Dream of Fields

/ 23 August 2006

Yesterday I got a chance to check in on LibraryThing for the first time in a few months. I was impressed with how much progress the site has made, not only in terms of users (over 60,000) and content (almost 5M records), but also in terms of services. There is now a way to collapse editions of titles together (a kind of communal FRBR), to sign up for an organization account (in case you want to catalog your school library with LT), to query LT via web services APIs (like the thingTitle), to join groups (like librarians who use LT). LT started out as a very simple proposition (we’ll keep your list of books and allow you to share that list with other users of LT) focussed on attracting a community. It attracted the community, and continues to. Now it is learning from that community in order to understand what it should become.

I feel that we too often feel we have to specify a service, understand all the functional requirements, survey the community, get it right the first time. This leads to the “if we build it will they come”. The “it” becomes really big, and the “coming” becomes really important. What if we built just enough to get them to start coming? If we fail, “they” don’t show up, we try something else. If “they” come, we wait for them to demand services, to tell us what should come next, to help us understand the functional requirements. We build for the community that grows. More of an “if they come then we build it model,” or as a colleague put it today, a “dream of fields.”

I have no idea if LT really evolved this way, I’d love to know. But it sure feels like it has. I think we need to learn to evolve library systems in similarly iterative ways. I fear we will miss the boat otherwise.

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