Open Library for Language Learners

By Guyrandy Jean-Gilles 2020-07-21

A quick browse through the App Store and aspiring language learners will find themselves swimming in useful programs.

But for experienced linguaphiles, the never-ending challenge is finding enough raw content and media to consume in their adopted tongue. Open Library can help.

Earlier this year, Open Library added reading levels to their catalog for more than three thousand books. The ability to search by reading level, combined with filtering by language, provides the savvy patron a convenient way to find, read, and listen to handfuls of elementary books in their desired language.

Getting the most out of Open Library’s BookReader

One of the most valuable settings of Internet Archive’s BookReader for language learners is Read Aloud. I highly recommend using this feature while reading to ensure your pronunciation is perfect. Just about any modern browser supports Read Aloud out of the box.

Tip: If you want the most natural sounding voices, believe it or not, Microsoft Edge is your best choice. If Microsoft Edge isn’t available on your platform, there are likely ways to install more natural voices via plugins or other methods.

Finding Books at your Literacy Level

From the main menu, click on the “Browse” drop-down and select K-12 Student Library.

You’ll next be presented with a Student Library where you may choose books by “reading level” or “grade”. In my experience, selecting by reading level offers more non-English options. Also in my experience, the higher the reading level, the more non-English options are available. Your mileage may vary.

Let’s pick “Grade 12” for now. We should see books tagged at a 12th grade reading level, predominantly in English. Let’s change that by scrolling and adding a filter for only Spanish books on the right sidebar.

Now our results show Spanish editions at a 12th grade reading level! You may notice many of these available books are out-of-copyright translations of the “literary canon.” This is largely what’s available in Open Library’s non-English k-12 catalog at the time of writing this post. Let’s select Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

To select the Spanish edition of Hamlet, scroll to the editions table and type “Spanish” into the edition search bar. Then, click “Read” to open the BookReader.

Because this is an unrestricted book, you may click the Read button to begin reading. If you want to take advantage of the Read Aloud feature, hover over the headphones icon on the right side of the Read button and click Listen.

BookReader should automatically narrate the book in the text’s native language. The passages will be highlighted as they are read aloud. If the voice appears to be incorrect, this may means your browser does not have access to a suitable digital voice to read aloud the book’s language. We’ve found Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome to be reliable options.

Conclusion

Now you have all the tools you need to find and read books in other languages. I cannot stress the Read Aloud feature enough as it allows me to hear new words spoken as I’m introduced to them. No matter where you are in your language learning journey, reading and listening to books in your target language can only accelerate your progress. Let Open Library help you along the way. ¡Disfrutar!

Did you enjoy this article? Please let us know on twitter!

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Meet the Librarians of Open Library

By Lisa Seaberg

Are you a book lover looking to contribute to a warm, inclusive library community? We’d love to work with you: Learn more about Volunteering @ Open Library


Behind the scenes of Open Library is a whole team of developers, data scientists, outreach experts, and librarians working together to make Open Library better and easier for patrons to use. Today, we’d like to introduce to you and celebrate some of the librarians on the team who work to keep data organized, accurate, and easy to find. Here are their stories, how they discovered Open Library, and what motivates them to help make it better every day.

Meet GLBW

Since 2017, GLBW has applied their specialized knowledge of works related to new social movements by adding and enhancing information about associated works and authors. GLBW also edits on Wikidata and Inventaire.io and adds books to archive.org. GLBW is the user name of the Gustav-Landauer-Bibliothek Witten in Witten, Germany. Thank you GLBW!

Follow GLBW on twitter: @trotz_allem #GLBibW

Meet Daniel

Daniel Capilla lives in Málaga, Spain and has been contributing to Open Library since 2013. Daniel’s interest in contributing to Open Library was sparked by his joy of reading and all things  library-and-book-related as well as the satisfaction he gets from contributing to open source projects and knowing that everyone will be able to freely enjoy his contributions in the future. Daniel states:

“I began contributing to the Open Library in a very modest way. When I would borrow a book from my local library or when I finished reading a book, I would always check the Open Library to see if there was a record for that book. If there was, I would complete it as best I could, adding a description, the cover, and so on. And if there wasn’t, I would create a new record for it. Later, I became interested in creating book lists. I have always liked the thematic reading lists that libraries make for their readers and I began to create my own lists in Open Library.

