You go to a book club for one book, learn of a dozen more…

Jane-JacobsI’m just coming back from a book club (adult conversation? But… but… I’m a parent… Really?). The topic was Jane Jacob’s 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The six of us gathered in a Collingswood, N.J., coffee shop were all city design geeks and I could barely keep up with the ideas and books that had influenced everyone. Here is a very incomplete list:

Update: And also, from Genevieve’s list:

  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas Adams, for its absurdist humor around the bureaucracies of planning
  • Green Metropolis. David Owen,
  • What’s Up With That: Building Bigger Roads Actually Makes Traffic Worse,” an article by Adam Mann in Wired on the phenomenon of induced demand.
  • Vision Zero Initiative
  • The Pine Barrens. John McPhee, the classic which I brought up.
  • The Power Broker. Robert Caro.
  • The Ecology of Commerce. Paul Hawken
  • Organizing in the South Bronx. Jim Rooney
  • Re: race: Dalton Conley’s Being Black, Living in the Red and When Work Disappears by William Julius Wilson.
  • Re: bicycles: Urban Bikers’ Tricks & Tips. Dave Glowacz

Excuse me for the next six months while I read. :)

Wikifying Our Blogging

Continuing my recent post in reimagining blogs, I’m going to go into some contextual details lifted from the Quaker publications with which I’m either directly associated or that have some claim to my identity.

My blog at Quaker Ranter dates back to the proto-blog I began in 1997 as an new homepage for my two year old “Nonviolence Web” project. The new feature was updated weekly with excerpted material from member projects on and related organizations that already had independent websites. We didn’t have RSS or Twitter then but I would manually send out emails to a list; we didn’t have comments but I would publish interesting responses that came by email. The work was relaunched with blogging software in 2003 and the voice became more individual and my focus became more Quaker and tech.

The articles then were like they are now: reversely chronological, with categories, tagging, and site searching that allow older material to be accessed. The most important source of archive visibility is external: Google. People can easily find material that is directly relevant to a question they’re addressing right now. In many instances, they’ll never even click through to the site homepage, much less categories, tags, etc. As I said in my last post, these first-time visitors are often trying to understand something new; the great majority bounce off the page and follow another search result on a matter of a few seconds, but some small but important percentage will be ripe for new ideas and connections and might be willing to try new associations.

But it’s random. I’m a bit of a nerd in my chosen interests and have been blogging long enough that I generally have at least a few interesting posts on any particular sub-topic. Most of these have been inspired by colleagues, friends, my wife, and random conversations I’ve found myself in.

Some of the most meaningful blog posts–those with legs–have involved me integrating some new thinker or idea into my worldview. The process will have started months or sometimes years before when another spiritual nerd recommended a book or article. In the faith world there’s always books that are obscure to newcomers but essential for those trying to go deeper into their faith. You’ll be in a deep conversations with someone and they’ll ask (often with a twinkle in their eye) “have you read so-and-so?” (This culture if sharing is especially important for Friends, who traditionally have no clergy or seminaries).

A major role of my blog has been to bring these sorts of conversations into a public realm–one that can be Googled and followed. The internet has helped us scale-up this process and make it more available to those who can’t constantly travel.

When I have real-world conversations now, I often have recourse to cite some old blog post. I’m sharing the “have you read” conversation in a way that can be eavesdropped by hundreds.

But how are people who stumble in my site for the first time going to find this?

The issue isn’t just limited to an obscure faith blog. Yesterday I learned about a cool (to me) blog written by a dad who researches and travels to neat nature spots in the area with his kids and writes up a post about what-to-see and kid-issues-to-be-aware-of. But when it’s a nice Saturday afternoon and I find myself in a certain locale, how can I know if he’s been anywhere nearby unless I go through all the archives or hope the search works or hope his blog’s categorization taxonomy is complete?

What I’m thinking is that we could try to create meta indexes to our blogs in a wiki model. Have a whole collection of introductory pages where we list and summarize relevant articles with links.

In the heyday of SEO, I used to tag the heck out if posts and have the pages act as a sort of automated version of this, but again, this it was chronological. And it was work. Even remembering to tag is work. I would spend a couple of days ignoring clients to metatag each page on the site, only to redo the work a few months later with even more metadata complexity. Writing a whole shadow meta blog indexing the blog would be a major (and unending task). It wouldn’t garner the rush of immediate Facebook likes. But it would be supremely useful for someone wanting to explore an issue of particular interest to them at that moment.

And one more Quaker aside that I think will nevertheless be of interest to the more techie readers. I’ve described Quakerism as a wiki spirituality. Exhibit one is the religious movement’s initial lack of creeds or written instruction. Even our pacifism, for which we’re most well known, was an uncodified testimony in the earliest years.

As Friends gained more experience living in community, they would publish advices–short snippets of wisdom that were collectively-approved using consensus decision making. They were based on experience. For example, they might find that members who abused alcohol, say, or repeatedly tested the dress code might cause other sorts of problems for the community and they’d minute a warning against these practices.

These advices were written over time; as more were approved it became burdensome to find relevant advices when some issue started tearing up a congregation. So they were collected into books–unofficial at first, literally hand-copied from person to person. These eventually became official–published “books of disciplines,” collections of the collective wisdom organized by topic. Their purpose and scope (and even their name) has changed over the ensuing centuries but their impulse and early organization is one that I find useful when thinking about how we could rethink the categorization issues of our twenty first century blogs and commenting systems.

