viaLibri adds ISBN searching. Please ignore.

You may have noticed that a new feature has been introduced with viaLibri’s latest update. It is something many people have asked for. Most thought it should have been included a long time ago.  As in, from the beginning.  I resisted for many years, but have finally capitulated.  You are now able to search for books on viaLibri using ISBN.

Please don’t.

The reason is simple.  ISBN numbers are a terrible way to search for books.

I will certainly grant the fact that they serve an important purpose for the activities of publishers, distributors and new book stores.  I’m sure they are useful in other contexts as well, especially for those who are only interested in new books. If you inhabit a world where data is always orderly and you like the idea that books are generic objects suitable to the algorithmic demands of data processing and purchaser profiling, then ISBN is most definitely for you.  Happily, viaLibri does not yet live in that world, and I feel confident that most of its users do not want to live there either.  And they do not have to.  They do not need ISBN numbers, and are cordially invited to ignore them.

Because, as I said, ISBN numbers are a terrible way to search for books.  You will quickly discover this the first time you attempt to search online for an out-of-print book using its ISBN number and then repeat the search the old-fashioned way using author and title.  Author/title searches nearly always yield more and better results than searches based on ISBN.

The reasons for this are simple:  many of the booksellers who deal in older books do not bother with ISBNs, so the listings they put on the internet do not include them.   To a collector the information is meaningless, and the booksellers who focus on serving collectors generally share that attitude, even when they are also selling books to the general public.

But that is not the only reason why a second-hand book might be catalogued without its ISBN number.  Often a book will have a number, but it does not actually appear inside of it.  This is especially likely in the case of reprinted works that were originally published before ISBNs were firmly established. There are also many cases where the publisher didn’t obtain the ISBN until after the book was printed, or just didn’t think it was worth including as part of the text.  In all of these cases the book is very likely to be catalogued without its ISBN, and if you search for it using that ISBN there will be many available copies that you will not find .

A few examples pulled from my personal reference shelf will demonstrate.

You might, for instance, want to buy a copy of BOOKBINDING IN AMERICA 1680 – 1910. FROM THE COLLECTION OF FREDERICK E. MASER, published in 1983.  The ISBN number for this book is 0813910137, although it is nowhere to be found within the book itself.  But if you don’t have the number already you will have no trouble finding it by looking in WorldCat or an ISBN database.   If you use that number to search for your copy on viaLibri you will get 12 listings.  Only two copies are available for less than $25, both of them from Amazon.  However, if you try your search again, while ignoring the ISBN, and search instead for: title = “BOOKBINDING IN AMERICA MASER COLLECTION”,  you will receive 39 matches, including 3 additional copies that are priced for less than $25.  This is a significant difference in results.

Or, suppose you stumbled upon a reference to the 4 volume set of ARTS IN AMERICA, A BIBLIOGRAPHY, edited by Bernard Karpel and published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1979.  Suppose you could not resist the impulse to buy a set of your own.   If your reference did not give you the ISBN number (0874745780)  WorldCat will, as will many other online sources.   It is also printed in the book.  The 10 digits seem so precise and unambiguous. It is easy to think that they would be the logical way to find your copy.  Please do not be fooled.    If you use those numbers for your search parameter you will find only 66 matches (including many odd volumes and duplicates)  and there will be no complete sets available in North America for less than $45.  If, on the other hand, you try your search using author and title you will, instead, be rewarded with a total of 104 matches, including five complete sets in North America selling for $40 or less.  The ISBN matches will still be there, but so will many others that would have otherwise been missed.

These are not the only good reasons for ignoring ISBNs.  For me, the most compelling reason is the potential for discovery.  You can’t always know whether the ISBN you are using will correspond with the best possible version of the book you are interested in.  What if there is a later enlarged edition that has a new ISBN?  You would not find out about the updated version if you did your searching with the ISBN of the earlier edition.   The author/title search would quickly let you know.

Sometimes, when you use author and title to search for one book the results you receive will also show you another, different work by the same author that could also be of interest.   With ISBNs you rarely discover anything you are not specifically looking for.  With names and words you may find something unexpected that is even more interesting than the book you thought you wanted.