I have only recently begun to be interested in improving the Open Library metadata in a more systematic way, completing author records, correcting the list of their works, or improving the records of books available for loan in the Internet Archive. I have also made a first modest contribution to the Open Library code by adding a first Spanish translation of the website. It is not yet complete and is something I would like to continue collaborating on. The issue of the internationalization of the Open Library seems to me to be a fundamental issue for the project to have more acceptance, especially in non-English speaking countries. This is an issue on which there is still much to be done.”

Follow Daniel on twitter: @dcapillae

Meet Guy

Guy joined Open Library as a volunteer in 2019 to help with project management, data engineering, and bot development. He is an engineer, book-lover, and a global citizen that believes open knowledge and open data contributes to the greater common good. Guy likes his data like he likes his teeth: squeaky clean. His recent projects include adding covers to more than 700k editions, as well as making thousands of editions searchable by fixing and normalizing their ISBNs. By the end of 2020, Guy wants to make it easier for new contributors to enrich and sanitize Open Library’s data using bots. Interested in helping? View this open issue on Github.

Follow Guy on twitter: @guyjeangilles

Meet Blair

Blair recently became an Open Librarian and has done tremendous work to enhance and consolidate various juvenile and young adult series. Most recently she consolidated and added information to all the volumes in the popular Rainbow Magic book series.

Meet Nick

Nick Norman is a content strategist and librarian for Open Library. By helping to develop a Cultural Resource page on Open Library, Nick aims to “make it easier for readers and learners to discover new things about people and the world around them” and “reveal how equally amazing culture is–from every part of the world.”
Follow Nick on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/imnick/

Meet Kathy

As a lover of short stories and collector of the series Best American Short Stories (BASS), Kathy Ahlering was interested in finding a way to catalog her library and had been trying out various apps and websites designed for the purpose. As she became more knowledgeable about the history of the BASS series, its origins, the editors involved, etc., she became frustrated that no single site had fully accurate data. Volumes were treated as editions of a single work which made it difficult to accurately catalog each volume’s unique contents and bibliographic data. Describing what led her here, she states:

“I began to “friendly edit” data on sites that allowed it, but quickly realized that it would be smarter to clean up the info at the top of the “food chain”…  OpenLibrary.

My first “edit”, actually, was the act of clicking on “Please Note: Only Admins can delete things. Let us know if there’s a problem.” and letting ‘someone’ know that a bunch of BASS editions were coming up under the wrong work.

“I assumed my message would go directly and without delay, to the -by now bursting at the seams- blackhole of “let us know!” messages, never to be heard from again. I was also certain, having been well trained by the hundreds of site admin I’ve had the folly idea of sending a ‘let us know!’ message to in the past, that absolutely zero effort would be made to rectify the incorrect data.

Imagine my squeals of delight when I received a personal and lengthy email reply just two days later! The email addressed every issue I’d raised in my ‘let us know!’ message and welcomed my efforts to help. The rest, as they say, is his-tore-eee!”

Follow Kathy on twitter: @KathyAhlering

Meet Drini

Drini joined and made his first edit on Open Library on July 22, 2011 (almost 9 years ago today!). He loves reading, and loves data, so Open Library was a good match. In 2017, while finishing his undergrad in Computer Science, he began to contribute code to the project for combining duplicate works and for linking editions to Wikidata. In 2019, he was able to join the staff of Open Library’s development team full-time. Between balancing interests in design, information science, and human computer interaction, Drini’s most recent contribution to librarianship has been the work-merge tool used by librarians to combine duplicate works together. He is currently working on creating a new interaction experience for browsing (as opposed to searching) the books of Open Library, and on modernizing Open Library’s search infrastructure. He looks forward to continuing to build tools to help make librarians more productive and to help push the frontier of what a digital catalogue and library can be.

Follow Drini on twitter: @cdrini

Meet Charles

Charles Horn is passionate about early printed classical Greek works, Greek typography, and classical languages and literature. Charles began volunteering on Open Library around 2015, by writing bots to catch & clean-up spam edits and clean millions book and author catalog entries record. In 2017, he joined the Internet Archive as a member of staff and made fundamental improvements to Open Library’s MARC & json book import system. On top of this revitalized import infrastructure, Charles has imported tens of thousands of modern books catalog records, added hundreds of thousands of partner records into Open Library’s catalog, fixed millions of orphaned edition records, and has helped Open Library use Wikidata and VIAF data to merge almost 100k author records.

