[Note: This is a guest post by Amanda Watson, a librarian at Connecticut College. -- JBJ]
If you’re a regular ProfHacker reader, chances are you’re already using a panoply of online tools to keep track of your stuff: course files, dossiers, citations, appointments. And if you’re an academic in the humanities, you’ve probably got a substantial and ever-expanding collection of books. In today’s post, I’ll briefly introduce another tool, this one designed to keep track of your home library.
LibraryThing, a web-based cataloging application with a substantial array of social features, has been around since 2005. You could use it to build bibliographies if you really wanted to, but it’s not meant to be used like Zotero and other citation managers. Its main function is to provide you with a full-featured catalog for the books you actually own.* The great thing about LibraryThing is that once you’ve told it you have a given book, it automatically pulls information about the book from library catalogs and populates your personal catalog with that information. It also has a remarkably effective system for recognizing multiple editions of the same work, and a nice interface that includes thumbnails of book covers.
(Caption: My small but growing book history collection, displayed in LibraryThing’s “cover view.”)
Cataloging your books is quicker than you’d think. From the “Add Books” screen, you search by author, title, or ISBN (you can even order a barcode scanner to read ISBNs automatically), and LibraryThing pulls data from from Amazon.com or one of around 700 library catalogs. If LibraryThing can’t find the book you’re searching for in one source, you can try others; if you’re cataloging something really obscure, you can enter the information manually. Once LibraryThing finds the book — in Amazon, in the Library of Congress online catalog, in your local academic library’s catalog, or wherever — you can add tags to describe it.
(Caption: The “Add Books” screen. I’m searching the Italian National Library Service for an Italian translation of Tolkien’s Return of the King. I searched for its ISBN and added a set of descriptive tags; I can go back and edit these, or any other information about the book itself, later.)
To my mind, the tagging is one of the site’s most useful features; you’ll automatically see Library of Congress subject headings for your library, but you can use tags to indicate everything from context (“used in teaching”) to series (“New Cambridge Shakespeare”) to genre ( “campus novel,” “cyberpunk”) to course title or semester. Not everyone uses tags, but I’ve found they can be very handy for keeping track of projects — one user whose catalog I looked at recently uses the tag “in the damn dissertation” — or for bringing together collections related to a class or a topic of interest.
(Caption: The tag display screen. You can view your tags alphabetically, by frequency, or in a cloud, a la Wordle.)
Why would you want to do all this? Well, once you’ve cataloged your books, you can display them by author, date, title, tags, or call numbers, which are handy if you want to be obsessive about how you shelve your books. You can view statistics on how obscure your books are and how many languages are in your collection. You can export your entire catalog in CSV or tab-delimited format and convert it to a spreadsheet, or save a printable version. You can view all your tags in a list or a cloud. And, if you can’t quite remember whether you already own a book as you admire it in a bookstore, you can call up your catalog on your mobile device and check.
There’s a social networking aspect to LibraryThing as well: users can start shared-interest groups with their own discussion forums, and you can also see whose libraries are similar to yours, and check out which books you share with any other user. (This will only work if you’ve made your library publicly accessible; you can also set it to “Private” if you’d rather not share your data.) If you, like me, always find your gaze drifting voyeuristically to the bookshelves when you visit someone else’s house, LibraryThing can be endlessly fascinating, particularly when you start looking at your list of “similar libraries,” which are calculated not only by how many books you have in common with other users but how obscure they are. The truly hardcore can build apps using LibraryThing’s APIs, or catalog historical figures’ libraries, or help disambiguate work titles, or contribute biographical information about authors, or join a cataloging flash mob.
LibraryThing isn’t free, but a year’s membership costs $10 and a lifetime membership costs $25, and you can try it for free until your collection goes over 200 books. Fair warning: when I first signed up for a LibraryThing account, I went a little insane and cataloged over 400 books in the space of a few weeks. Those of you who aren’t librarians may not find it quite as addictive as I did, but I still think it’s one of the most useful Web 2.0 services out there if you’re a bibliophile of any stripe.
* You can now add books you don’t have to “wishlist” and “to read” collections, but I don’t use this feature, personally; I prefer to use LibraryThing only for books I own, and use other apps to track my to-read lists. But that’s a topic for another post.
[Image by Flickr user striatic / Creative Commons licensed]