Monthly Archives: December 2005

Microformats in library catalogs

There’s a discussion going on in John Blyberg’s blog about librarians as coders and how the right and proper direction for libraries is to have control over their catalogs so that they and their community can make improvements.

In it I hinted at some use of microformats as a way of improving catalog output, and the comment system there was dogged in rejecting my examples. So I’ll put it here.

The idea put briefly is that the RSS feeds and item displays in a library catalog or blog should include just enough semantic markup so that smart library clients – call them “patron applications” – can parse the data easily and make use of it. This might be some intermediate step toward the libraries themselves developing integrated services or it could be an end in itself to see what patrons come up with and run with it.

The specific suggestion is around the notion of microformats, very small bits of standards for XHTML markup that add some sematics to the markup while being still perfectly readable to anyone in an ordinary browser. And here is where I hope my code examples will work…

Rather than having a markup that looks like this:

<b>Title:</b> Anatomy of a Murder

that looks like this:

Title: Anatomy of a Murder

you have a bit of semantic goo that looks like this:

<b>Title:</b> <span class=”title”>Anatomy of a Murder</span>

which looks the same on screen, but which an intelligent feed reader or bibliography program or library bot or whatever you can imagine can read and repurpose to its heart’s content.

The only real tricky part is settling on the names of the tags, and agreeing that this kind of microformat isn’t going to have to be scrapped right away because of some grave problem, and being flexible enough with it at the start to do co-evolution of clients and servers. You would probably do well to start with Dublin Core for term names, and put together something incredibly small to start to prove that the whole exercise was worth the trouble.

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Remembering my aunt Gail Clark

I’m thinking about getting a houseplant to add some greenery to my desk. I don’t generally have a green thumb, but in looking and searching for various alternatives there are several suggestions for African violets, and that reminded me of my late great aunt Gail Clark.

There’s more than I will be able to fit in a short blog entry about Gail here late at night, but one thing I do remember quite well is that her apartment in Royal Oak and her cottage in Lewiston always had a row of African violets growing in tidy pots by the window, and they flourished quite well.

Gail was fond of fried cakes (a certain kind of cake donut, not the puffy poofy kind but more dense). I could always count on being offered one on a visit during the summer to the lake.

For a few years in college my brother and I would help her with her annual move up north, sharing the car driving so she didn’t have to go so far by herself. It was nice that during the school year she was close enough that we could go visit – I can’t say we did quite often enough but I look back on those visits with fondness.

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Rebecca Solnit, “A Field Guide to Getting Lost”

Rebecca Solnit’s “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” has been in my backpack for about a week. It’s one part travel narrative of the American West, one part autobiography, and an odd mixture of a lot of other things. I was able to dip into it at various points and found things that held my attention, and then I got lost in the discussion.

I suppose then it lives up to its title.

I’ll share with you the two bookmarks I wrote out –

“How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” I copied (the quotation from the philospher Meno) down, and it has stayed with me ever since.


The nomadic Chemeheuvi navigated wide expanses of this arid terrain with songs. The songs gave the names of places in geographical order, and the place names were descriptive, evocative, so that a person who had never been to a place might recognize it from the song.

More on Meno’s paradox.

More on the Chemheuvi songs: the Salt Songs recording project at Berkeley, and the Bird Songs. This is reminiscent of the Songlines that Bruce Chatwin writes about in Australia.

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Assistive Media update

I have been going through my blog categories in anticipation of Discardia and am reminded that I haven’t written recently about Assistive Media. I’ll try to fix that now.

Assistive Media is a non-profit that provides high quality spoken word recordings to the visually impaired and to those who love listening to good reading. It has a library of a few hundred titles of short fiction and non-fiction from sources like Harpers and the New Yorker, all copyright cleared.

There is also an Assistive Media podcast available in which a title is picked out every week or so for listening. You can subscribe to it on the podcast page or in iTunes.

We are looking forward next semester to getting help from a student at the U of Michigan School of Information to expand out the database we use to produce the web sites and to streamline some of the production efforts, so that the whole thing runs a bit better.

Like many non-profits, this is the time of year we look for individual contributions to help keep the enterprise going for the coming year. Most of the support we have is from foundations, and it’s enough to pay the hosting bills and to pay for student audio editing time. We have an ambition to greatly expand the number of volunteer reading hours, and that will take some resources.

Take a listen – it’s free of charge and there’s some really good stuff there. A sample is a recording of Jeffrey Steingarten’s “Salt Chic” as printed in Vogue in 2002 – put it on to listen next time you’re cooking dinner.

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Telcos and the two-tier internet

I have my DSL service at home through SBC (formerly Michigan Bell, then Ameritech, and soon to be AT&T, but always the same wires). The service is branded as “SBC/Yahoo DSL”, and my monthly fees bundle in some measure of Yahoo advanced services. They haven’t given me any discounts on any things I really use yet, but it’s clear that there’s a lot of bundling going on behind the scenes. What’s worst about the arrangement is that the only way to get a DSL line is to also have a regular phone line, so I end up having a voice line I hardly use. No big win there.

Telcos have started to wise up to the possibilities of extracting more revenue from customer internet connections by designing enhanced broadband services. Enhanced from their perspective looks like it means priority service for things you pay extra for and worse service for ordinary bits. That’s some enhancement.

One possibility for bypassing telco strangehold on copper from your house the central office (what a quaint notion) is through municipal wireless. A recent New York Times story talks about how the state of Maine is promoting rural wifi (reg. required) as a way of upgrading the set of people who are too far from the C.O. to get DSL.

Andy King’s monthly Bandwidth Report details how residential service is now almost 65% broadband, up from 55% back in March 2005. He’s predicting another 10% growth by next May. An open question: how much of the broadband residential internet will get their better service by some means other than the incumbent telco?

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duckytool – search the web from a command line

Jose Nazario has released a new iteration of his “duckytool“, a command line tool for searching the web. It encapsulates a bunch of web services APIs – Google, Amazon,, Yahoo, and quite a few others – into a simple tool callable from the shell, suitable for building into scripts or otherwise reusing in other ways. It’s similar in spirit to yubnub.

Version 0.9.6 just released includes support for command line searches of the Ann Arbor District Library catalog, something that was easy for me to add in because of the AADL’s support for RSS in their catalog. All told it was about 10 lines of code to add this in. (Yubnub has an “aadl” command that works the same way.)

If your library supports RSS for search results, this could be something you could do yourself based on this codebase (it’s in Python). I’m hoping that some prototype built on this might make up a proof of concept for the library bot I wrote about a bit earlier.

Thanks to Jose for writing the vast bulk of this in such a way that little changes are easy to make.

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Ridership is good news for transit partnership

(as printed in the Ann Arbor News, Sunday 18 December 2005)

I was encouraged this evening while riding the Link Bus home to see that it picked up riders, many of them students, at nearly every stop. It’s clear that the partnership between the Downtown Development Authority, the University of Michigan and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority is working.

Edward M. Vielmetti, Ann Arbor MI

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