Follow Charles on github: @hornc

Meet Lisa

Lisa Seaberg has been an active contributor to Open Library since 2017 and Lead Community Librarian since 2019. 

Lisa’s life-long obsession with books and book metadata is what initially attracted her to Open Library. Similar to Daniel, she initially started by making small contributions by making lists and adding book information. Soon after, she discovered the repository on GitHub and started reporting errors, suggesting features, and contributing to discussions about the site. As Lead Community Librarian, Lisa helps site users with questions about editing and best practices and provides guidance to new librarians learning how to use the tools. Additionally, Lisa tries to help make it easier for patrons to find what they are looking for by consolidating duplicate works and authors, fixing conflated records, and making sure information is complete. Besides reading, Lisa’s other interests include FRBR, board games, and pub trivia. She currently lives in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Follow Lisa on twitter: @seabelis


Are you a book lover looking to contribute to a warm, inclusive library community? We’d love to work with you: Learn more about Volunteering @ Open Library

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Re-thinking Open Library’s Book Pages

by Mek Karpeles, Tabish Shaikh

We’ve redesigned our Book Pages: BeforeAfter.
Please share your feedback with us.


A web page for every book… This is the mission of Open Library: a free, inclusive, online digital library catalog which helps readers find information about any book ever published.

Millions of books in Open Library’s catalog have been made available to preview, read, or borrow using the Internet Archive’s controlled digital lending library. However, the catalog also features tens of millions of books which are yet to have previews and instead serve as resources that help patrons learn more about books, share lists of books they love, keep track of what they’re reading, and locate copies from bookstores and local libraries.

Thousands of new books are added into Open Library’s catalog every day. Like Wikipedia, thousands of edits are contributed by community librarians and volunteers across the globe. Open Library is a community effort and any patron who registers online for a free Internet Archive library card may participate.

Since its inception in 2006, a core tenant of Open Library’s service has been the notion of one web page for every book.

What is a book, exactly?

Before creating a page for every book, it’s important to have an understanding of what a book is to different classes of patrons.

It seems like a simple question. We know a book when we see one. But what if we see ten translations of, “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”. Are they the same book? Or more importantly, when is it convenient for us to consider them different books versus the same, or vice versa?

One does not simply define a book as an edition.

Even for expert librarians, the seemingly simple question, “what is a book” has a surprisingly difficult and nuanced array of answers. Librarians have even developed complex classification models like FRBR to help figure it out. Yes, we’re serious:

Source: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-3-030-14401-2_22

Perhaps the most correct answer is, a book is kind of like the Room of Requirement from Harry Potter; it’s whatever a reader needs it to be within the situation.

Sometimes “Harry Potter” is referred to as a book (even though it’s more accurately a Series; a logical grouping of similar works). Other times, “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” is referred to as a book (though it’s more precisely a Work; a logical grouping of similar editions). Other times still, the term book refers to the specific published version one is reading: e.g. “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince”, 2005 (English) ISBN 9780439785969. And of course there’s the distinction between the copy of this Edition sitting on your library’s shelf, and your personal copy which is annotated with your notes, marginalia, and is signed by your favorite author.

Do these semantics really matter?
Consider the following exchange with our local friendly librarian:

Us: Excuse me, do you have any copies of, “Return of the King” by J.R. R. Tolkien?

Librarian: Bonjour, yes! Are you looking for a specific edition?

Us: Whatever edition is available, I just want to read the book.

Librarian: Here you go!

Us: This is not the right book, it says, “Retour du Roi”. And where are the pictures and maps or Mordor? This isn’t the cover I remember.

For many, the fact that a book has a specific edition is inconsequential; often times multiple comparable editions could satisfy their requirements.

Our theory of change
Our theory is, when a patron asks for a book, they are often requesting a Work and wish to have have a “correct” Edition be inferred, such that the following questions are answered:

  1. Is it the right work?
  2. Is it in the right language?
  3. Is it available now for me to read?
  4. Is it available in the right format?
    • e.g. hardcover, softcover, online, offline, epub, pdf, daisy, audio…

This agrees with feedback we’ve received from readers:

A small poll of 38 patrons — what is important in a book page?

