I ♥ LibraryThing

July 18, 2007

For some time now I’ve been a member of LibraryThing, and it is time to extol its many virtues to my vast readership.

LibraryThing is a site for creating an online catalogue of your books. I’ve catalogued my personal library using it, and it works beautifully. It’s designed to make the cataloguing easy, and it succeeds. For each book, you enter a relevant piece of information about it, such as the author, or the title, or (better) the ISBN. LibraryThing then provides you with a list of books matching your criteria. Usually your book is among them, so you simply click to add it to your online catalogue. The site then pulls in details about your book: publication date, publisher, number of pages, cover art, subject headings, and so forth. LibraryThing’s data sources are vast: if your book isn’t held by the Library of Congress, and isn’t sold by Amazon, LibraryThing is still able to search through over 70 libraries worldwide to find your book’s data. If you have really obscure books, you can enter the data manually.

If you’re like me, I’ve already told you enough to get your heart racing. But there’s more! You can add metadata to your library using tags. Tags are just keywords you associate with your books. For instance, I tagged Pride and Prejudice with the keywords “British”, “19th century”, “Fiction”, and “Literature”. (In my taxonomy “Literature” is a subset of “Fiction”.) It might seem a lot of work to tag all the books, and I suppose it is, but the results are worth it. Want to see all your books about Cistercians? No problem. Ever wonder how many books of poetry you have? LibraryThing can count them. Are you gripped with a sudden passion to read your books from or about the 16th century? Here they are. Since you assign the tags yourself, the number of ways you can slice and dice your books is limited only by your imagination (and your willingness to enter the tags).

On top of this, LibraryThing will compile and display statistics about your library, such as how many duplicates you have (for shame!), when your books were published, and even the distribution of languages in which your books were originally written.

If I have one complaint about the site, it’s that there’s no field to enter the original publication date of a book. My copy of Utopia was published in 1970, but the work was originally issued in 1516. Some people use the “date of publication” field to hold the original date of publication, but I don’t want to do that. I want both dates.

LibraryThing is also touted as a “social networking” site. It shows you which other users have libraries “similar”, by some measure, to your own. If they permit it, you can look at their library and perhaps get some good ideas. There are also forums for discussing books with other users. Personally, I don’t really make use of these social aspects, but many people do. More to my taste is an intelligent book suggester which, by comparing your library to those of other users, recommends books you are likely to enjoy. Even more fun is their book Unsuggester, which produces a list of books likely to turn your stomach.

These social aspects improve as the number of users grows. I joined when there were about 30 000 members, I think. Today that number has grown to over 230 000, and it shows no signs of abating. Even so, the site remains a small scale operation. Tim Spalding, who started it (and who has an interesting library) remains in charge. It feels very much like a site made by a book-lover for book-lovers. Which it is.

If you like books, and like being organized, and hope your house never burns down but would like a list of your books to give to the insurance company just in case, I commend LibraryThing to you with the highest praise.

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