A Year of Links

26 February 2012

A Year of Links

I made a book.

Or rather, I made eight books.

If you’ve read this site for any particular length of time, you’ll be aware that I produce a lot of links. Jokes about my hobby being “collecting the entire internet” have been made by friends.

I thought it would be interesting to produce a kind of personal encylopedia: each volume cataloguing the links for a whole year. Given I first used Delicious in 2004, that makes for eight books to date.

A Year of Links: interior

Each link is represented on the page with title, URL, full description, and tags.

Yes, there’s also a QR code. Stop having a knee-jerk reaction right now and think carefully. Some of those URLs are quite long, and one day, Pinboard might not exist to click on them from. Do you want to type them in by hand? No, you don’t, so you may as well use a visual encoding that you can scan with a phone in the kind of environment you’d read this book: at home, in good lighting. It is not the same as trying to scan marketing nonsense on the tube.

A Year of Links: contents

Each month acts as a “chapter” within the book, beginning with a chapter title page.

A Year of Links: index

Each book also contains an index of all tags, so you can immediately see what I was into in a year, and jump to various usage.

A Year of Links: colophon

Wait. I lied. I didn’t make eight books. I made n books. Or rather: I wrote a piece of software to ingest an XML file of all my Pinboard links (easily available from the Pinboard API by anyone – you just need to know your username and password). That software then generates a web page for each book, which is passed into the incredible PrinceXML to create a book. Prince handles all the indexing, page numbering, contents-creation, and header-creation. It’s a remarkable piece of software, given the quality of its output – with nothing more than some extended CSS, you end up with control over page-breaks, widows and orphans, and much more.

The software is a small Sinatra application to generate the front-end, and a series of rake tasks to call Prince with the appropriate arguments. It’s on Github right now. If you can pull from Github, install Prince, and are comfortable in the terminal, you might find it very usable. If you don’t, it’s unlikely to become any more user-friendly; it’s a personal project for personal needs, and whilst Prince is free for personal use, it’s $4800 to install on a server. You see my issue.

So there you are. I made a machine to generate books out of my Pinboard links. Personal archiving feels like an important topic right now – see the Personal Digital Archiving conference, Aaron and Maciej’s contributions to it, not to mention tools like Singly. Books are another way to preserve digital objects. These books contain the reference to another point in the network (but not that point itself) – but they capture something far more important, and more personal.

They capture a changing style of writing. They capture changing interests – you can almost catalogue projects by what I was linking to when. They capture time – you can see the gaps when I went on holiday, or was busy delivering work. They remind me of the memories I have around those links – what was going on in my life at those points. As a result, they’re surprisingly readable for me. I sat reading 2010 – volume 7, and my proof copy – on the bus, and it was as fascinating as it was nostalgic.

Books also feel apposite for this form of content production. My intent was never to make books, not really to repurpose these links at all. And yet now, at the end of each year, a book can spring into life – built up not through direct intent, but one link at a time over a year. There’s something satisfying about producing an object instantly, even though its existence is dependent on a very gradual process.

So there you have it. I made a book, or rather eight books, or rather a bottomless book-making machine. The code is available for you to do so as well. It was hugely satisfying to open the box from Lulu at work one morning, and see this stack of paper, that was something I had made.

  • "Next time somebody's trying to sell you on the awesomeness of their new data technique, ask to see a prototype. If they haven't got that far, it's snake oil." Everything in this article is, basically, true. It's a really good run-down of all the issues that emerge in the reality of dealing with data-driven products at any scale."
  • "I want to love books, but if the publisher treats them merely as interchangeable units, where the details don’t matter so long as the bits, the “content”, is conveyed as cheaply as possible, then we may be falling out of love." Phil buys a new volume of Pepys, finds it's now being printed on-demand, and talks a little about the perceived quality of such books. In short: if you're not expecting it, and it's a change to the usual, it makes you feel a bit like the publisher doesn't care about it.
  • ""The Iraq War: A Historiography of Wikipedia Changelogs" is a twelve-volume set of all changes to the Wikipedia article on the Iraq War." James is brilliant, but I knew that already. This is quite a thing.
  • "You never see anyone using a slide rule in a film. Matinee idol scientists always work out algorithms unaided in their brilliant minds, or scrawl them manically in chalk on giant blackboards. By the same token that unfairly condemns people with colour-coded ring binders as the owners of overly tidy minds, slide rules are supposed to belong only to the pedantic foot soldiers of science, the plodders who have to show us their workings out. But slide rules are lovely things: pleasingly solid, elegantly mysterious in their markings, the perfect marriage of form and function." Joe Moran on slide rules and scientists.

I made a book.

Specifically: I made a book of photographs from my week hiking in Cyprus. I’ve wanted to make a book of some of my photography for a while now, but not really had anything that hung together well enough to devote a large number of pages to.

The magic of print-on-demand is that, really, that shouldn’t matter: you can slap a bunch of images together, hit print, and get a book back. But I felt if I was going to make a book, it should feel book-ish. So: it would need a degree of focus, enough material to make a decent length, and it ought to look like somebody took some care over it.

I was very pleased with many of my pictures from Cyprus, and there was certainly enough of them to make a decent book. But I decided to give it a bit of focus. I stripped out people pictures (because really, they’re not of interest to anyone other than the group walking, and they’re not my best portraits). I stripped out pictures of food. The focus was to be the environment around Kyrenia, as experienced on foot: a lot of landscape, some pictures of walking, some architectural/indoors shots, and a set of pictures from Kyrenia Harbour. One chapter per hike; an extra chapter from the harbour.

That would be enough for a 70-80 page book, 10×8 landscape.

I went with Blurb, mainly because I liked their tool for making books (BookSmart) the most. I’m not much cop with InDesign, and this wasn’t the project to be learning it on. BookSmart was nice because, unlike so many other print-on-demand publishers’ tools, it wasn’t a laggy, overcomplex browser-based tool written in Flash. It was a native application to download, meaning I could work locally.

It turned out to be just fine. Its templating engine is good, although it doesn’t let you spread contents across pages – some cunning workarounds are necessary to make double-page spreads, although it’s totally possibly with some work.

I spent some extra time on doing my best to make it not look thrown together: starting chapters on right-hand pages, aligning photographs identically wherever possible, printing a few proofs to double-check it all. And then, when I was pretty sure I couldn’t do much else, I hit print.

I’m very happy with the results. It’s a set of photographs I’m pleased with, and seeing them displayed like this makes me proud of the consistency and quality. I’m also pleased with the book: the double-page spreads were obviously tricky, but by and large, everything has come out well, and the imagewrap cover is very good. My only disappointments are with some text-sizing – I could have made a few bits of text much smaller and better line-spaced. And the quality is great, all things considered: I went for Blurb’s premium quality paper stock, because, you know, if I’m going to spend £20+ on a book, the extra £2 is worth it for pictures that I care about. That worked well.

It’s also great to see images first seen on screen, and then as small prints, in book form. And: it really does feel like I book. That’s the most satisfying part – that I achieved my goal with it. I’m now thinking about what other photographic projects might turn into books.

And, finally: I’m making it available to buy. I doubt anyone will buy it – it’s just some pictures I took one holiday and grouped together – but Blurb essentially makes it a one-click operation to make the book available to others. And so I thought I may as well, and we’ll see what happens. If you’re interested, it’s available here.

One more thing ticked off my todo in 2010 list. What’s next?