But hindsight is 2020. As a first step towards this direction, Open Library started simple: one page for every edition.

A Page for Every Edition

When OpenLibrary.org first opened its virtual doors around 2007, patrons were able to search through thousands of books, like this 2001 edition of, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” by Dave Eggers.

Thanks to the Wayback Machine, we can see how Open Library edition pages looked in October, 2007

At first glance, this is great. This book page does a nice job of representing this edition’s metadata — everything from description to ISBN.

In the wild though, not every edition is a release of a different book. For instance, consider this Japanese edition and this Spanish edition which are both translations of the same English book, “The Da Vinci Code“. In 2007, all three of these editions would have been separate book pages on Open Library and none of them linked to each other. If you were to happen upon the Japanese version, you wouldn’t have had any way of knowing if there was also a Spanish version.

Searching and browsing using an Editions-based system can also be problematic and frustrating, especially when a search term matches a book with hundreds of published editions. Imagine searching for the title “Tempest“, while looking for the Star Wars book by Troy Denning and having to scroll through 650+ editions of William Shakespeare, “Tempest” (sorry, we know this page loads slowly!) .

Search results from the original 2007 Open Library are polluted with scores of results for the same book, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain.

The challenges of an edition-based system are exemplified well by searching for books by Dave Eggers using the 2007 version of Open Library. One must wade through a deluge of titles, many reappearing multiple times as different editions of the same book, making it difficult to explore different titles.

If only there were a way to get all the benefits of an Edition Page but also have a way to roll-up similar editions into logical groups to help patrons to search for and differentiate books at a Work-level.

Adding Works

In March 2010, the Open Library team, led by the wonderful George Oates, helped address this problem with a redesign which introduced the concept of Works — i.e. logical groupings of similar editions.

In this design, the Japanese edition, the Spanish edition, and the English edition of, “The Da Vinci Code” from before all appear in a tidy editions table on a single Work Page. Now, a patron could perform a search for a work of interest, navigate to a Work Page, and then choose a relevant matching edition from the table. Clicking on an edition brought the reader to an Edition Page with information about that specific book.

Overall, this was a big step forward for Open Library patrons who were clamoring for a more organized way to find books.

This new design was a big step forward in making it easier to find the right general work. It also surfaced additional challenges and opportunities. For instance:

  1. Once the patron lands on the Editions Page, they lose the ability to easily view or switch to different editions.
  2. Some patrons reported confusion on the Work Page concerning which representative book cover was being displayed.
  3. Also on the Work Page, for books with longer descriptions, the editions table became pushed far below the fold and readers that were newer to the site reported difficulty discovering if editions were available to read or borrow.
  4. Managing two separate designs (for the Work Page & Edition Page) added cognitive load to some patrons who reported getting lost, and to developers who had to maintaining these designs.

For the average reader, the terms Work and Edition can confuse their experience. It is especially jarring when throughout the Open Library experience, a reader may either be dropped into a Work page or an Edition page. From the Editions Page, there was no way to see a list of alternative editions without changing pages to go to the Work Page. And on the Work Page, a reader would have to go to the Editions Page in order to learn more about that specific title and decide if it’s the one they want to read.

Again, our theory is: often times a patron requests a Work and wants the/a “correct” Edition to be inferred.

With the Editions-only model, a reader may have to wade through hundreds of irrelevant editions of books they’re not interested in. With the new Work pages, readers still had to perform the challenging task of deciding which edition was right for them.

Combining the best of both worlds

To simply this experience for readers, this week we released a new type of Book Page (see figure B, below) which combines the affordances of the Work and Edition Pages into a single view where readers may find all, neatly organized information about a work and about a specific edition at the same time, on the same page. Two pages become one:

By default, the Book Page attempts to automatically feature the “best” (previewable, available) edition of a book and places an editions table front-and-center to enable readers to quickly switch which edition is selected.

  • Editions table. We added a new search box to enable patrons to find relevant editions without reloading.
  • Navigation tabs. We have bucketed the work’s information into an “Overview” tab and the current Edition’s information in the “This Edition” tab. The tab bar always sticks to the top of the page for easy access to different sections of the page.
  • Expandable descriptions. In previous designs, long text descriptions made it difficult to see all important book information at a glance. There are now “Read more” links to expand and collapse long descriptions.
  • Clearer buttons. All the favorite actions of readers such as borrowing, searching inside, adding books to reading log, and rating books has all been grouped together and moved right below the book cover. It’s hopefully more clear now that the “Want to Read”
  • Load times. We know page speed is a priority for readers. The new Books Page should be significantly faster (and we’re still working on it).

