’ll try again later to see if it was me) but I did not have a pleasant experience. Automator was very quirky: the steps I created in the process worked great, at first. Then, when I saved my workflow as an application, it suddenly did not work at all.

So, I opened up the automator process as a workflow again to troubleshoot, only to discover that my workflow no longer worked. My main problem: I exported a .txt file from Delicious Library to the desktop. Then I moved that file to my /Documents folder. Then I copied that path. Then I opened up the browser to the LibraryThings import page to paste that copied path. The problem is that Automator insisted that there was an error with copying my file from the desktop to the new location. And Automator had issues with deleting the file from the /Documents folder once I was done with it. I encountered these errors even though the process worked just fine an hour earlier, and despite the fact that I had changed nothing. I was (and am) pulling my hair out. I checked the permissions of this folder, and they are correct.

I then re-created the entire workflow from scratch; still, I could not get it to work again. Sigh. This is just a simple script to export an text file from DL, copy the file name, and paste the file path into the LT web form for import. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.

To recap, here is the workflow in a nutshell: open DL, export the book catalog to a desired location (my desktop), move that file to new location (my /Documents folder), copy the new location path to the clipboard, open my browser to the LT import page, tab to the appropriate form field (I used tabs so it was not relative to browser window location), paste the path from the clipboard into the ‘Upload File’ field on the LT import page, then use tabs and returns to activate the form and upload the file. For the last step, I deleted the exported DL file from /Documents.

Pretty simple, or so I thought. But Automator does not like my workflow. I’ll have to try again when I have time…chances are that it’s human error. Still, I’m struck by the fact that I had a working automation an hour ago. Now, an hour later, the same workflow is broken. It’s very odd. My conclusion: Automator is billed as a tool to bring automation to ‘the rest of us.’ In general, I think it hits this target: it’s easy to use and powerful. Yet, I would like to see better hints when an error occurs. For my problem, all I am told is that there is an error with a step in the process. I don’t see any logging information to help me pinpoint why or where that error is occurring.

At any rate, once I get a working Automator workflow I’ll post it in case anyone would like to modify it for his/her use. If I can’t get it to work, I plan to find some Automator user forums to post my workflow. Perhaps then I’ll locate the problem.