I would also mention the problem of typos, a problem that comes from both buyer and seller.  These, of course, can happen anywhere, but they are much harder to notice and correct when it is only a string of numbers that have been mistyped.

Are there circumstances where only searching  by ISBN is worthwhile?  Very few.

It might sometimes be useful to check for strays after the old-fashioned author/title search had been tried.  This might find a copy of a book with a typo or other cataloguing error that might otherwise be missed.  Anything is possible.

Sometimes students are assigned text-books that are being continually “updated” by their publishers with new ISBNs.  In this case the student will only want a copy with the correct ISBN.  Used copies that are listed without this information will not be satisfactory, so searching by number would not exclude anything the searcher would want to buy.

Lastly, I have been told that there are online listings of books entered using non-Roman alphabets and that, unless you have a special keyboard, these books can only easily be found using ISBN numbers.  Having never encountered such a book during my own extensive burrowing through online data I am a bit sceptical that such listings actually exist. But I do not rule it out.

It is with these special circumstances in mind that the latest change was made.  I hope it will be regarded as an improvement.  But I still worry that people will actually use it for a purpose it does not serve.

At least I can tell myself that you, patient reader, have been warned.

 

May we please have our description back?

Plagiarism has been in the air lately.  Its latest draft blows our way from a recent report in the Guardian about an award-winning poet whose award-winning poem (with many others) turns out to have been written by someone else.  And he wasn’t even the first prize-winning British copy-cat poet this year.

You might expect otherwise, but the latest victim, Canadian poet Colin Morton, is more puzzled than angered by what seems to be a growing trend. Why steal a poem, of all things? Well, there was a prize, but the imposter has had to give it back.  It has not been mentioned whether Morton now gets the prize money instead. He is probably disqualified by some technicality, but I doubt he will complain. Poets are like that.

And besides, in most cases when this sort of thing comes to light the author whose work was cribbed does not actually suffer as a consequence.  If anything, his stature is enhanced and his creative work receives public attention that might never have come to it otherwise. It was, after all, the poem’s previous lack of recognition that made it suitable for theft.  No more.  One can well imagine that it has been read more times during the  last two weeks than during the first 30 years following its publication.   Its author has become, for the moment at least, a celebrity among his peers

All of which I would not have thought worth commenting on if it had not been for a book we almost bought at about the same time.

The book was Les Jardins Precieux by Raymond Charmaison, a copy of which appeared at auction in Paris last week. It is a book we know well.  There is not much to it in the way of text, but the 8 large plates are a tour de force of pochoir color printing. It is a beautiful book that begs for display, or, unfortunately,  for sacrifice to the framer.  If you happen to be in possession of a copy of Hinck & Wall Catalogue # 54 (“Garden History,” copyright 2002) you will find a lengthier and even more enthusiastic description of it at item number 29.  For those who do not have a copy readily at hand I will reproduce our description here:

Edition limited to 300 numbered copies. Illustrated with eight stunning pochoir plates colored by Jean Saudé. Each plate presents a garden view focused on a special garden feature – a yew walk, an oil jar, a berceau, etc. – rendered in the richest colors of the pochoir technique: for example, the “Salle Verte” is a profound green hedge room with a yellow sky and a pool reflecting all the green variation as well as the vibrant color combinations of the flower plantings in the setting; the rose trellis is set against a star-lit, full-mooned midnight blue sky, again with pool reflections and with a rich parterre and border planting colors. These imaginary “Precious Gardens” are a testament to the power of the printed book as a vehicle for transporting the viewer/reader into the garden and a world of dreams. As Henri Régnier observes in the book’s gold-printed preface, “Il contient quelques feuilles avec des lignes and des couleurs, à peine les aurez vous considerées que vous serez transporté dans un pays de lumière et de soliel...” Pierre Corrard, novelist and poet, established his publishing house in 1912 and began working with such noted illustrators of the day as Georges Barbier, Charles Martin and A.E. Marty. After his death his wife, Nicole Corrard, resumed his publishing efforts under the name “Collection Pierre CorrardSuccessive issues of “ALBUM DES MODES ET MANIERES D’AUJOURD’HUI and similar luxury productions made the house’s fame. Much as their luxurious pochoir renderings of fashion designs helped express the artistry of French haute couture during this period, so did the stunning plates of LES JARDINS PRÉCIEUX give graphic expression to the new artistic visions of the “jardins d’artiste.”