Here is that same 2007 Book Page “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” by Dave Eggers brought to you with 2020 vision.

What’s staying the same.
We tried to change as little as possible and were careful not to remove existing functionality:

  • URLs: Developers and partners will be happy to hear that /works and /books urls and APIs will continue to work as expected without change. Both the work and edition pages will simply appear to use the same consistent design.
  • Lists: While admittedly slightly less convenient, you can still add Works to Lists by clicking the “Use this Work” checkbox as shown below. By default, Lists will use Editions.

Please share your feedback with us

We would love your feedback on what you like about our new Book Page and what you wish were different.

  1. Please take a moment to let us know what you think using this Google Form
  2. Tweet feedback to @openlibrary
  3. Is something broken on the Books Page? Please let us know @ https://openlibrary.org/contact or open an issue on github.

Thank you to Jim Shelton, Brenton Cheng, Jeff Kaplan, Lisa (@seabelis), Charles Horn, Nolan Windham, and countless others who provided design and product feedback to make this effort possible. And Sahar Massachi for providing feedback on this post.

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Reading Logs: Going Public & Helping Book Lovers Share

Hi book lovers,

Starting 2020-05-26, Reading Logs for new Open Library accounts will be public by default. Readers may go here to view or manage their Reading Log privacy preferences. This will not affect the privacy of your reading history — only books which you explicitly mark as Want to Read, Currently Reading, or Already Read on Open Library. The Reading Logs of patrons who signed up for Open Library accounts prior to this date will remain private until they choose to update their settings here. New users may also set their Reading Logs to private using this same link.

Open Library has consistently valued two principles: openness and reader privacy. As an open source, public library, we feel strongly about creating a warm, welcoming ecosystem which promotes sharing, diversity, and openness. We’re stronger, together, when we work as a community. At the same time, Open Library is dedicated to providing a secure, safe, and judgement-free service for those who rely on reader privacy. We take our responsibility as a library strongly to safeguard what books you’re reading and borrowing, unless you decide to share this information.

Since 2010, OpenLibrary.org has offered public reading lists to help patrons organize and share books they love. Since then, readers have published more than 130,000 public lists.

Over the last 10 years since we introduced lists, we noticed thousands of readers creating bespoke lists called “want to read” or “already read” or “favorite books“. We also noticed many popular reading services offer special personal lists which help patrons keep track of the books they are reading.

In response, at the end of 2017, Open Library launched a new Reading Log feature; a special type of list which lets readers keep track of books they Want to Read, books they’re Currently Reading, and books they’ve Already Read.

Since introducing the Reading Log, 943K unique readers have added books to their Reading Log 1.8M times.

When we first launched this feature, we didn’t know how the community would use it and so to be conservative, we made the Reading Log private by default. One point of feedback we consistently get from our patrons is, they wish it were easier to share their Reading Log with their friends. Lists on Open Library are already public. So are favorites on Archive.org. At the same time, it’s important for us to keep our promise to readers. We know some patrons may prefer setting their Reading Logs to be private, and we respect this.

Based on this feedback, and in the service of living up to the name “Open Library”, starting 2020-05-26, Reading Logs for new Open Library accounts will be public by default. Readers who create new accounts may go here to view or manage their Reading Log privacy preferences. Again, if you are an existing Open Library patron, your Reading Log will remain private unless you have already, or until you explicitly, update your settings here.

We hope many in the community will join us in making Open Library a more open ecosystem where book lovers can discover and share titles. While some platforms only offer a public Reading Log, Open Library is committed to continue offering a private setting for our patrons. As an organization which wears the motto, “Universal Access to All Knowledge” on its sleeves, we decided transitioning to public-by-default for new accounts better aligns with the spirit of working together to craft the World’s library together, and ultimately is a better outcome towards serving our broader community.

Open Library is constantly evolving and we exist to serve our patrons and our community. If you have strong opinions, we want to hear from you. Please send an email to mek@archive.org. Please try to be kind, we’re doing the best we can to make the right decisions with feedback from more than 3,000,000 readers like you. If you’d like to get involved and help, check our volunteer page or explore Open Library on github.

