HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — Book clubs and English classes notwithstanding, reading tends to be a predominantly solitary pastime, and truth be told, not many of us have ever considered listing the contents of our 'personal libraries' for either our own or anybody else's entertainment. But the Internet keeps finding new ways of changing our habits, and LibraryThing appears poised to turn the cataloging of books into a form of communal recreation. Come in, one and all, and gather 'round the bookshelves.
Created by Tim Spalding, a Web developer and publisher based in Portland, Maine, LibraryThing was launched on Aug. 29 and as of Nov. 6, had almost 10,000 registered users and over 700,000 books recorded into members' catalogs. (Thanks to the Monitor's Joel Abrams for bringing this one to my attention.) Still In its beta stage, the system still a few bugs- the major one at the moment being whether the website classifies various editions of the same book as, well, the same book (explanation on the About page) - but the concept will appeal to many serious and casual bibliophiles, and the implementation is, as they say, simplicity itself.
To open an account (no charge for the first 200 titles, a flat $10 annual or $25 lifetime fee for larger collections), visitors simply enter a user name and password on the home page, which then generates a personal catalog page. To add books, surfers then have the option of submitting a title's ISBN, or entering likely keyword search terms (title, author name, name of a series, etc). At this point, the site can search thorough more than 30 libraries (from Amazon.com to the Library of Congress) to display probable candidates, from which the correct alternative can be added to the catalog with the click of a button. As books are added, icons to the right of each entry allow the subscriber to either delete an incorrect selection or add such information as personal Ratings and Reviews, Miscellaneous Comments, and Tags. (Similar to services like Flickr, LibraryThing's Tags allow users to create specific terms to categorize their own titles - "History," "Unread," "Why did I waste my money on this one?" - and share common interests with other subscribers.)
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 an impressively flexible tool - allowing users to re-sort their listings by any of the visible categories, exchange those categories for ones more appropriate to each member's needs, and even print out the complete catalog for offline reference (or to have some hard-copy peace of mind in this fickle Internet world).
Still, do most people really need a full inventory of their book collection? Probably not, but there can be benefits to having such a record. (Say it with me, "Homeowner's insurance.") And while, personally speaking, I think I have a pretty good grasp on which books I do and don't have, the specific locations of specific titles are frequently a more nebulous subject. Due to limited shelf space in a small apartment, roughly half of my collection is in semipermanent storage (or as we say in the home library business, "boxes"), and 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 we haven't even touched on the Social angle yet, and before we do, it's worth pointing out that anyone who wishes to retain their privacy at LibraryThing can easily do so. 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 as long as your username is sufficiently obscure, 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 selections will be visible to other members.
If you are into sharing, LibraryThing follows in the now familiar 'social website' 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. In a nicely 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.
Activities can also enter the realm of friendly debate - through the exchange of reviews and Profile Page comments, or mutual agreements to take up the conversation elsewhere, but is social really likely to give rise to social at LibraryThing? Well, if you can tell a book reader by his or her covers, then perusing another member's collection might go a long way toward predicting compatibility. Of course, one should always be aware that potential matches can pad their virtual shelves as easily as they can pad their résumés - so if you're sharing a love of Hamlet and your correspondent praises Shakespeare's wisdom in casting Mel Gibson for the lead role, you might want to move on to the next contestant.
There are still more features available at the site (such as direct links to various online book retailers), and a Site Blog will keep members up-to-date on the latest developments. Finally, a Zeitgeist page reveals, among other things, the most prolific collectors and reviewers, best books as ranked by user ratings, most contentious books (those with the largest spread in user ratings) and...that there is a definite skew in the reading habits of the members that have signed up to date. (The top six Most Owned Books are all Harry Potter titles, followed by "The Da Vinci Code" and then about 20 assorted science fiction and fantasy titles.)
But rest assured, you'll find Melville and Tolstoy lovers if you look for them. Barely two months old, LibraryThing has already found a large audience - and the level of participation by early adopters demonstrates the application's ease of use, even as it serves a variety of roles ranging from simple private database to full-blown literary clubhouse. But this newfound appeal for bibliographic cataloging does raise an interesting question.
What other amusements have librarians been keeping to themselves?
LibraryThing can be found at http://www.librarything.com/.