So one job-related thing that dovetails with the book project is a Book Discovery* project on Themes & Tropes.

*that’s my new department! It puts all the content-related stuff (cataloging, recommendations, newsletters, etc.) in one super-department.

Given that my audience is not primarily an audience of librarians, this probably requires some explanation. (in other words, get ready, it’s primer time!)

Themes & Tropes

First, some working definitions:

A theme is an overarching concept: take, for example, revenge.

On its own, it’s just a free-floating Big Idea with no particular narrative attached.

Tropes are story elements: take, for example, damsel in distress

Now, there’s a hint of conflict here (who is she? why is she in distress? won’t someone help her?) but ultimately, a trope is a lone LEGO brick of story.

Which I guess makes the theme one of those LEGO base plates, of the sort that My Fella has been collecting and filing since the 1980s? ANYWAY.

Tropes can encompass character types, plot devices, and types of settings; maybe other things, too, but it’s late and I’m free-handing this so you get what you get.

However, if you start stacking themes and tropes, like so:

Revenge + (kidnapped childdamsel in distress) + (secret badass + no such thing as retirement + turnabout is fair play) =

"taken movie"

you get a particular set of tropes

And that’s a story! Or at least the basic foundation for one. After that, it’s up to the author to make it into something unique, and that’s outside the scope of this post.

Now, the goal of this project is to define subject headings and metadata around common narrative themes and tropes. But before we get to that, let’s have an overview of METADATA!!!

Metadata & Librarians

To paraphrase one of my library school textbooks, “metadata is data ABOUT data!”

(and if you were in library school, that nugget of wisdom would cost you $75 in the form of a textbook that is one month away from being replaced by a newer edition, thus preventing resale.)

Metadata is what used to be called cataloging, say some. And those same some might blame this on the Internet or guybrarians demanding important-sounding titles or the greater library world’s insistence that we are all INFORMATION PROFESSIONALS which is srs bsns thx. I am not going to weigh in on this, that’s for y’all to argue about.

In the early days of NoveList, the database relied heavily on Hennepin metadata for its bibliographic records*.

(*= ok so in a library catalog (=bibliographic index), that is the page that contains all the information that describes an individual book. This information can be external [trim size (no for real)] or intrinsic [content indicators such as subject headings]; it can be a physical descriptor [page count, “[12] p. of plates”] or an aid to access and retrieval [call number, ISBN]). tl;dr metadata is v. flexible because bib records do a little bit of anything and everything)

“Hennepin” is Minnesota’s Hennepin County Library, whose fiction cataloging was EPIC*

*basically, their catalogers went rogue and decided that fiction deserved the same kind of in-depth treatment that nonfiction did. y’know, b/c people might want to search for novels ABOUT certain subjects, like the Tudors or rescue dogs, instead of going to the library and shouting “I WOULD LIKE A FICTION PLEASE.” If this doesn’t sound revolutionary, it’s because we have evolved (somewhat) as a society. OR NOT, because Hennepin eventually axed its in-house cataloging staff. HOWEVER, the DNA of their revolution lives on in NoveList’s collection. And we are so proud to carry on the tradition of providing you with far more information about a given book than you’d ever need or want.

If you don’t believe me, you should take a look at their 60+ subfields on alternate terms for “cocaine.” I can only imagine how this came to be and yet everything I can imagine is glorious:

Desk Set

So we’ve got our story components and we’ve got our metadata. That means that our next stop on this whirlwind tour is…

How We’re Combining Them

Below is what our (equivalent of) public-facing bib records currently look like in NoveList:


i’m calling out appeals vocabulary because these attempts to describe the non-tangibles of a book’s overall “feel” are something nobody else does in any kind of systematic way

You can use any of these terms to search for other titles that share these characteristics — for example, if you wanted an intricately plotted book that is disturbing and has also been adapted into a movie, you can string these terms together and get some results, if any are to be had.

And the reason we bother with themes and tropes is the same reason we bother with subject headings or appeals: we want to create more access points for readers who want to find other books similar to the ones they have enjoyed.