P.S. We’ve heard feedback that readers would like to be able to add notes to their reading log books, keep track of their place, and check-in the pages they’ve read, and we hope we’ll be able to address some of these wishes in a later post.

Sincerely,

The Open Library Team

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To the World: Introducing Brad Rubenstein

by Mek & Pallavi Devaraj

This is the first installment of an interview series called, “To the World” which goes behind the scenes to explore what inspires authors to write and share their work with the world.


In this interview, we receive a master class on effective project management by Brad Rubenstein, co-author of Risk Up Front.

Introducing Brad Rubenstein

Image result for Brad RubensteinBrad Rubenstein has been, at times, a software developer and systems architect, a classical musician, a project manager, and a theatre and indie film producer. Most recently, he is co-author, with Adam Josephs, of the project management bible, Risk Up Front: Managing Projects in a Complex World (RUF). RUF is a treasure trove of resources Brad and Adam produced as a reference guide for their clients at Celerity Consulting, a boutique project management consulting firm. In his free cycles, Brad volunteers as an advisor for Open Library, where his book has been put to use countless times.

Growing up in Southeast Asian, Brad describes himself as a third culture kid.

“My childhood was in Thailand and Indonesia”, Brad says, “I came back to the United States to study computer science, just as Silicon Valley was taking off.”

After finishing a PhD at U.C. Berkeley, Brad cut his teeth in Silicon Valley as an early employee at Sun Microsystems. In the ’90s, he moved to New York to design and develop the distributed trading and risk management infrastructure employed by Goldman Sachs as they automated their operations. Since leaving Goldman in 2000, Brad transitioned into a project coaching and team building role as a co-founder of Celerity consulting where he has spent nearly two decades sharing his expertise with a wide variety of for-profit and non-profit organizations on how to get things done.

“Nothing teaches you how to run complex projects better than actually running complex projects.”

So, you’ve done projects all your life and for the first time you are being asked to do a project which is bigger than a single person can do. Maybe the solution is not obvious. It’s too complex to keep in your head or it requires you to make difficult choices.

One of the most important assets a project manager can bring to the table is wisdom and experience from having gone through many projects and seeing where things went wrong or right. But someone who is new to project management may not have these first hand experiences to call upon. The first question many of us have is, “Where do I start?”

“Teams are much more comfortable solving the problems they know how to solve.”

Many of us instinctively start by tackling the problems we know how to solve and trying to build momentum. Instead of letting ourselves get blocked, there is an impulse to move fast and break things; to follow the path of least resistance and get something working. Maybe this means working on the easy stuff first, or getting the difficult stuff out of the way, or maybe even ramping up on the most interesting stuff.

“It’s unnatural, but critical,” Brad advises, “for project teams to talk about how their project might get derailed and proactively mitigate those risks early, rather than letting them strike later when changes are most expensive. Although projects seem to have a logical order in which it makes sense to get the pieces done, we encourage teams to focus on doing the risky parts first, which sometimes takes a bit of creativity (and scaffolding).”

“You can’t do a risk-reward trade-off if the risks are hidden in your blind spot.”

Many teams, especially startups in Silicon Valley, feel pressure to move quickly and are more open to taking risks. Brad suggests this may be fallacy:

“When people talk about risk and reward, there is a presupposition that one understands what the risks are in order to take them. The Risk Up Front method focuses on helping teams become aware of the risks in the first place, so they can make sensible decisions about how to prioritize and mitigate them. As you come up with a list of risks articulated in a way that moves the team to take action, you might choose to leave them and place your bets. The trouble is when teams are blindsided by an expensive risk late in the game that they wouldn’t have taken had they known about it earlier.”

“The fact that an individual knows something is different than a team knowing something.”

We asked Brad how someone who is new to project management is supposed to magically be able to anticipate what could go wrong on a project.

“There’s a better question a project manager in this situation might ask”, Brad says, “How do I create the space in my team to reliably surface the things that might go wrong? This space does not happen by accident. You have to make it happen.”

Whether you’re new to project management or a veteran, Brad emphasizes the value of leveraging the experience and expertise of ones teammates. The wisdom of the whole team is greater than the sum of its parts. So what does Risk Up Front look like and how does it happen?

