ComicBot: What’s it all about?

There’s been a lot of talk on here recently about our comics-related Capstone project at MLLL.org and what we’re doing with it. We finally decided on the name ComicBot, and presented it at the University of Washington iSchool’s Capstone event a few weeks ago. It’s essentially a comic book recommendation engine, or discovery tool, based on a custom readers’ advisory taxonomy for comics that we built. It’s sitting on top of the MLLL (pronounced “mill”) collection, a student body owned and operated comic book library at Reed College.

The Taxonomy:

We started this project over a year ago in a taxonomy construction class. We all loved comics, and I had been in charge of the comic book library at Reed when I was an undergrad there. Four of us worked together to figure out a set of terms for this taxonomy that would replace subject headings by getting at what a comic is like to read, rather than what it’s about.

Most people don’t just like one kind of thing. I, for example, love both Joss Whedon and Dickens. Even though they might not look like they have a lot in common at first glance, both of those creators tend to have great ensemble casts, and I love that. We tried to get at those commonalities with the taxonomy, to get people between genres within comics and read things that they never otherwise would.

We’ve put it through heavy revisions now, and it has terms describing all aspects of a comic’s reading experience, from the artistic style, to the emotional effect is has on you, to the plausibility of the world in which it takes place, to the common character dynamics at work. Want a beautifully-inked, adrenaline-filled, heart-wrenching, realistic story? The taxonomy will tell you where it is. (Incidentally, it’s Strangers in Paradise, go read it.)

The Process

Through the whole development process, though, we discovered that our users didn’t want a search engine, they wanted a recommendation engine. So what ComicBot does, is after you’ve read and loved all of Strangers in Paradise, it lets you look the comic up by title, and it recommends other comics like it. You don’t have to know what part of it you liked; it’s already been indexed and the taxonomy behind it will get you to something similar.

Technical:

The current instance of ComicBot at MLLL.org, though available to view, is still in alpha, and will be in beta release in August. It’s built on Drupal 7, with heavy reliance on advanced taxonomy modules, the Google Books API, and Similar By Terms, which uses the assigned taxonomy terms to generate the recommendations. There’s a lot of manpower going into the indexing –it all has to be done manually– but the real core of the enterprise is the taxonomy, which is holding up beautifully. It’s a fully responsive design, which should work equally well on a smartphone as on a desktop.

Further applications:

The taxonomy and the indexing work we’ve completed could work in any system to move readers between works and let them find the next great thing to read. As far as we know, it’s the only system to ever look at the visual appearance of the art in comics and extrapolate meaningful groupings across genre lines. For example, in our taxonomy, you might find Charles Vess’ work and Taoko Nakeuchi’s under the same term. Even though they come from wildly different traditions and work with different literary conventions, they share an aesthetic and will often appeal to the same kind of reader.

We want to hear how everybody else is getting readers to their next comic, let us know!

Presenting MLLL.org at the capstone

Aside

We had a really great time last night presenting our poster and getting to talk to everyone about our project. We definitely found a few kindred spirits who are as dedicated to coming up with new ways to working with the information challenges that comics present.

We’re all excited to continue the project here, and at the alpha site MLLL.org. Our goal for that is to have a significant portion indexed and a (much) more polished UI for when the Reed students come back to school in September.

Meanwhile, you can check out our poster in PDF form, read up on Batgirl, and find some new comics to read!

 

Leveling up

So, three months of silence and you wonder, has the League of Comic Librarians been defeated by a supervillain, consumed by zombies or sucked into a time vortex?  No, your heroes live on.  We have been leveling up our Capstone project in a serious way.

Days of work and meetings have been putting in to refine our Comic Book Recommendation Engine, its presentation and maintenance instructions.  The bones of the site are up (thanks to the genius and hard work of Ms. Sarah Barrett our Drupal whisperer), and we are less than a month away from when we will unveil our completed beta version at the Capstone event of the Information School at the University of Washington.  So wish your valiant librarians luck as we complete a new weapon in the fight against not having amazing comics to read.

Don’t forget, this weekend will be a busy one for comic fans.  Saturday, May 5th is Free Comic Book Day and Marvel’s new movie The Avengers opens on Friday, May 4th.

Happy weekend Comics fans!

Project Progress: Friday February 24, 2012

Mobile DesignThis quarter of planning and preparing for actual project implementation has just flown by.  Here we are at the end of week eight, and only two more to go.  Scary and exciting at the same time.  Really, I think that we are still on target with our timeline, but it still feels like there are a lot of little pieces that still need to come together.

