Thursday, March 25, 2010

Cataloging Home Libraries

I have a fair number of books. Which books exactly? I couldn't exactly tell you. Though I think of myself as an organized person, I've never cataloged them.

Why would I? I like to read books, and I like to be able to find them on my shelves -- but I've never needed a catalog for that. There may be good reasons to catalog books but none of them have ever gotten me over the hump ... to undertake the work, that is, of plowing through the many shelf-feet crowding my apartment and type in the necessaries.

Here are some reasons one might catalog books:

  1. Got home/renters insurance? If you make a claim, your insurance adjuster will want proof of what you lost and its value. If you can't enumerate, you'll probably have to suck up your losses.
  2. You're interested in using social networking technology as a "recommender" to find new friends with similar reading history, and/or books that people with similar reading history have enjoyed.
  3. You can't remember what books you already own, and it would relieve no little frustration if you were able to check your catalog from the bookstore, before buying yet another set of Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
  4. You want to brag about how fabulously learned you are.
  5. You have OCD.

The first three, anyway, are decent reasons that have, singly or in combination, led hundreds of thousands of people to use on-line book cataloging services. I won't argue universal or objective good in cataloging home libraries ... if you've read this far you probably have your own reasons, interest, or at least curiosity.

I've only taken a shallow dip in these waters myself. As it happens, I was pushed in: a fellow reading group member harangued me until I agreed to try Goodreads. I seeded my catalog with seventy or so books listed on our reading group history page, and have added a few more over time -- as I said, a "shallow dip." The friend who lured me into Goodreads has more than 400 books cataloged there. My friends Quinn and Andy have gone even further, entering nearly 3,000 books into their LibraryThing catalog.

As a professional geek with a skeptical take on the durability of digital information, one of the things that makes me hesitate to invest a lot of time in cataloging my home library is the likelihood that whatever software or on-line service I use might go out of business, taking all my hard work with it if I can't make backups of the data that can be used with a different piece of software or a different service. That would be very sad. (In professional parlance, this sad problem is called "vendor lock-in." More on this below.)

So in this post I'm going to compare some of the features offered by two popular on-line cataloging services, and explain why I'm ignoring a third. Then I'm going to describe how each of the two services permits import and export of your catalog data. Last, I'll list the actual information that can be imported & exported -- this is, effectively, the extent to which you can avoid the vendor lock-in debacle if you choose to use either Goodreads or LibraryThing.

NOTE: The information in this blog was collected in mid-March 2010. Like any info about on-line services, it will go out of date sooner than later. Caveat emptor.

Goodreads, LibraryThing, but not Shelfari

Goodreads asks whether "you ever wanted a better way to get great book recommendations from people you know, keep track of what you've read and what you'd like to read, form a book club, answer book trivia, collect your favorite quotes." It's free; ads on the site appear to be the way this service answers the profit-motive question. Friends (including an ability to find friends-of-friends) and groups one can join offer ways to see what others are reading, and thus find books in which you too might be interested. Goodreads has an "Author Program" that encourages authors to create an on-line presence and promote their published work within the Goodreads community. A Writing Section is where unpublished authors can share work for others to read and review. Authors (or publishers, or author-publishers) can give away copies of their book, e.g., as pre-release copies for review, to generate interest and readership.

LibraryThing bills itself as "a home for your books" -- "an easy, library-quality catalog"; and "a community of 1,000,000 book lovers" that "connects you to people who read what you do." You can "enter 200 books for free, as many as you like for $10 (year) or $25 (life)." There's an awesome "Stats" page that tells you lots of cool stuff about your LibraryThing collection. Talk and groups pages allow people to interact about the books they've read or are reading or might get around to, and the service lets you find or add local book events like readings or book fairs. LibraryThing provides free early review copies of books provided by publishers.

Shelfari claims it's "the premier social network for people who love books," and allows one to "create a virtual shelf to show off your books, see what your friends are reading and discover new books." The bad news is they engaged in some truly ugly steal-your-email-contact-and-spam-them tricksiness back in 2007, eloquently documented on the LibraryThing blog. The company quickly apologized, and changed their interface to make it a less likely that you'll spam everyone you know when you sign up for the service ... but I'm going to let somebody else do the compare and contrast on this one. Try it at your own risk, and watch the invite-your-friends screens carefully to avoid doing something you'd rather not.