Brad explains, “Many engineers may be familiar with the concept of an Agile stand-up. In Risk Up Front we have Weekly Accountability Meetings (WAM) where the project’s full cross-functional team accounts for their progress, commits to what they’ll do next week, and matches this with what they’ve finished, so the team can ensure commitments are being kept and forward progress is being made.”

A key element of the WAM is a Risk Review where a crucial question is posed to each member of the team in turn:

“What is the most likely reason this project will fail?”

Going around on a regular basis and asking this one question creates the space to uncover hidden issues and moves the team to act.”, Brad says. “A central part of RUF is making sure the right questions get asked.”

“If your project has too many risks, it’s time to evaluate your Project Definition.”

We wondered what advice Brad would give to a team if they discover their project has too many high risks:

“In Risk Up Front, projects begin with a series of Definition Meetings that force the team to arrive at a mutual agreement as to how they will trade off the 5 W’s — who, what, why, when, and why-not (i.e. the risks) of the project, in order to settle on a project that the team can commit to deliver. A lot bends during these discussions. You might change what you decide to build, change who you build it for. All of these choices will have consequences and risk profiles. Perhaps building for one audience means building fewer components which might mean less risk. The outcome of such a meeting is a project definition statement whose risks your team is comfortable accepting.”

“Are you afraid something is going to go wrong?”

Something we imagine Brad gets asked frequently is, what are early warning signs, before a disaster occurs, that might clue someone in that they need his help? Brad tells us that Celerity is commonly brought into a project after a big disaster.

“People who are new to managing big projects may not know they need something like Risk Up Front and thus don’t call us at the beginning. Looking on the bright side, one advantage of this is that teams in this situation are often malleable and willing to put new processes in place after something has gone awry.”

Brad mentions that recognizing small process failures early on, such as not rigorously following through on commitments, falling behind schedule, or experiencing integration issues of the work product of teammates, are great opportunities to use techniques from the book to course correct.

“4 principles, 4 pieces of paper, and 2 meetings.”

Risk Up Front includes 4 documents with instructions, including a Risk Action Plan, to help teams methodically surface risks out of blind-spots through targeted conversation.

Brad notes, “It is the process of negotiating the elements of these documents within the team that is valuable, not the documents themselves. In a sense, the paperwork is the booby prize. We want to keep it as simple as possible.”

Successful projects depend more on your team’s behavior than on their project tools.”

There are a lot of books about project management out there. We wondered what motivated Brad and Adam to write Risk Up Front.

Although certain tools and methods are more appropriate for certain types of projects and teams, we repeatedly see projects with first-class tools and methods get into trouble. On the flip side, we’ve seen complex projects succeed with the barest of project management tools — often no more than a few spreadsheets, lists, and documents.
p. xvi Risk Up Front

Image result for risk up front“The prosaic reason is that it makes teaching our method to teams a lot easier (they can use the book as a reference), and my favorite work is with the teams themselves. But we do get calls from individuals in far-off places telling us they’re using RUF for projects that have never crossed our paths before, which is very gratifying.”

Before writing “Risk Up Front”, we wondered if there was a book Brad turned to for answers.

“When I was in college, I had to facilitate large and boisterous board meetings run according to Roberts Rules of Order, and that was an education. At the time, I read How to Make Meetings Work (Michael Doyle, David Strauss, 1976), and that made a big impression.  The skills I learned about facilitating meetings, helping people in the meeting actually get something done, have served me well.”

“Every project is different in the details, but people are people”

We ask Brad, if he were to invest time in another guide, if he would go deeper into risk mitigation or focus on demystifying another complimentary area of project management:

“The book [RUF] is very good at laying out the philosophy and why it hangs together. There’s a difference between presenting theory and facilitating practice. For example, we describe in detail how to do a weekly accountability meeting and yet it’s not easy for people having read the book to run a weekly accountability meeting because it takes practice and thought to line everything up and turn it into a routine. I think simplified checklists of instructions and suggestions would make it easier for readers to use our documents and put the theory of Risk Up Front into practice.”

The simple but powerful idea of formalizing a project management methodology into easily applicable checklists is an idea which is celebrated in Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto, and a prospect that is very exciting to the Open Library Team.

