T he web is disappearing as it matures. Publishing people may discuss where the publishing industry is heading, but nobody asks ‘Where are books heading?’ There may be a Web 3.0 conference, but there will not be a Web 9.0 conference. I don’t think our grandchildren will consider it a ‘thing.’ We will not be cool. Cool will then have become something else.”
Tim Spalding, creator of LibraryThing
DSM: LibraryThing is all about building community around reading. Readers can catalog their books on LibraryThing’s website and tag each book using terms and phrases that relate to its content and the themes and concepts that the book evokes for them. You can catalog the books in your own collection—or ones that you’ve read or know something about, regardless of whether you own a copy or not. You can create personal LibraryThing entries of anything that you read. By cataloguing your reading in LibraryThing, you selectively but inevitably display your interests thoughts and feelings. It’s a great opportunity to for you to express yourself simply through single words and short phrases, even if you would not have any inclination to say or write anything more extensive.
CMT: Cataloging content is only one of the wonderful aspects of LibraryThing. Anyone who visits LibraryThing.com can learn about titles in a particular genre, with a particular theme, with a certain type of character, and so on. It’s a great tool to use when creating “show me more items like this” lists and to connect with other readers and musicians with similar interests. I’ve discovered other people around the world who have similar interests in the interrelationships between music performance and music theory, between the sociology and anthropology of music and classical music marketing and audience development. We can exchange interesting titles through the LibraryThing catalog, and, like other social networking software, we can strike up deeper correspondence if (and only if – ) we mutually want to do that.
DSM: The tagclouds on LibraryThing provide interesting visuals of authors and themes that have some traction within the LibraryThing userbase. Like on Digg, ReddIt, Technorati, del.icio.us and other sites, the LibraryThing tagclouds enable you to access things that have been tagged with a particular keyword or theme. The fontsize of each tag in a tagcloud is proportional to the number of entries associated with that tag—it’s popularity, more or less. It’s similar to “bubble charts” (see IBM alphaWorks ManyEyes visualization tools, and Ed Tufte’s work). You can personally have an impact on the tagclouds by adding more and more of your favorite titles by authors you like or on themes you especially like. Chamber music fans and chamber music groups could work together on adding titles and challenge each other to expand and change the LibraryThing tagclouds.
CMT: I’m currently a member of LibraryThing groups on classical music, performance, music history, music theory, and boston.
DSM: One thing that I especially appreciate is that LibraryThing shows lists weighted by ‘book-obscurity and library-size’ as well as unweighted (raw) lists. Those two options help tremendously—to enable you to find things that are the most relevant to your interest if your interest is somewhat exotic, and also to enable to find things that are the most relevant if your interest is more widely-shared or topical in the context of recent news or social developments.
CMT: LibraryThing also has what are called ‘watchlists’. Watchlists are not ‘friend lists,’ so there are none of the security issues that MySpace and other social networking environments have recently had. The watchlists are ‘push’-type agents that enable me to automatically keep track of changes that interest me, instead of having to do it manually.
DSM: Music historians and musicologists tend to have large collections of books, for both personal and professional reasons. LibraryThing.com makes management of your large personal library much easier. Much better than the shelf-management features of Flickr.com and Amazon.com. Books can be added by title, author, or ISBN, and LibraryThing will track down the appropriate information from the Library of Congress, Amazon, or 60+ other libraries around the world. One’s personal library can be viewed as a list, or as a “virtual bookshelf” featuring cover art, if that’s available. Personal libraries can be sorted by title, author, publication date, publisher, Library of Congress call number, ISBN, your rating of the book, the averaged ratings that others have posted for it, the date it was entered in to the library, or by any tags the user specifies (such as “baroque” or “fortepiano”).
CMT: Once users create their libraries, they can share them with other users, create groups of users based on similar reading interests, write book reviews, link their library to their blog, and get suggestions for additional readings based on what users with similar libraries have read (much like Amazon’s “Customers who bought this item also bought” feature).
DSM: If you choose a free LibraryThing account you can add up to 200 books to your library. If you choose an enhanced LibraryThing account you can add unlimited books for $10 annually. Or you can pay a $25 fee for a lifetime enhanced LibraryThing account. That’s what I did. Launched in August 2005, LibraryThing now has over 130,000 users and more than 8 million books on file.
CMT: Book clubs notwithstanding, reading tends to be a predominantly solitary pastime. And very few people have ever considered listing and tagging the contents of our personal libraries either for our own or anybody else’s entertainment. But, truly, this is both useful, highly social, and really entertaining!
DSM: To add your books, you have the option of submitting a book’s ISBN, or entering likely keyword search terms (part of the title, author name, etc.). At this point, the LibraryThing server searches thorough more than 60 libraries (including Amazon.com and the U.S. Library of Congress) to display probable candidate books, from which you select the correct choice with a click of a button. As books are added, icons to the right of each entry allow you to either delete an incorrect selection or add such information as personal Ratings and Reviews, Miscellaneous Comments, and Tags.
CMT: So that’s why you said it’s similar to services like Flickr, which people are already familiar with. LibraryThing’s Tags allow users to create specific terms to categorize their own titles – ‘Wishlist,’ ‘Haven’t read yet,’ ‘Why did I waste my money on this?’—and share interests with other LibraryThing users.
DSM: The LibraryThing app provides you with links to all the other users who have similar books, and you can browse around in their libraries on LibraryThing. There’s the ‘Suggest’ applet that generates recommendations on the basis of the other books in your collection, based on contents of other users’ similar libraries’ contents and based on the attributes of the books in your library. The Suggest function works amazingly well!