Mobile Design 2

Mobile Design Jam

This week at our meeting we set to work determining the crucial elements that will need to be included in the mobile version.  I am really happy that we choose to develop the requirements for mobile first so that we can then view the full site as an expansion and we will have a much better grasp of what is crucial and what is not.

From here we will be able to work out the visual design and know that we have mapped out the conceptual and structural design as a foundation.  We have also been continuing to put the thesaurus to the test by doing a lot of indexing of real comics.  This has really helped us identify areas that need a little love.  We want the thesaurus to be useful for all the indexers at the MLLL, but we also want it to work for the system users. To accomplish this it must be clear, understandable and fun.  I believe that we are well on our way to reaching this goal.

The League meets MLLL readers

You might have noticed all the fuss about snow up here in Seattle last week. And while conditions were slightly exaggerated, league librarians, Ryer, Sarah, and Megan braved day three -slushmageddon, to make our way down on our first official visit to The MLLL, the student run comic book library at Reed College.

Jan. 29, 2012

Our mission: hang out with some comic fans and talk to them about how they find good new stories to read and what we can do to make that easier at the MLLL.

And what success!  We got to hang out with current signator Emlyn Thompson, an alumnus who had the position in the 80’s and some wonderful MLLL readers who helped give us some insight into the MLLL as an institution and what kind of system would help them find what they need without requiring too much upkeep. Besides requesting reading suggestions, these Reedies stressed a desire to build a community of reading and peer recommendation to go along with our tool.

A three hour brainstorming car drive later, we librarians are back in the Emerald city, rejuvenated and refocused on our task by the insights enthusiasm of our new friends down at Reed.

So what is next for this dynamic trio?  Research and refinement in three parts:

1. Identify the technology.  We are currently investigating Drupal, a content management system to host our taxonomy. Now that we have a clearer picture of what the back end of our site will need to do, to achieve what the MLLL requires we can investigate modules in Drupal and other systems to discover what is possible and make a final decision about what system to use.

2.  What to catalog?   Librarians have very strict (and currently very arcane) rules about how to represent a book in an online catalog.  These rules do not work well for comic books which have all kinds of special issues that are important to the reader, but get lost when you try to force the information to fit into the mold we created for text-only books.  We face the task of deciding what we should describe about the comics at Reed when we put a record for them online so we can apply our terms.

Another related consideration is the level of detail or refinement at which we will both index and catalog. The scope of our project will not allow us to catalog every single issue contained in Reed’s library.  We will need to decide if we want to describe a comic at the title level (All Spider-man comics) the series level (Amazing Spider-man), the story arc (“Kraven’s Last Hunt”), or the issue (#293).  Different comics may be cataloged and indexed at varying levels, but we need to define what information is important and constant within each level of detail.

3. Get the language just right! Finally, we will be breaking out ye olde Comics Thesaurus, blowing off the dust of a quarter or two and taking a fresh look at our terms, their scope notes, the structure of our indexing language and fill in any insurmountable gaps.

In other words, we’ve got work to do, but a whole lot of excitement about the direction and possibilities of our project.

-Megan W.

Project Progress: Things are getting real

We just couldn’t walk away from all the great stuff we developed in our creation, The Comics Thesaurus.  No.  We had to go and turn this into a full-blown final project for our school.  This is bound to be a great joy and a great challenge.  So, what is it that we are going to focus on during the next round?

We are going to put The Comics Thesaurus to the test and create online records for real items.  We will be working with an awesome comic library at Reed College.  This collection started outta some dude’s dorm room in the sixties – so you know its gonna be a killer stash.  Things got more official as the years went on and now its a full-on student organization with its own location.  Our group member Sarah worked there for years, so she has great insider knowledge about the collection and its history.

We will be creating an online tool to search and browse this collection.  Harnessing the power of the thesaurus to illuminate novel connections between diverse corners of the collection.  Great, great… but what does that really mean?  Well, this means that people will be able to use this tool to find new comics that they are really going to love.  Lots of companies on the web are making recommendations based on things such as purchasing habits and ratings, but we believe that these systems miss something crucial – – taste.  We all have it, and its constantly evolving, and your friends and expert fans who know you and your taste, they get it. These folks can make truly solid recommendations, but these big companies try to make taste this mechanical, quantifiable thing, when it just isn’t.  Through using the concepts laid out in The Comics Thesaurus we hope to draw out some of the aspects that make certain comics appealing to your taste and show you others that share similar qualities.  We hope that we can lead you to comics in unexplored corners of the comic universe.