Some of our subject headings already hint at tropes — e.g. marriages of convenience, or alien invasions — which probably indicates some hot bulk change action. Others need to be identified, defined, and refined.

A bit of backstory: this overarching metadata enhancement initiative started with Romance, which frankly is low-hanging fruit because it practically tropes itself.

For example, if you wanted to search by trope for stranded (i.e. when the H/h get trapped in a blizzard or whatever, cue sexytimes) or friends to lovers (self-explanatory) or one night to forever (when flings turn into Something More) that is now a possible!

We also recently wrapped up Fantasy, so keep your eyes peeled for dark lord, chosen one, and laws of magic among others. See, if you only had subject headings, you’d have to filter using terms such as “magic.” Or (my personal favorites) “imaginary kingdoms” and “imaginary wars and battles.”

At this stage, these are essentially pilot projects: given our current personpower and bandwidth, we’ve limited our headings to a smaller number of higher-impact concepts — so it’s not an exhaustive list. However, it does serve as a proof-of-concept, laying the groundwork for subsequent rounds of vetting and applying new headings.

Which Brings Us To

As I write this, Science Fiction is on the horizon. And I am leading it with my counterpart on the data side (who specializes in juvenile materials, so maybe we’re more like each other’s opposite numbers).

Do you want a sneak peek at what I’m working on? OF COURSE YOU DO!

At the suggestion of our fearless leaders, we started with a bit of crowdsourcing, which, for the record, I said was a terrible idea — and lo, I was correct and we received like 30 in-house submissions for “SEXXXBOTS!” and “science fiction that is real” (???)

Although very little of this feedback can be acted upon, we can now at least say that We Have Learned Something about the people in our office. And knowing, as they say, is half the battle.

After sifting through the initial suggestions, my Opposite and I worked independently to come up with sets of possible tropes. Then we met to stage a Trope Thunderdome that would narrow down the field of contenders; we also came up with a plan for tackling these in a reasonably clear and efficient manner.

Our solution? Grouping related tropes within larger topic areas. For example,

AI — there are TONS of artificial intelligence tropes, but we decided that the most effective approach would draw on the anxieties that permeate this kind of fiction, namely, robot uprisings and whatever it’s called when an AI equals or surpasses humans in cognitive function, perhaps leading to the development of consciousness or emotional capacity (we really need a better name for this)

Space Exploration — because our current subject headings (including “space flight” and “space vehicle collisions”) are generally inadequate for getting at the essence of books about space exploration, we decided to look at motivation. Which is to say, WHY explore space? To boldly go where no person has gone before? To colonize other worlds? (Maybe via generation ships?) Or maybe it’s just a case of lost in space?

Aliens — there are basically two ways this goes down: first contact (we go to them) and alien invasion (they come to us); this structure sets up a bucket system that makes vetting easier by allowing catalogers to decide A or B when confronted with books about extraterrestrials.

Time Travel — I strongly suspect that this area, while useful to parse, will be awful to implement. While we have limited our TT tropes to time slips, time loops, and changing history, I suspect that the plot-driven nature of the time travel story creates a kind of arms race among authors, compelling them to constantly up the ante as they chase after ever-more shocking twists to impress an audience that has seen it all before. Nevertheless, it’s probably still an area worth tackling.

Science! — finally, I mention this one because it is a good example of the tonal differences that occur at different reading levels: weird science in children’s literature often involves science fair projects gone hilariously wrong or wacky inventions that let protagonists switch brains with their pets or stop time for 10 second bursts; whereas playing god on the adult fiction side usually involves the HUBRIS! of meddling in things beyond our ken in ways that unleash disaster on the unsuspecting human race. Same basic plot, very different feel.

Of course, we’ve got others (enhanced humans, virtual worlds, post-apocalyptic bands of survivors, etc.), but my intention here is just to give you a glimpse of the wonderful world of metadata enhancement. That said, once this project has begun in earnest, I fully expect that I’ll be ranting about “these f*cking tropes,” so stay tuned for that.

For now, though, I’m looking forward to this.

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