Something afoot circa 2004

Came across an 2004-era page of mine (the Baby Theo homepage) via an search today. Here was a description on the sidebar:

This website is part of a informal emerging network of Friends that are reaching across our institutional boundaries to engage with our faith and with each other. The “ministry of the written word” has often sparked generational renewal among Friends and there’s something afoot in all these comments and linkbacks. There are lots of potential projects that can be launched over the new few years (books, workshops, conferences, etc) so if you like the direction of this site and the questions it’s asking, please consider a donation to the site.

Future of Quaker media at Pendle Hill next month

I’m part of a discussion at the Pendle Hill conference center outside Philadelphia next month. Everyone’s invited. It’s a rare chance to really bring a lot of different readers and media producers (official and DIY) together into the same room to map out where Quaker media is headed. If you’re a passionate reader or think that Quaker publications are vital to our spiritual movement, then do try to make it out.

Youtube, Twitter, podcasts, blogs, books. Where’s it all going and who’s doing it? How does it tie back to Quakerism? What does it mean for Friends and our institutions? Join panelists Charles Martin, Gabriel Ehri and Martin Kelley, along with Quaker publishers and writers from around the world, and readers and media enthusiasts, for a wide-ranging discussion about the future of Quaker media.

We will begin with some worship at 7.00pm If you’d like a delicious Pendle Hill dinner beforehand please reply to the Facebook event wall (see Dinner is at 6.00pm and will cost $12.50

This is part of this year’s Quakers Uniting in Publications conference. QUIP has been having to re-imagine its role over the last ten years as so many of its anchor publishers and bookstores have closed. I have a big concern that a lot of online Quaker material is being produced by non-Quakers and/or in ways that aren’t really rooted in typical Quaker processes. Maybe we can talk about that some at Pendle Hill.

What might it mean that one of the best-selling new novels revolves around a Quaker…

What might it mean that one of the best-selling new novels revolves around a Quaker plot line? Yes indeed, "The Marriage Plot" by "Virgin Suicides" author Jeffrey Eugenides apparently does. I've ordered it and will try to write up impressions too, According to this piece in Commentary, another current book has a Quaker theme. Curious. #books #eugenides

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Jeffrey Eugenides « Commentary Magazine
I am writing about Jeffrey Eugenides's magical novel The Marriage Plot at greater length elsewhere, but a remarkable coincidence — an instant of serendipity in literary history — struck me upon re…

Ginny Christensen, Educational Consultant

Strategy for GrowthGinny Christensen is the force behind Strategy for Growth, LLC, a Wyncote, PA consulting firm that provides strategic planning, board development, executive coaching, and leadership team development for independent schools and nonprofits. The site is fairly simple. It’s built in WordPress and has rudimentary e-commerce with a Paypal option for purchasing books.


Holiness and Quakerism

Just got Carole Dale Spencer’s Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism in the mail. There’s been some blogger buzz around it and I’m glad to check it out for myself. I can tell right off the bat that I’m probably not going to be convinced by her arguments. Flipping through the index (the place to start any book like this) I see she makes three scant references to tradition-minded “Conservative” Friends. That’s not a good sign, but she’s far from the first modern historian to quarantine this branch to the footnotes.

I’ll cut her some slack because she’s traveling an interesting route. She’s spending a lot of time talking about the Methodist and Holiness influences in Friends–John Wesley himself directly is indexed eighteen times. If you look at the people who defined modern 20th Century liberal Quakerism, folks like Rufus Jones (28 index references), you find that these influences were very strong. They still are, even if they go unacknowledged. And many of the issues Spencer is tracing are still with us and continue to be relevant even as some of us are talking up the possibilities of a new renewal/revival movement.

Another Quaker bookstore bites the dust

Not really news, but Friends United Meeting recently dedicated their new Welcome Center in what was once the FUM bookstore:

On September 15, 2007, FUM dedicated the space once used as the Quaker Hill Bookstore as the new FUM Welcome Center. The Welcome Center contains Quaker books and resources for F/friends to stop by and make use of during business hours. Tables and chairs to comfortably accommodate 50 people make this a great space to rent for reunions, church groups, meetings, anniversary/birthday parties, etc. Reduced prices are available for churches.

Most Quaker publishers and booksellers have closed or been greatly reduced over the last ten years. Great changes have occurred in the Philadelphia-area Pendle Hill bookstore and publishing operation, the AFSC Bookstore in Southern California, Barclay Press in Oregon. The veritable Friends Bookshop in London farmed out its mail order business a few years ago and has seen part of its space taken over by a coffeebar: popular and cool I’m sure, but does London really needs another place to buy coffee? Rumor has it that Britain’s publications committee has been laid down. The official spin is usually that the work continues in a different form but only Barclay Press has been reborn as something really cool. One of the few remaining booksellers is my old pals at FGC’s QuakerBooks: still selling good books but I’m worried that so much of Quaker publishing is now in one basket and I’d be more confident if their website showed more signs of activity.

The boards making these decisions to scale back or close are probably unaware that they’re part
of a larger trend. They probably think they’re responding to unique situations (the peer group Quakers Uniting in Publications sends internal emails around but hasn’t done much to publicize this story outside of its membership). It’s sad to see that so many Quaker decision-making bodies have independently decided that publishing is not an essential part of their mission.