It is, I think I can say, a nice book. We had easily sold our first copy and so thought we might like to buy another.   Naturally, before making a bid, we checked on viaLibri to see if any other copies might already be for sale.  We were not surprised to discover that there were.  What did surprise us, however, was how familiar the descriptions sounded.   Ann Marie had written our catalogue description over 10 years ago, but she immediately recognized her own words and comments in the current listings she found online.

Ignoring the framed prints, there were, in fact, two different copies offered for sale, and each of them included significant chunks  that had apparently been copied from our original description. But not all the same chunks. In neither case had we been consumed whole. Instead, we had served more as a banquet at which the two cataloguers had each picked out just those dishes that appealed to them the most.  Some other parts were, on the other hand, completely ignored.  Perhaps those were parts that we still needed to improve.  We were never told. But if you are curious to know the parts which did satisfy the standards of these particular plagiarists you will find them in boldface in the excerpt above.

All this is nothing new.  I probably would not have thought about it further if I had not made this discovery on the same day that I read the story in the Guardian.   At first I looked at the obvious parallels and thought that, in some diluted way, our copied catalogue description might be like a stolen poem.  I quickly realized, however, that it is not.

In truth, no one can steal a poem.  Once you have written it and shown it to the world you can always put your name on it and claim it for your own.  And that seems to be true of almost any published work that later comes into the grasp of a plagiarist.  Once the author reclaims his authorship the plagiarist is readily exposed.  An author never loses the ability to republish or recite what is rightfully his.

But I now see that there is an exception…

Once a catalogue description has been copied online it is, for all intents and purposes, no longer available to its creator.  In our case, we can no longer use our description of Les Jardins Precieux.  How could we?  If we tried to catalogue another copy our potential customers would almost certainly do what we did: they would check first to see what other copies were available online.  Doing this they would find two others  described with the same words we were presenting as our own.  Two thirds of our description would appear to be plagiarized from other booksellers.  Any expertise or integrity we might previously have had in our customers eyes would be destroyed.  That is something we dare not risk.

_____________________

As I said before, plagiarism is nothing new.   The internet has, however, significantly changed its dynamics, both for the good and the bad.  Much of the commentary about Morton’s stolen poem focused on this.   One the one hand,  the plagiarist is presumed to have found the poems (there were many) by searching online.  This is certainly where the lazy booksellers hunt and trap.  A quick cut and paste and it’s theirs.  They will not always be foolish enough to copy current online listings, but any unlisted item that can be found by Google is regarded as fair game, especially if it doesn’t show up on the first one or two pages of results.

On the other hand, the internet is an equally powerful tool for discovering that copying has taken place.  The first stolen poem discovered in the most recent case was recognized  by its author at an online poetry site.  After that, it only took an hour to find a dozen more.  Obviously, internet search tools make this sort of theft much harder to get away with.  It may mean the end of an era, at least as far as poetry plagiarism is concerned.

It is an encouraging thought, and it inevitably lead me to wonder whether internet search engines might not at some point also bring a similar benefit to antiquarian booksellers.  Unfortunately, I tend to think not, at least as things stand now.   The reason is that, in order for the plagiarists to be easily exposed, the original material that they copy must be easily found.  At present, booksellers do everything they can to keep their descriptions off of the internet once the books are sold.  They do this precisely because they do not want others to copy them.   But the plagiarists will find them anyway, especially if they also once appeared in printed catalogues, as much of the most useful specialist material has always done.  By hiding their intellectual property from easy online discovery the only thing they really accomplish is making it safer for plagiarists  to use their material without fear of exposure.  Hiding material from search engines will become an increasingly futile task as the age of Big Data rolls forward. In the long run, the only protection that will work will be one that makes is it harder and harder for plagiarism to go undetected when it occurs.

