The Work

A Bit Of History: Building Babel

In 1995, I was working for a weird little company called Muze. Originally located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, well before Williamsburg became synonymous with “hipster”, Muze was founded in 1990 by Trev Huxley, grandson of Aldous, and Paul Zullo, producer of the King Biscuit Flower Hour. It was originally a database of music that had been converted to CD; later, they created a video database as well. By the time I got there, they had just licensed Bowker’s Books in Print database and were amplifying that with synopses, reviews, and all manner of links and tags. The goal of all this was to install the data in kiosks in stores, so customers could easily browse for the products they wanted.

The team that created all this content spent two days a week at the New York Public Library, researching connections between authors and books. We created Schools and Movements, Themes and Genres. We created sprawling taxonomies of time periods and locations. We mapped Bowker subject headings to BISAC categories, created a central Canon of authors whose works we would prioritize. We transcribed the endorsements on the back jackets of books. We entered flap copy into the database, wrote our own annotations when moved to do so. We sent stacks and stacks of faxes to Bowker, correcting their data.

And suddenly there was Amazon.

It was sudden, almost overnight. The book world was upended. Amazon had licensed data from Baker & Taylor, not us (nor Bowker), and while the Muze data was more intricate, the Amazon data was more visible. Many of us, over the next three years, went to work for Barnes & to help B&N attempt to duplicate Amazon’s success – I can’t speak for the others on the team, but in my case it was a matter of finding work that was secure. Barnes & Noble would never go out of business, and if this whole World Wide Web thing didn’t pan out, I could at least work in the back office of the bookstore chain.

By 1998, it was becoming apparent that Amazon had caught the book industry – and, to an extent, even itself – flat-footed in one regard: information about books. Consumers could see it. Authors (and their mothers) complained. Publishers complained. Agents complained. The titles were truncated. The prices were wrong. The annotations – such as they were – were either far too brief to tell what the book was about, or filled with HTML-unfriendly characters. Data at online stores got updated erratically – depending on how many people were working that day, who was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club, what other promotions were being held. Publishers clearly had never expected anyone outside the book industry to look into their databases…and it showed. Rather than flipping through a beautifully-illustrated, curated Spring or Fall catalog, consumers were confronted with what sometimes looked like gibberish.

It became clear that internet bookstores were not going away, and the industry needed a standard for the information.


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