28 July 2008

Open Library: Online Books Resource

While I have a lot of use for Google Books, and utilize the full-view content available from that site quite frequently (enough to begin to create an index of the genealogically significant ones), I am certainly open to other sites and projects that aim to bring the paper and digital worlds together. In this post I look at the Open Library project, and the potential it has to be a huge research timesaver.

What It Is.

Open Library's tagline is "One web page for every book." As in, "every book ever published", a self-described lofty goal. The site ultimately seeks to populate each of these pages with publication information, links to purchase and borrowing options, as well as links to online versions where available.

If you're thinking this sounds an awful lot like WorldCat, you're not alone. The difference, Open Library stresses, is that this project is open-source, and will be worked upon by the public through a Wiki interface. Users can edit book pages by doing things like adding TOCs, descriptions, publication information, etc. The site is still in Beta, so content is limited somewhat, although they have stub pages for, according to the site, over 13 million books (over 200,000 of which are scanned and readable online). User participation, predictably, is low at this point, so it is difficult to tell what a fully fleshed-out page on Open Library would look like.

What it Could Be.

The benefit and promise of Open Library (as I see it) is its potential to become a quality aggregator site for available online materials. I personally don't see much use for the borrowing or purchasing information as that is readily available through sites like WorldCat or even online book sellers. Of course, if Open Library were to integrate some data from OCLC, it could make the site even more valuable as a one-stop portal for finding any and every book you may ever need.

As for the search capabilities for scanned books, a sample search I ran on "Jones genealogy" returned 13 books, from both Internet Archive and Google Books:

A "Scanned books only" search on "genealogy" returned over 1,000 books. (It is unclear what field a simple search from the main page is actually searching; a similar search for full-view books on Google Books yields over 7,000 entries, but of course those searches default to full-text searches. Full-text search is currently unavailable on Open Library, though it is an option under Advanced Search, so should be coming.)

Some Problems

One runs into problems with the site at times due to its overwhelming thoroughness. In terms of the ingenuity of harnessing the work ethic of the public when it comes to labors of love, I worry about the dilution of effort for certain books when every edition of a book gets its own page. Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has 60 separate entries; Shakespeare's Hamlet has 2,781. Which page do you choose to work upon? Which do you ignore? If one page has a robust entry, and 59 others are empty, what is the value to the user in having to wade through 59 unelaborated pages in order to reach the one with the information he or she is seeking? Will that user even bother and just give up?

While most genealogy books aren't going to see 60 (more or less 3) entries, there are multiple identical editions of some books, so the issue still stands. A case in point is Elizabeth Shown Mills' Professional Genealogy:

Duplicates like this are plentiful on Open Library at the moment, although I would imagine that with time and a dedicated user base, these things would eventually get cleaned up. Of course, separate pages for multiple editions of a single book can be useful if user-supplied notes and descriptions managed to distinguish the editions and noted errata, etc.

In Conclusion

Open Library is still in its infancy, possibly even prenatal. I would label this site one to keep an eye on... if they moved effectively toward their goal, Open Library could be an enormous boon to online research. I am a huge fan of any project that makes books more accessible online. I believe that is the future of media (whether or not the publishing companies kick and scream the entire way there), and a website such as this one that operates outside of the corporate environs could be a huge benefit to everyone, genealogists included.

Kicking the New Knol Edge

If you haven't heard, Google recently released Knol to the public. The site, kind of a blend between eHow and Wikipedia, is yet another online platform devoted to bringing out our inner experts. Articles written and posted to Knol are not editable by other users as in Wikipedia, though, so your inner expert can exist in a blissfully untampered state.

As with the myriad new services and websites launched every day, my first question is always "How can this improve my genealogy research and help me accomplish my family history goals?"

There are already two genealogy knol articles posted, both of which are fairly generally introductory pieces, and probably don't add much to the knowledge base of intermediate or advanced researchers.

I can envision, however, series of Knol articles on research in particular localities (think world-class GenWeb page)... a person could outline online and offline resources for a county, for instance. Or how about an article devoted to a particular family history book, analyzing the quality of the information or noting disproved or faulty information?

