My Personal Project: REVEALED!

I’ve been hinting for quite a while about a personal project I’ve been working on. Well, I’ve finally got it in production, and am in the final stages of fine-tuning it. Say hello to…


Front page of The Mapback Index, featuring some paperback covers

The Dell “mapbacks” were paperbacks published by Dell in the 1940s and 50s. They featured beautiful cover art, including hand-drawn maps on the back covers that detailed the setting of the book, or a setting in the book: sometimes the scene of a murder, or the main character’s apartment. I’ve been collecting them since I was 13, and still own only a fraction of the more than 500 titles that were published.

Way back around 2000, I started cataloging my own collection in an Access database, with the help of a reference book written by a former Dell employee. That database moved from computer to computer with me, in a folder that many people are probably familiar with: the folder of Files From My Old Computer. I’d always had the idea that I should put it online, but it sat on the back burner for a long time. I started trying to figure out how I’d do it. I considered frameworks–LOTS of frameworks–everything from Ruby on Rails to Laravel to CakePHP (I already knew a fair amount about PHP, so those last two seemed like good bets). I thought about trying to tweak a CMS like WordPress or Drupal to work with my database; I hadn’t entered a lot of data yet, so there wouldn’t have been a lot of conversion or repetition.

But in the end, the way that made the most sense to me was just to export it to MySQL and build it in PHP, like it was 2003 or something. I did have to learn more about relationships, because I’d never had to deal with any as complex as what I wanted in this database. I had to learn a bunch of new stuff about PHP, but fortunately, I’d recently gone a little over the top at a one-day sale on O’Reilly ebooks (you might notice from my sidebar that I have a special fondness for O’Reilly, both as a reader and as a freelance copyeditor and proofreader). So armed with Modern PHP and Learning PHP, MySQL, and Javascript, I got serious about the Mapback Index.

I still have a few things to add: I’m working on a search bar, adding some more responsive features, testing (and improving) accessibility, and working on a printable checklist for collectors to take along when they’re out rambling around antique malls and bookstores. I’m still scanning book covers from my own collection, and downloading and editing images I don’t have from Bookscans, an amazing database of vintage book cover art whose creator and maintainer has given me permission to use his images. And I’m still adding books to the database (but I have fewer than 100 left to go!). I’m considering using eBay’s search API to show listings for each book on its own page. But right now, you can at least look at the beautiful covers, marvel over the awesome maps, and find out a little bit more about the authors and artists who made the Dell Mapbacks come to life.