Alternatives to Delicious.com stacks

Edit 24/7/12: Gary Green has written a good explanation of what stacks are and why he liked them, if you wanted more background info.

Unfortunately Delicious has just announced that they plan to stop supporting Stacks in August. Users will still be able to save bookmarks to Delicious, but won’t be able to make a page (stack) of links where they choose the image for each link, change the order of the links, etc. Update 24/7/12: on Twitter yesterday, Delicious told me “While stacks are going away, visual tag & link displays are in development that we think your library is gonna love!”. I pointed out it might have made more sense to develop these features before removing the existing stacks functionality, but hey ho.

I co-run a Keeping Up-to-date With Your Field workshop for staff at my conservatoire, and this year a few members of staff were excited by this feature of Delicious, and keen to use it to curate pages of links for their students. I therefore quickly collated a a few alternative options for them, and thought I’d blog it here to plug the gap until Phil Bradley does it better!

 1. Delicious tags instead of stacks

If you want students to look at a selection of links, you could give them all the same tag and then send students the link to that tag (or put it on Moodle). For example, here’s my library’s links on keeping up to date on Delicious.

The downside is that you can’t choose the order of links – they’re ordered by the date you saved them.

2. Diigo

Diigo is another social bookmarking site like Delicious, and it allows you to make lists – these resemble image-free stacks and let you edit the order of links. An example list is below:

Text view

Visual view (via ‘Play as webslides’ link at top-right)

Diigo also offer a free educational account where you can set up student accounts and put them in private groups.

3. Scoop.it

These look the most similar visually to stacks. I haven’t used the site myself but had it recommended by Susan Merrick (a school teacher/librarian) at the recent London LibraryTeachMeet (which I’ve nearly finished writing up, honest!)

Downside: looks like there’s a limit of five pages (topics) per free account.

4. Jog the Web

This leads students through a menu of websites which are loaded in the same window – good if you want them to look at sites in a specific order. This was also recommended by Susan Merrick.

Downside: I have some concerns about the longevity of this site as the FAQ and support forum are inactive. Use at your own risk!

Review: Spotify for libraries and music students

I’ve been playing with Spotify for a while now, mostly using it to listen to music at home when I wanted to listen to a song I didn’t own. Recently, thanks to Owen Stephens (via Twitter), I found out that the service also contains a substantial collection of classical music and so could be of use academically to students at my conservatoire.

Spotify generally

Spotify is a service which allows you to listen to music for free online through its application which you have to download and install (available for Windows, Mac and Linux via Wine). Its advantage over services like Last.fm radio is that you can search for specific tracks, and as long as they’re licensed to the service you can listen to them in full. It’s funded by advertising, so you’ll occasionally get ads appearing on the app or radio-style audio ads between tracks – the latter are a bit annoying if you’re in the middle of an album or something atmospheric, but a price worth paying in my opinion.

At the time of writing anyone in the UK can sign up for a free account, but people elsewhere must be invited by current users in order to control growth of demand. This may start again in the UK if demand grows too quickly, so beware!

My review of Spotify

The below is all my personal opinion after trying out the app for a little while. I’ve split it into sections to hopefully aid readability.

Coverage

Classical coverage is decent but not comprehensive, gauged by searching for upcoming performance pieces at my college. There’s a fair smattering of ‘big name’ performers thanks to EMI Classics, and coverage is likely to improve with yesterday’s announcement of a deal with Naxos (depending what figures in that press release you use, that could be 10-25% of Naxos Music Library available free on Spotify!). Something that attracts me is the availability of musical theatre recordings which is a weak point in all our subscription resources. There also appears to be decent jazz coverage – though this by no means my specialist subject, a few cursory searches threw up plenty of results.

Metadata (aka what librarians care about)

The metadata for classical music sucks. The ‘artist’ can either be the performer (one or more of conductor, ensemble, soloist etc) or the composer. If the composer isn’t the artist, they end up shoved somewhere in the track or album title. Occasionally there’s no indication who the performer is at all! As a commenter on the Spotify blog said, they should be consistent – a good start would be to follow the MusicBrainz Classical Style Guide. This is the end result of shoehorning classical music into an album-based system, when the work rather than the album or song is the key organising concept in classical music. The new iteration of the Classical Music Library is another example of this, and one I may come back to another day.

Usability

Thankfully the search function on Spotify works very well, so you can forgive some of the metadata messiness as you do tend to find what you want in the end. Browsing ability is impaired by inconsistency, but works very well for pop, jazz etc – click on an artist name to see everything available by them; click an album name to see the full track listing plus reviews from Allmusic.com; use advanced search features if you want to. Double-click a song title to listen, drag it to your play queue to enqueue it or a playlist name to add it there. All pretty intuitive.

Technical

Sound quality is fine – not CD quality but adequate and comparable with paid services like Naxos Music Library and Classical Music Library. I think there’s a bit of compression/limiting kicking in on pieces with a large dynamic range but not serious enough to damage enjoyment. Apparently bandwidth is around 64Kb/s which shouldn’t cause anyone on broadband/institution connections much trouble.

Correction: Spotify’s FAQ says: “We use the Ogg Vorbis q5 codec which streams at approximately 160kb/s.” so it’s a much higher bitrate than I’d heard elsewhere (possibly on a Guardian podcast, not sure). I have to say I didn’t think it sounded *that* good but the higher figure does make sense. I still hope our institutional connection could cope with many users concurrently.

The biggest downside is requiring the application to be installed – the one thing stopping me rolling it out immediately across the student computers in the library.

Conclusions

Give it a go! I’m going to discuss with my boss whether we should be asking IT to install the app on all the library PCs – my only concern at the moment is whether the app will be able to update itself afterwards, because I’ve noticed it seems to have quite frequent update requirements. There’s a lot I’ve not touched on here with the social side of Spotify – sharing links to tracks and playlists using spotify: URLs or third-party apps like Mixifier – as I’ve tried to focus on why libraries should be interested in Spotify now, and need to think a bit more about this side of things. Have a play, see what you think, and let me know if you agree/disagree with my comments!

My MSc dissertation visualised

Wordle made this summary – it is such a cool app, go and have a play with it! You can paste in any amount of text (some people have done whole books) or give it a del.icio.us URL and it’ll analyse the tags.

So what’s this Wordle cloud about? As part of my library qualification I wrote a dissertation about… well… you can get quite a decent idea of it from this visualisation! It looked at the possibility of using distributed classification (i.e. tagging) to describe the affective (mood and emotion) content of pop music. For it to be a feasible method I felt it had to have a degree of consistency, hence that word’s size in the summary. To massively over-simplify, I found that there was a degree of consistency: enough to merit further work.

Unfortunately I haven’t yet disseminated these results widely because my supervisor was keen for me to edit the dissertation into a journal article and get published ‘properly’ (under my own name – she wasn’t pushing me for the sake of her own RAE score!). Unfortunately I am not very motivated to do this (I have no ambitions of a academic career) with the result that I’ve been sitting on it for the best part of two years. Perhaps I should just release the PDF onto the web and let the fruits of my endeavours roam free…