Typical of the new generation of web pages, this site will be as good as its users make it. With the high profile Knol gains from being a Google product, there is a good shot that the site will attract some good content. At the very least, it is a site to keep an eye on.

26 July 2008

Flappr: Tasty Photographic Mashup

Mashups, as you have probably heard, aren't just for potatoes anymore. Indeed, mashups are for 2008 what tags were to 2007... the newest way to organize and re-deploy information on the web in an intuitive and useful way.

One of the most useful I have found of late is flappr, a graphic Flash-based interface that makes slick work of finding photos on Flickr. As I talked about recently, Flickr holds huge amounts of interest for genealogists and family historians, in that it turns hordes of professional and amateur photographers into the documentarians of the places and people you are researching.

To wit, I did a search on flappr recently for St. Philips church in Charleston, South Carolina, a place around which life events for a number of my husband's ancestors occurred.

To begin with, I visit the flappr homepage. No login is required to do the basic searches. I enter my search term in the search box on the left-hand side of the screen:

Hit enter and voila, photos of the church, as well as of some of the headstones in the adjacent graveyard:

I love the interface, which is very sleek and fresh, and I also love that there is a release from the overload which I sometimes get on the flickr site proper. Definitely an enjoyable way to do a little research or kill a little time.

p.s.: Sorry for the absenteeism. Between a toddler with two molars erupting and some (gasp!) actual genealogy research, time has been a little scarce!

22 July 2008

Quick Tip: Locating Groups on Flickr

I posted earlier this month about subscribing to RSS feeds for flickr groups to keep tabs on photos being uploaded.

To locate groups of interest, make use of the search function, located next to the Search field on the right-hand side of every screen. In this case I am looking for groups concerning the Civil War:

The power is hidden in that modest little arrow next to the search. Clicking on this arrow gives you a host of search-refining options. Selecting "Groups" from this drop-down menu gives me some great results:

Note that results can be sorted via the sorting links underneath the number of search results reading "View: Most relevant • Most recent activity • Group size • Date created". I find you'll get the most appropriate results sorting by the default, "Most relevant".

Happy hunting!

16 July 2008

Building Newspaper Archives... One Login at a Time

Webware has an interesting article up today about how an initiative called Recaptcha is helping us help computers to read blurred or skewed scanned text from old newspapers... a brilliant idea, and one all genealogists can feel good about every time they login somewhere and have to prove they're human.

Chances are that if you've solved one of those distorted-word tests to secure an account with Facebook, Craigslist or Ticketmaster, you've helped The New York Times inch a little closer to digitizing its entire print newspaper archive from 1851 to 1980.

Read the rest of the article here.

15 July 2008

Automate Your Online Searches

Googling your ancestors to see if any new information about them has popped up online is just good sense. After all, you never know when a new newspaper transcription, record index or family tree may be uploaded with just the item of info you need.

Remembering to do this, with any semblance of regularity is the hardest part.

To help you in this endeavor, FeedMySearch allows you to continually track search results via an RSS feed, essentially creating a standing "watch list" of your search terms and notifying you when something new is found. The service is alot like Google Alerts, which will email you updated findings. I, of course, prefer the RSS route which doesn't add incoming mail to an already deluged inbox.

You can read more about the service from the great post at Make Use Of.

12 July 2008

Google Notebook Bookmarklet

As per the Google Notebook Blog, they have released a Google Notebook Bookmarklet for those who don't use Firefox, or can't install add-ons.

I covered the benefits of using Google Notebook for online research some time ago, and this bookmarklet opens up the possibility of Google Notebook to more users.

The Google blog admits that the bookmarklet lacks the shine of the functionality found in Firefox, but I would imagine if use of the bookmarklet expands, Google will take some steps toward making the Notebook work more universally.

10 July 2008

Cutting Blog Overload

When I finally got my one-year old down for his morning nap, and settled in front of the computer to get my blog reading done, this is what Google Reader had waiting for me:

This adds up to 2,399 blog posts that I supposedly am interested in, and supposedly want to read. And, in truth, I do. But, as aforementioned one-year old will be up within an hour or two, and with other household duties to perform, I simply can't take the time to read it all.

How to cope?

