Open Library: irritations …

30 07 2020

The Open Library is a commendable project. To work towards establishing a common, open repository of published works, OL-logowho can argue that such efforts are of no value. I have been using and contributing to the repository of works, for some years. I am not a really big contributor, but at least I still persist in visiting that site for various purposes.

Why am I mentioning this now and here? Mainly because there are some bits of functionality of the services provided on their website that irritates me. I will not bring up any pontifications of how the basic data about publications is structured. That whole area (modelling of metadata about creative works) is a rats nest of irreconcilable ideas, proposals, ideas, and what not. Most of the tensions between proponents of competing ideas originate in different use cases for such data. Some complications emanate from trying to offer backward compatibility — towards previous web implementations and towards old school library science models. So let us not get into that.

What I would like to see, though, is functionality that is supporting the user in operating on the repository. Some of the problems that a user experiences is the effect of user guides documentation not being up-to-date. I know, creating end-user documentation is often regarded by software developers as a punishment, not something that adds to the status of the programmer in his/hers community of peers. And we have historically seen suggestions that documentation is actually bad, that the code itself is the only thing that matters. And in our times, with ideological schools of methods for software development, schools which argue that software should always be adapted/adapting to changed user needs and changing usage contexts, how can one expect that end-user documentation will be complete, correct, and consistent?

Well, back to Open Library. What I have encountered, when trying to “Add a Book”, is a web page of the following type:


If this image is hard to read, the core text I get is:

Sorry. There seems to be a problem with what you were just looking at.

We’ve noted the error 2020-07-30/111313679639 and will look into it as soon as possible. Head for home?

This appears after entering the less than ten core pieces of data for a book (title, author, year, publisher, etc) that are requested in the initial entry form.

The understanding I get from this response is that the service could not create that desired book. (Or could it? I mean, I have seen and used software where error messages appeared, but returning those error messages where actually an error. Everything went fine in the main processing flow, but some checking functionality made a mistake and classified the state as “Error”)

So let us suppose that something actually went wrong. But what went wrong?

Is it a system error, e.g. back-end database has crashed and therefore all transactions fail. In this case, the user should perhaps wait some time (an hour? a day? a week?) and try again. The user did not cause this kind of error, and should not feel guilty about what happened.

Another possible cause underlying the error response received, could be that the user has entered data that cannot be processed, because

  • there is a conflict within the set of data items the user entered. Then the user should try again, but with data that is improved in some way.
  • there is a conflict between the data the user enters and the data that the back-end repository contains.

Regardless of which of these two cases has occurred, the problem seems to be caused by the data a user enters.  So by making appropriate change the user might succeed in adding what he desires to the back-end repository.

Now I can state my irritation about the behaviour of the OpenLibrary service:

Error message delivered by OpenLibrary does not even hint about what have gone wrong. So the user is at a total loss about what to do next. That is not very helpful to the poor end-users!

What I did was to make another attempt to add the basic data about a book. And the same kind of error was returned.

Is there some lessons to be learned here? A general main lesson is that handling of exceptional situations in software is a challenge. Exception handling is not an add-on feature. Very often we see software that cannot provide meaningful (or even correct) error messages and that even are unable to detect whether some exceptional situation has appeared. Often this is due to adding exception management (detection, diagnosis, repair, …) as an afterthought.

So let us hope that Open Library will — over time — be improved in this respect.


Observation: att förlora det digitala arvet?

9 04 2010

1086 beslutade Wilhelm Erövraren att dokumentera det land han erövrade  — land och folk. Det blev vad som kallas “Domesday Book“. Originalet förvaras i Public Record Office i London.

Domesday Book - Warwickshire

Domesday Book - Warwickshire

1984 beslutade BBC att, som ett bidrag till 900-års firandet av originalet, göra en modern instans av Domesday Book. De byggde under 1984-86 denna nyversion, med mängder av nyinsamlat material, som en informationsrik multimediaupplevelse för en BBC Micro med laserdisk. Den spreds till skolor, universitet, bibliotek etc.

2001 var det någon som väckte idéen att göra materialet tillgängligt, i någon form, men nu byggt på dagens teknologi. Läget då var att innehållet i praktiken var oåtkomligt. Datorn BBC Micro … det fanns inte så många kvar i körbart skick. Detsamma gällde laserdiskläsare. Teknisk dokumentation … inte mycket kvar. Man riskerade att stå med en skiva i handen, med ett innehåll  som ingen längre visste hur skulle komma åt.

2002 startade det arkeologiska arbetet. Efter en heroisk insats har man rott det iland. Materialet är räddat, och kommer så småningom att bli helt tillgängligt för alla (det finns en del hindrande rättigheter till delar av innehållet, så helheten kan ännu inte spridas på nätet).

– papperversionen är “still going strong” — efter mer än 900 år
– den moderna digitala versionen låg för döden — redan efter femton-sexton år

I vår iver att springa allt fortare framåt i den teknologiska utvecklingen släpper vi allt mer av senare tiders innehåll.

Ska vi vara tacksamma att t.ex. bokförlag varit konservativa och inte helt gått in i den digitala världen. Även senare tiders pocketböcker har ju i alla fall en sportslig chans att överleva (även om sidorna börjar gulna och limmet börjar torka … så länge som samlingen av ark finns kvar så kan vi läsa den).