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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Guest Post: Richard Nash from Small Demons

Today I welcome Richard Nash from Small Demons.  Small Demons is an encyclopedic database that draws connections between books, they call it "The Storyverse."

Last month The Huffington Post had this feature on Small Demons. And the LA Times just named Small Demons founder, Valla Vakili, as one of their Faces to Watch in 2013.

I have been intrigued by their database and its potential for libraries and readers for a few months now.  I had been using the site here or there, but when I kept seeing Small Demons popping up in the press in the last few weeks, I knew now was the time to get more serious about exploring its potential.  I reached out through the press contact section of the site and Richard Nash (V/P, Content and Community) got back to me quickly and kindly agreed to present Small Demons to all of us. 

So here is Nash and Small Demons and I will be back after with a few more comments:
As with some many ideas, the idea for Small Demons came from a book; in this instance, Total Chaos, the first book of Jean-Claude Izzo's Marseilles Trilogy. Our founder, Valla Vakili read the book in November 2005, and found himself drawn to various aspects of the protagonist's world. Fabio Montale is a cop on the Marseilles police force, a single malt whiskey drinker and into the jazz and blues, with tastes very similar but not identical to Valla's own. He found himself trying the whiskey Montale drinks (Valla drank Laphroaig, Montale drinks Lagavulin) and buying the music he was listening to in the book, from iTunes. By the end of the book Valla was so into the description of Marseilles and Montale's world that he wanted to immediately continue into the second volume. It wasn't available in English translation yet, so he did the next best thing. He had a vacation planned to Madrid and Paris, and he changed my Paris leg to go to Marseilles instead. A week in Marseilles, ensued, drinking the drinks, eating the food, and roaming the streets described in the book. He came back from that trip convinced that many of the best experiences we can find, are within books. And that if we could gather them all up and put them in one place, we could unlock a world of pretty incredible discovery.

It took him years though until he could convince others this was worth doing! He and eventually three co-founders started in earnest in early 2010 and have been at it ever since—I joined in Sept 2011 as the first person from the "Old World" of publishing, completely smitten by the potential of a whole new universe of serendipity, not just with books but across all culture and cultures. Suddenly, I realized, books could actually be at the center of the culture, not just at its margins, because books contain multitudes, of people, of places, of songs and food, of drink and history.
In practice, what we do is obtain digital files from publishers with whom we've signed agreements (at this stage we've agreements representing about 80% of current trade publishing) and identify keywords within them, connecting them on the site such that one one starts at, say, the Met. Like here in which you can see references to the Met from the 10,000 or so books we've indexed thus far. But you can also proceed onwards. To Steve Jobs. To Bob Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man, to Birth of the Cool to Brooks Brothers to Julie Hecht's The Unprofessionals to Brooklyn. Or just dive in to Zippos and Koolaid and Neil Armstrong.

So this is a nice little research tool—one librarian we met told us of a patron who came in who said her son would only read books that feature Paul McCartney. A simple search! But also for reading groups, where patrons could learn about historical figures they encounter in The Help or The Paris Wife, or the food in the Life of Pi, or be supplied with playlists of all the music in Jodi Picoult's books. For displays, say for Elvis Presley's birthday (Jan 8th), one could include not just the biographies, but also Julie Hecht's book on Andy Kaufmann which discusses Kaufmann's obsession with Elvis or Ann Beattie's Mrs. Nixon. For little social media squibs too, like all the movies in Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hill
We have also added a new feature, Collections, which, as we continue to add titles, you could use as a Pinterest board for books. We'll shortly be offering embed code too, widgets, so that you could add these Collections to your own library sites and blogs.
In closing, I wanted to tell you a little about the name, partly because it's a little unusual, partly because it has to do with a librarian, namely the former Director of the National Library in Argentina, Jose Luis Borges. In his short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Borges writes, “The history of the universe… is the handwriting produced by a Minor god in order to communicate with a Demon.” Valla read that as, the history of the universe is all the stories ever told. Minor gods are the storytellers who rule the worlds of their stories. And the Demon is the force that drives the need for stories, the place where author and reader meet. He took “Minor” and “Demon” and from there, Small Demons.
Thanks Richard.  I have begun using the Collections feature myself; click here to see a board I made of my favorite reads of 2012.  I think that in the long run, Small Demons is a better option for libraries than just  Pinterest.  On Pinterest you have the cover of the book and any note you add, but on Small Demons you can have that, plus anything else about the book that they have already added.  It is a book centric site that provides thousands of extra access points into the books we and our readers love.  But just in case, you can also add your Small Demons collection straight to Pinterest with one click if you want things in both places.

As I said back at the beginning of this post, I am still trying things out, but I am very intrigued by Small Demons.  I'll keep you posted.


Richard Nash said...

Thanks for the opportunity to meet your readers here, Becky. I'd like to add that we're anxious to get feedback from librarians about what we can do to make the site work better for librarians' purposes, hwther you want to give feedback via the site (every page has a feedback option) or directly to me at richard[at]smalldemons[dot].com

Chris said...

I tried Small Demons briefly when I read a snippet of an article in which it was mentioned. I had pushed it to the back burner of my mind (and desk), but some of the ideas presented here have got me thinking again. Thank you!