CMT: More than this, there’s a fabulous ‘UnSuggest’ applet that gives highly accurate and sometimes hilarious advice on which specific books you would not like, based on the inverse pattern-matching. Both the Suggest and the UnSuggest functions are way more accurate than what Amazon is currently doing.
DSM: But, of course, Amazon’s business purposes incentivize Amazon to be noisy in their recommendations. It’s not like the Amazon datamining and app development people don’t know how to do an algorithm as pure and accurate as what LibraryThing has fielded . . .
CMT: There’s a “preferences” link to change these header settings in your user account—you can choose from more fields like ISBN, summary, subject—and these can be aligned left to right in any order. Very flexible for personal preferences, handedness, and so on!
DSM: LibraryThing is built in CommonLisp and in Ruby on Rails, with a PHP wrapper and MySQL stack. Despite those implementation/design choices and despite the fact that there are database-tuning and other improvements that the LibraryThing staff could do to improve it, the runtime performance of it is actually pretty fast!
CMT: Having gathered your collection online, you can now view it as either a ‘Graphical Shelf’ (using cover photos gleaned from sources like Amazon) or through a ‘List Format’—which presents smaller images of the book covers alongside such information as Author, Title, Publication Date, and personal Review ratings. The latter option is very flexible—allowing you to re-sort your listings by any of the visible categories, exchange those categories for ones more appropriate to your needs, and even print out the complete catalog for offline reference or backup.
DSM: Still, do most people really need a full inventory of their book collection? Probably not. And while, personally speaking, I think I have a pretty good grasp on which books I do and don’t own, the specific locations of specific titles are frequently a more nebulous subject. I also have a habit of lending books and forgetting into whose care I’ve placed them. So, for one example of a practical application, as someone with a sometimes shaky grasp of whereabouts and other title-specific trivia, the Comments entry for each book could be used to hold some very useful information. But I’ve only put a small subset of my books into LibraryThing so far. Just the couple hundred of titles that define the ‘scope’ of themes and titles in music theory and music history that are pertinent to the people I’d like to meet and communicate with, and whose libraries I bet I’d like to learn from.
CMT: But we’ve hardly touched on the social aspects yet. But before we do, it’s important to note that anyone who prefers to retain their privacy at LibraryThing can easily do that. You don’t need to enter any personal information in order to create an account, and your Personal Profile page can be left blank—so so long as your username is obfuscative, the only thing that other members will know about you is your taste in books. If that’s not enough, you can edit your Personal Profile to make your account private, so that not even your book list will be visible to other members. It’s your choice!
DSM: LibraryThing follows in the now familiar social networking footsteps of such operations as Flickr and del.icio.us, by allowing subscribers to share profiles, collections, and opinions, and discover people with similar tastes through Tags and Titles. The autonomous ‘Connections’ feature, links to members that share titles with your collection are automatically added to your Profile page. For more specific matches, clicking on the Graphical Shelf cover photo of any book in any user's catalog reveals links with the ability to instantly add that title to your own collection, as well as access to such ‘Social Info’ as Tags, other Users who have the selected title, User Reviews, and Recommendations of other books based on shared libraries.
CMT: Activities on LibraryThing can include friendly debate—through the exchange of reviews and Profile Page comments, or mutual agreements to take up the conversation elsewhere. But is this really likely to give rise to social networking at LibraryThing? I think so! You can tell a book reader by his or her covers! That’s highly predictive of compatibility, for corresponding and other kinds of sharing. Of course, as always you should be aware that potential matches can pad their virtual shelves as easily as they can pad their résumés—trolling based on the demographics.
DSM: There are other features available at the site—such as direct links to various online book retailers, and the LibraryThing blog to keep members up-to-date on the latest developments. Finally, a Zeitgeist page shows, among other things, the most prolific collectors and reviewers, the best books as ranked by user ratings, most contentious books (those with the largest ratings spread).
CMT: There is a definite skew in the reading habits of the members that have signed up to date. Don’t you still have an awful lot of Harry Potter and Pokemon readers in LibraryThing?
DSM: Well, yes. But the ‘8 million books and growing’ basically gets you past that. When I joined LibraryThing, I was amazed to see that many of the exotic musicology monographs and music history books and post-modern literary theory books that I have were already in LibraryThing and each of them were associated with 1 to several hundred LibraryThing users’ personal libraries. Instantly, I found connections to a variety of people who I’d never have met in any other way, despite the fact that many of my interests are really arcane. A bunch of these people are academics, yes. But a lot of them are not. They’re musicians or devoted amateurs. Or they’re people who had to find a way to make a living in some area other than in music, but they’ve maintained a life-long serious interest in the literature surrounding their real passion—music. And LibraryThing’s searches of Amazon.com use the Amazon E-Commerce Service. And library searches use the ANSI-standard Z39.50 protocol. These libraries include the Library of Congress, Canadian National Catalogue, Yale University, and 60+ other large university libraries. So don’t worry about the Harry Potters diluting things.
CMT: In September 2006, LibraryThing added integration with several book-swapping web sites. On each book page at LibraryThing a ‘swap this book’ text appears, displaying how many copies of this book are available at book-swapping sites, followed by the number of people who desire a copy of this book. Clicking on this link displays a page of logos for the various book-swapping sites LibraryThing supports with the site giving the most copies of that book displayed at the top.
- LibraryThing website
- LibraryThing blog
- LibraryThing master tagcloud universe
- Connotea website
- Shelfari website
- IBM alphaWorks ManyEyes
- Library Journal article about LibraryThing, 15-JAN-2007
- Guardian article about Library Thing, 06-FEB-2007
- SlashDot piece on UnSuggest ‘Finding the Book You'll Never Want’
- American Library Association website
- The Geek Librarian blog
- LibrarianInBlack blog
- Tufte E. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Graphics Press, 2001.