Own Your Own Library Catalog Data!

Here's the promised "vendor lock-in" part of this post.

The point, to recapitulate: nobody wants to invest hours in cataloging their books, then have the service used for the catalog go belly up, taking all that hard work to a digital graveyard. Think about it. The only thing more tedious than entering data on every book you own would be doing so twice. It's a no-brainer to insist on being able to back up their data, and extract the good stuff so it can be moved to a shiny new service if and when your first pick goes away. Therefore, it pays to be sure that the service you pick will permit extraction of data in a format that's usable elsewhere.

Both Goodreads and LibraryThing do pretty well in this department. Here are some general details (the big picture), followed by more detailed detail (lists of fields / information that can be exported and imported). Stop whenever you've had enough...

Goodreads: Allows export of your catalog to a CSV file (so you can pull it into a spreadsheet or a database). Import fields are a subset of export fields. After joining LibraryThing and importing my Goodreads collection, I exported from LibraryThing and reduced the file to two entries -- one a duplicate (from the imported data) and the other a book I'd added exclusively to my LibraryThing catalog. Got that? The added book lacked an ISBN in LibraryThing, and therefore lacked it in the export file. Goodreads wasn't too happy with the file (said it couldn't parse it -- meaning, it couldn't tell which columns in the file corresponded to which Goodreads fields), but it did automagically scan the file for ISBN data, recognized the duplicate book, and did the right thing by declining to re-add it to my Goodreads collection. Not perfect. But not catastrophic either, unless I'm really attached to rating and review data in the data I'm trying to import. I'm pretty confident that a little extra effort could have made this work as advertised. Cf. field lists, below.

LibraryThing: Allows export to a CSV file or tab-delimited text (again, easy to load into your spreadsheet or database software). You can import from a file or a web page, and anything that looks like an ISBN will be inhaled by LibraryThing, which then goes out and finds the metadata (Author, Title, etc.). File-based import fields are limited to a subset of export fields. I signed up for LibraryThing as I was writing this post and imported my Goodreads export (~80 books). No problems, quick, all my Goodreads ratings and reviews were added to LibraryThing -- just the thing you want to avoid vendor lock-in. Cf. field lists below.

Export and Import Field Lists

Here's a quick compilation (correct as of mid-March 2010) of the information Goodreads and LibraryThing export and import.

(Apologies for posting this information as images, which means the table contents are not searchable and can't be copied as text. Tables aren't rendered very nicely using my current blog template, so this was a quick & dirty solution...)

I'd love to hear your stories -- happy or sad -- about cataloging the books you own and/or read...


  1. I've had my eye on Delicious Library for the past few years. It's Mac-only software. It is able to:
    a) add to the catalog by scanning or using the webcam the UPC or by typing in ISBN
    b) catalog books, music, movies, and more
    c) export to XML, various text formats, and Excel
    d) does not export to html, but third-party software can do the job

    Haven't purchased the software yet. I didn't have a webcam until recently. And I don't have OCD.

    I have purchased duplicate CDs before (reason 3 on your list to utilize a cataloging software).

    As I stated before, Delicious Library is Mac-only. It's been out for years. You'd think someone on the Windows side would duplicate the features. I think the ability to add to the catalog by webcam qualifies as a killer feature.

    PS I've been reading your entries and find your analysis of the publishing world to be very eye-opening.

  2. Interesting post, Steve. This dilemma has come up from time to time in our family, but never seems to gain any real traction. We catalogue a few books, using some of the websites you mentioned, then give up before the job is finished. I think it's the OCD in our personality that desires it, but the ADD takes over and wins out!

  3. @Alfred: I've heard rumor of Delicious Library but haven't checked it out. Being able to scan your books (or CDs) would make the job a lot less tedious, if not quite a rollicking good time. Thanks for the tip. And thanks too for checking out my world-o-publishing blogs...

    @Roberta: I so know what you mean. Those TLAs (three letter acronyms) get you coming and going.