Enter AideRSS and their spiffy Google Reader add-on for Firefox or Greasemonkey.

The extension makes use of PostRank to identify blog posts with the most value, judged by user interaction, linking, etc. You can then filter your posts by PostRank value, and skim posts to keep up on the latest, without having to plow through every post in your lineup in order to find what really matters.

The install for Firefox is incredibly easy... one click and you're done. The usability is great, although it will take me a while to judge just how efficiently or accurately PostRank is determining what "really matters" in my various blogospheres.

This video tells all about the app and how to install:

08 July 2008

Going the Distance with LiveMaps

Live Maps has an interesting post up about calculating distances and area using their maps.

Certainly another way in which Live Maps is outshining Google Maps in the functionality and usability departments.

Set Gmail as your Default Email

The Gmail Blog also has up a tip on making Gmail your default email in Firefox, meaning that clicking on a mailto: link on a web page will open your new email in Gmail.

This is great for someone like me, who has been killing accidental launches of my unused Outlook client for ages!

Gmail Hot Tips

The Official Gmail Blog recently posted a list of their most read gmailing tips. Among the highlights:

  • Tips for importing old email to Gmail... great if you want to create a centralized genealogy email address and have to move messages from other accounts.
  • Little known Gmail features, like the fact that you can bookmark individual messages, because every email has its own distinct URL. Who knew?
  • And the all-important 9 reasons to archive, designed to wheedle, cajole and impress you into laying off that delete button and start archiving.

07 July 2008

FHL Gets Earthy

The Family Search Labs Blog yesterday blogged about the new release of an FHL catalog plug for Google Earth.

Going to the KML lookup page (.kml is the extension for Google Earth files), you can now access the files for various states.

I love the visualization power this brings to the FHL Catalog. If you use Google Earth in other ways (such as locating homesteads or examining terrain) the option to quickly ascertain what resources FHL has available for your research area is extremely handy!

03 July 2008

Remember the Milk... On Your Desktop!

I covered the benefits of Remember the Milk awhile ago, and how it can help organize and "efficientize" your genealogy research.

Thirderror has a great tutorial on how to embed your RTM to-do list on your desktop, so that those lonely little tasks don't get forgotten in the morass of your online existence. I love the ability to pull the online functionality onto your desktop and be able to use it outside of the browser environment!

(Win 98 and XP only.)

[Via lifehacker]

02 July 2008

Feeding Flickr

If you have never perused the photo-sharing site Flickr for genealogy-related photos, you are missing out! On Flickr you can find everything from photos documenting particular family histories, to photos of historic architecture, clothing, jewelery, monuments, gravesites, and more. You can even search by location, thanks to recent "geotagging" efforts. You'll be amazed at what you can find.

As if that weren't enough, did you know that you can subscribe to RSS feeds of Flickr photo groups and individual users? This allows you to receive a continually updated stream of the photos through your favorite feed reader (Google Reader, My Yahoo Page, browser, Bloglines, etc.). As they do for following blogs, Flickr feeds make it amazingly easy to keep tabs on new photos that are being uploaded to groups that interest you. You can also follow the photostreams of individuals, which can be very helpful for collaborative efforts.

Getting Your Feed On

Subscribing to Flickr feeds is incredibly easy. Here's how to do it:

In this instance, I am interested in the Long Island, NY History photo group. While browsing the page of photos for this group, you can see that the standard feed icon appears in the address bar of my Firefox browser:

If you are using Internet Explorer, you'll find the feed icon appearing in the toolbar below the address bar:

You can also find the feed icon at the bottom of any Flickr photo page:

When you click on the icon, you will be given the option to subscribe to the RSS or Atom Feed for that particular page:

Important: Make sure that you are on the "Pool" page for a particular group, or you may end up subscribing to the group's comments instead of the photostream! To be sure, the click option should read as it does in the image above (note that it says "pool feed"). For individuals, this will read "photostream".

You'll have to follow instructions for your particular reader in order to get your feed setup completely. I use Google Reader, so the setup is pretty easy. Here's the final product, the feed as it appears in my reader:

Voila! I can now follow my favorite Flickr groups without having to leave the comfort of my reader!