Tuesday, 12 April 2011

LibraryThing thoughts so far

Anna asked me how I find using LibraryThing, and I found my answer getting rather too long for a comment, so here it is as a separate blog post.

Basically I'm really enjoying using LibraryThing, and I love keeping track of what I've been reading, with the option of writing brief reviews to help me remember it later. Also it has a lot of side benefits I wasn't expecting, like being able to pull up a list of all an author's books very quickly. But this is with a big proviso, that I'm only using it for leisure books, not for academic ones.

When it comes to cataloguing, if you're dealing like I am with predominantly leisure books then you can get hold of a cheap barcode scanner and use that to input ISBNs. That's quite a quick way to proceed. Most of my novels and such have barcodes, and ones that have ISBNs but no barcodes are still pretty quick to input. It's the sort of thing you can do while listening to the radio or watching TV. LibraryThing sells the CueCat scanner very cheaply, just fifteen dollars even including UK postage. This is a scanner which was made in huge numbers and given out free some time ago by record stores and magazines, and although it's not made any more and the systems it was made for collapsed, there are vast numbers floating around for which people are finding other uses. It works with LibraryThing straight off, or you can easily install software to make it work with anything that can cope with text input. (I installed some software called CatNip to make it give me plain input and then used it to sell CDs on the MusicMagpie website.) Or apparently you can get your webcam or phone to work as a barcode scanner, but that's much fiddlier than you'd think, because the image has to be just right. Here's someone talking about doing this with an iPhone.

I have tried out the exporting feature but only out of curiosity, I haven't really done things with it. It doesn't have a lot of flexibility -- you choose between comma- and tab- separated and that's that -- but I think it should be adequate for most purposes. I can see the data going into Endnote without much fiddling, for example, and I have a lot of experience of fiddling with data to get it to go into Endnote. (Ever since I finished my PhD I have been employed to fiddle with the machine-readability of bibliographic data, which is such a depressing thought.) I have imported successfully, from a database I made using Collectorz.com book cataloguing software some years ago. I had a barcode scanner then too but it was more expensive than the CueCat and it broke. The collectorz.com software was good; I suppose it's really LibraryThing's widgets that sold it to me, and it is interesting to see which of your books are rare. You can theoretically have private books, or make your whole library private, neither of which routes I have as yet taken, though I did feel a terrible pang when I started cataloguing the books in my parents' library which I have read and some of the first were by Jeffrey Archer.

LibraryThing's big competitor is GoodReads, and I read up on them both before choosing. LibraryThing is supposedly aimed more at librarians while GoodReads is more about social-networking, which is what decided me. Also lots of book bloggers I read, like Stuck in a Book, use LibraryThing.

I think there are basically two issues with LibraryThing. One is that it's a cheap system, and things like the Help literature are a bit ad hoc. It's basically someone's pet project continued. When dealing with commercial software you often think "I ought to be able to do this in this way" while with this sort of software you just have to adapt yourself to the way in which things have been set up to be done. There's a bookmarklet which is supposed to let you add books directly from their amazon page but I can't get it to work (I think because I'm going for .co.uk not .com). It's not a problem, instead I just import books using the way they expect you to do it. And because there's an API maybe someone with actual programming knowledge will sort this out at some point -- like with Firefox, it's open for knowledgeable users to improve it themselves with browser addons and such and then share their work with others. There are some GreaseMonkey scripts, for example. I would love to be the sort of person who could write scripts for GreaseMonkey.

The second and bigger issue is to do with multiple authors. It lets you put in one author, and then add a further author or translator or editor or whatever as part of the additional information a long way down the book-description page. This is fine as a way of dealing with a collection of novels. Of course it won't do at all for my academic books, many of which have two or more authors who need to share equal billing. So I don't know if I'll ever move my academic books onto it. I need a proper catalogue of them, but I expect I'll do it in Endnote, where it would only involve adding keywords to existing entries.

There is no entirely adequate bibliographical software out there. Endnote is the nearest I can get, with advantages like widespread support and very flexible exports. I think maybe that if we could get at just why there is no OK bibliographic software when it seems like a reasonably straightforward thing to do, then we might at the same time solve the problem of what is wrong with academia.


  1. Thanks, that's very interesting. I really, really want a scanner shaped like a cat now, but am unsure (having read some of the background) whether it would be secretly memorising and uploading all my data. This is why scams like the one you outline work - because people like me rely on tech-shamans to talk to our computers for us.
    On a more practical level, I probably need Endnote; I'm still very junior in academic terms but it would be brilliant to spend less time chasing down references scribbled on bits of paper.

  2. As I understand it, the cuecat in its current use, which is not the use it was originally designed for, but rather a huge mass recycling project along the same lines as the creative things which people used to do with free AOL CDs, doesn't send any data anywhere except for the ISBN data which it feeds into the search box of the LibraryThing Add Books page. It's just another input device, like a numerical keypad, or a mouse. I hope so, anyway... I'm more worried about having all my books publicly visible on LibraryThing, but I can't quite see how someone would use that to my detriment, though there's always those Archer books to damn me.

    I would thoroughly recommend getting into a reference management system like Endnote. It saves me so much time. Didn't X write an article about Y?, I think, and in a moment I have all X's articles in front of me, or all references with Y in the title. I also use it to manage my pdfs of articles, so that I can quickly check what line X took on Y. I have more than four and a half thousand references in my Endnote Library now, of which over seven hundred have attached pdf files. On the other hand loads of people get by without a reference management system, though I'm not completely sure how.