Most booksellers claim copyright for their catalogue contents, and a few even threaten legal action against violators.  The law may be on their side, but I have never heard of a bookseller actually taking a plagiarism claim to court.  Copyright is, it seems, a toothless protection.

But I have an idea for something that might actually provide the protection that copyright alone does not.  As you might expect, it involves, once again, the internet.  If that is where the crimes are now being committed, that is where we should put our cops to work.  What I have in mind is a descriptive bibliographic database where booksellers can publish all their copyrighted descriptions in a way that clearly establishes priority and ownership.  It would be a public place where you can claim what is yours.  But it would also be much more than that.  If enough booksellers participated, an open searchable database of this nature would soon constitute a valuable bibliographic reference that collectors, librarians, students and scholars could use for all types of research.  It would make a useful permanent resource out of information that is now mostly ephemeral.  It would also be a magnet for anyone with an interest in old books.  An entry could be freely quoted, but only with complete and unambiguous attribution to the bookseller who was its source.    This wouldn’t make it impossible to plagiarize, but any booksellers who tried to use these descriptions as if they were their own would be soon exposed.  Once established, I would expect the incidence of plagiarism in book cataloguing to decline dramatically, at least among any booksellers who hoped to claim a reputation for expertise and integrity.

And if such a database existed today we would still be able to use our own words to describe our next copy of Les Jardins Precieux.  What Ann Marie had created would once again be hers.

This is my suggestion.  I think it is a good idea.  As it happens, I also have the means to put such a thing in place, but only if I knew that there were others who agreed and were willing to join in.  I am now, as they say “all ears”.

 

Welcome TomFolio

We are pleased to announce the addition of TomFolio (www.tomfolio.com) to the bookselling sites we now search. This puts nearly 2 million additional listings within our reach, many of them offered exclusively on their site. Libribot is also including books from TomFolio in its searches.

TomFolio was launched 13 years ago. It is unusual among multi-dealer bookselling websites in being organised as a cooperative owned and directed by its booksellers. As booksellers ourselves, we are always happy to see other bookselling sites being run by actual booksellers. Welcome TomFolio; long may you prosper!

Will Google “retire” Google Books too?

A few days ago I received an email message from Google; or, to be more precise, from one of its many children, the one named Google Affiliate Network.  They were writing to let me know that Google now feels it has better things to do and will be closing GAN at the end of July.  They did not mention being sorry.  One of our regular advertisers pays us through GAN, so both of us will now have to move someplace else. A new and unexpected job has been added to my hopelessly long to-do list.  I will survive; but it makes me grumpy.

Google has been doing this sort of thing a lot lately.  Quite recently, Google Reader was similarly “retired” (that’s the word they used with GAN),  and iGoogle was retired a few weeks before that.  In fact, there is a long list of products that Google has launched (or bought), ballyhooed, grown bored with, and closed.  The editors at Slate even maintain a virtual graveyard where you can visit the Google family burial plots and leave flowers on the tombstones of the “retired” products and services you mourn the most.

All of which inevitably makes me wonder when the bell may also toll for Google Books.  Until recently that thought would never have crossed my mind.  Google always seemed like some rich uncle who could afford anything and always arrived for holidays with extravagant presents for everyone.  Cost was never an issue. He always grabbed the check .He did it because he could.  That’s just the way he was.

But now I see that sometimes uncle wants something in return. Its not just money, and not even gratitude and market dominence will always be enough.  At least that’s what seems to have been the case with Google Reader, which will leave a huge vacuum in its wake.   It’s hard to imagine that it could have been such a drag on the P&L that it needed to be killed.  If it had been a venture-backed start-up, with comparable traffic and market share, it could  surely have been sold for eight or nine figures.  It could have made money if it wanted to.  It was valuable and loved.  But Google did not even care to sell it.  Apparently it lost interest because it decided that RSS feeds were just too yesterday to bother with any more.  They were no longer cool, or hot, or a challenge.  So they are going to nail it in a coffin and put it in the ground.