Risk Up Front & Open Library

We ask Brad how he became an advisor to the Open Library project:

“I met Mek Karpeles, who heads up the Open Library project, earlier in 2019, at a Grand Re-opening of the Public Domain celebration hosted by the Internet Archive in San Francisco. He was one of the presenters. I had just finished my book, and was exploring what was next for me. He was looking for someone to help get the process of wrangling their open source development workflow, along with a group of enthusiastic volunteers, running more smoothly. Mek had big plans for new features at Open Library, including a Book Sponsorship project, that would allow Open Library users to help underwrite the acquisition of new books that others could borrow directly from their web site. I was fascinated by it, and it seemed like a fun and interesting place to plug in. Mek offered to scan in a copy of Risk Up Front himself (in return for my autograph on the frontispiece), and add it to the library.”

You can read more about Open Library’s Book Sponsorship program on Open Library’s blog https://blog.openlibrary.org/2019/10/23/scan-on-demand-building-the-worlds-open-library-together/ or learn how to participate here: https://openlibrary.org/sponsorship.

“I am a big fan of libraries, and openlibrary.org is the biggest library.  So I’m thrilled [for my work to be available on the website].”

Brad remarks that he is drawn to the importance of Open Library’s long term vision, “[…] to make all the published works of humankind available to everyone in the world.” A vision he hopes will long outlast his work, and even those of the current core team. In order for this to be true, Brad believes the right architectures and a culture need to be in place to keep patrons and contributors excited about their progress toward this vision. Open Library is also a great case study of “Risk Up Front” and an opportunity for Brad to apply the lessons of his book directly to help a team faced with big decisions and challenges. For instance, like meeting the difficulties of coordinating a geographically distributed team like Open Library’s.

We asked Mek Karpeles, Open Library’s program lead and Brad’s mentee, if he’s found Brad’s book applicable to problems Open Library faces:

For me and Open Library, I have to admit, it was as simple as, “how do I run a meeting?”. How many times have I taken notes at a meeting and never opened them up again? This was a clear indicator that my notes or meetings are not structured correctly, but I had never asked why. As our advisor, Brad directed us to ask fundamental questions we had taken for granted. Like, “Who are these meeting minutes for and what purpose do they serve?”.

Each of our community calls now starts with short updates from each teammate. As soon as a point seems too long, we add it to a list of Open Mic topics we’ll discuss after the updates are finished. And we have a section in our notes dedicated to decisions and action items. Brad’s book has a great template for understanding what an action item is; what will be delivered, who owns it, and by when (explicitly not how). We take our notes in google docs and use the comment feature to assign each decision to a member of our team. Sometimes, these involve a next step of creating issues on our GitHub bug tracker. Brad’s book helped us keep our weekly meeting useful.

The Risk Up Front book includes a handful of Project Documents and templates which represented hidden opportunities for us. The ‘Team List” document — having an inventory of stakeholders and the projects they lead — in particular was a big win for us. The exercise helped us realize the benefits of delegation by encouraging members of the community to publicly step up and commit to owning parts of the project, and at the same time helping community members know where to direct their questions. We have our Team List posted publicly on our wiki.

Beyond the Book

Outside of being an expert project manager and an author, we wondered how Brad would like to be remembered:

“I don’t want to bill myself these days as an expert project manager (any more than the coach of the basketball team is necessarily the best basketball player). I have fallen into the coaching role, which helps me develop my skills in listening and noticing what stands in the way of people being great, along with some strategies for helping people get that stuff out of their way. Many folks do that with individuals – I’m focused on doing it for groups or teams. My passion is for getting things that are stuck, unstuck. In the unlikely event that I’m going to become famous, I guess I’d hope to be famous for that.”

As a final question, we asked Brad, what is one thing you wish more of the world knew or thought about more? And why is this important to you or us?

“Tough question. Groups of people can accomplish great things that no single person can accomplish, and they can also spin horribly out of control in ways an individual never would. In this particular moment, it seems valuable to keep both these things in mind.”

Thank you

Open Library offers a deep thank you to Brad Rubenstein for his contributions to Open Library, his commitment to sharing knowledge, and for his patience answering our questions.

If you liked these tips and are interested in putting Brad and Adam’s process into practice, pick up a copy of Risk Up Front and let us know what you think by tweeting @RiskUpFront.

Want to hear more from Brad? Check out this other interview on Green Planet Blue Planet:

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