It had not occured to me that Google might be fickle.  Until now.  And I probably wouldn’t think twice about it if the only things at stake were browser tools and internet utilities.   Making our vast printed heritage fully accesible to a digital future is, however, something altogether different.   The thought that this massive and essential project may be in the hands of a fickle steward has now given me pause.

So I have to ask, what happens if Google decides it has also become bored with old books?  They are, after all, the most thoroughly “yesterday” of all content media.  The idea of digitizing and indexing the holdings of most of the world’s major research libraries seemed breath-taking a decade ago. Now it seems merely necessary and inevitable.  The thrill and audacity of the project are now long past.  The innovation is done.  The glory has been claimed and spent.  All that remains is the slow and tedious execution, accompanied by a swelling chorus of  disatisfaction with the shoddy results.  And, of course, the expense.

I might be more optimistic if I believed that Google’s founders had originally understood the nature of the thing they wanted to create; that they had understood not just how it should be built, but why.   But I don’t.  Sergey Brin’s own defense of Google Books, published in a 2009 Op-Ed article in the New York Times, makes clear what a naive stranger he was to the world of libraries and out-of-print books.  Several  quotes from that fascinating piece could be called up as testimony here, but my favorite must certainly be this:

 “Today, if you want to access a typical out-of-print book, you have only one choice — fly to one of a handful of leading libraries in the country and hope to find it in the stacks.”

So, clearly, he didn’t have a clue.

Until it is retired I will, of course, continue to use Google Books and be ever thankful for the blessings it bestows.  But I do not expect to have it around for long; and I doubt, in the end, that it will matter.  The great march of digitization will still proceed. The work will be done regardless, and it will, in the end, be lead by people and institutions who understand the importance of what they are doing. They will not get bored.  I do love Google Books now, but will not regret its demise.

And neither, I suspect, will Sergey.  He has his own plane.

Massive update to viaLibri

The latest viaLibri upgrade has now been launched. It includes several new features and numerous enhancements that we believe will make viaLibri even more powerful and useful than ever. Much of what is new has come in response to suggestions received from our users. We hope our latest efforts have satisfied those requests. Other less visible improvements have also been made to improve performance and reliability. Work on these will remain ongoing. If you are one of our many regular visitors we hope you will be pleased with the new version of viaLibri we offer to you now. Please try it and let us know what you think. As soon as the last bugs have been eliminated from this new release we will start work again on the next set of improvements. As always, your continued feedback in that process will be greatly appreciated. Here is a summary of the most important new features you will find:

Book Search

  • Unwanted search results can be removed. It is now possible to remove items from your search results using a checkbox that appears with each item. You can check all the items that are not of interest and remove them from your results with one click of a button.
  • Improved translation. We are now able to identify the language used with each book description. If you click the “translate” button the text will automatically be translated into your native language, as recorded in your browser language preference settings. (Or you can choose a different language if you prefer). The scroll menu is no longer required and over 60 languages are available as both source and target.
  • Improved grouping algorithm. Some careful back-end modifications have further improved our ability to group multiple listings for the same book under a single entry. Repetitive entries are now significantly reduced..

Wants Manager / Libribot

  • Updated Display. We have significantly revised the way want records are displayed in the Want Manager. Readability and navigation are now much improved.
  • Note Field. All want records now include a “Note” field that can be used to record information you may want to save regarding an individual want. Bibliographic references, customer names and any other related details can now be saved for future reference.
  • Libribot Match removal. You can now delete records for any Libribot matches you may not want to save.
  • Match Results for Individual Wants. It is now possible to view a separate list of Libribot matches for each of your specific wants. These lists can be accessed directly from the Wants manager, or from the individual wants records that can be accessed from Libribot match results.
  • livre-rare-book. livre-rare-book has recently been added to libribot searches.

A New Feature for Premium Services Subscribers

  • Libristat. Summary valuation statistics are now generated from each manual search and can be displayed a the top of your results screen. Statistics include average, median, highest and lowest prices for all matching items along with a count of the total of unique matches made, excluding most duplicates. Statistics are recalculated when items are removed from results. Libristat is optional and can be easily turned on and off. It is only available to viaLibri Premium Services subscribers.