The most recent task for the Cambridge 23 Thingers has been to look at LibraryThing. Ive been vaguely aware of this site for some time, and it does include one of the neatest tricks for data mining usage patterns Ive seen, the UnSuggester. This works best if you enter fairly well-known novels, and goes beyond simple high-culture low-culture divides, to tell you that if, like me, you like Dorothy L Sayers Gaudy Night you should not just skip the work of Chuck Palahniuk (which may be obvious), but also Paulo Coelho and Jodi Picoult (which is less obvious). But it was only 23 Things that has actually prompted me to get stuck in and try other aspects of LibraryThing.
So my personal library, or at least a very small part of it, is now up there. I decided to give LibraryThing a little test by including a range of my academic books, including some with no ISBNs and one foreign text (Regine Le Jans Famille et Pouvoir). Overall, it didnt do badly. I found everything on there already (including Regines book), and though most of my books were fairly unusual, a surprising number of people have Kennedys Revised Latin Primer. The biggest problem is finding multiple variants when you havent got an ISBN, such as with my 1955 Penguin Classics version of Bede. The fact that its possible to edit details of any of the books youve found is handy, but also sends shivers up my cataloguers spine (because it affects records globally).
What happens when you do have your (personal) collection of books on LibraryThing? From a quick look, the site is a lot shorter on reviews than I have expected. For example, there are no user reviews for Rosamond McKittericks Charlemagne: the formation of a European identity, while there are (completely different) ones on both Amazon US and Amazon UK.
LibraryThings tags are not much use, but the recommendations arent at all bad. Take, for example J W C Wand, A History of the early church to AD 500. The tags are “a4, christianity, church history, churches, early church, early church history, ecclesiology, history, roman empire”, which tell you little that isnt already in the title. But the recommendations include the Penguin translation of Eusebius and another volume of translated sources from the early church. (Im not convinced, however, that the recommendations are better than Amazons Customers who bought this item also bought). Its also noticeable that even with only 13 books added, the members with your books feature has already highlighted as similar both Another Damned Medievalist and Curt Emanuel, both of whom I already knew from their
There are also some nifty book-centred tools on the site. The links from each title to Google Books is potentially very handy. The site is also strong on search links to both booksellers and libraries (slightly ironically, it may thus be most useful for books that arent actually yours).
So would I find it useful personally? Not for my own historical work. I need reference management software (I currently use EndNote) which can deal with journal articles as well as books, which is under my complete bibliographical control, and which allows me to format the output in multiple ways. Even the Google Books link feature (which does look useful) could potentially be replicated via the ability to set up personalised libraries on Google Books.
For about 90% of the time, meanwhile, I dont need to have records of the other books I own I can remember them or find them on the shelves. The one time it would come in useful would be in a bookshop. If I had a mobile phone I could surf the web on (I currently dont), I could check exactly which works of Margary Allingham or Terry Pratchett I had before purchasing another (and so could any other relatives who want to give me books).
In contrast, LibraryThing does make a lot of sense for many amateurs (and I mean that term in a positive sense, for people who love books and reading). Its far simpler to use than setting up your own database, and it also provides suggestions and the chance to connect with like-minded people. If youre a public librarian working in reader development I can see it being an important tool. And it would also be handy for small libraries that cant afford library software. (I once did a library catalogue for a small firm of solicitors in Excel, because that was what they had).
For larger libraries, Im a lot less convinced that its useful. I had a look at the catalogue of the San Francisco State University Library which includes tag clouds generated from LibraryThing. Here are a couple of screen shots pulled from a search on Chris Wickhams books:
The tag cloud for Early medieval Italy had 13 terms, and the vast majority of them are either superfluous (history, early medieval, Italy) or too general to be useful (power, sociology). Only two (barbarians and late antiquity) actually add useful information.
The mountains and the city: the Tuscan Apennines in the early Middle Ages has one tag: early middle ages.
If youre reserving a place on the catalogue page for tags and thus adding to both processing time and onscreen clutter, you need to be getting something useful from this. Im really not convinced that for academic non-fiction you do.
Some libraries have also put their new books up on LibraryThing, for example, Nuffield College, Oxford. My question is whether the extra work involved is worth it? Given that Nuffield already have a new books list on their own site, who is their target user on LibraryThing? Who wants to know about the new books they get, but is not sufficiently aware of them as a library already to visit their site? I presume that much of the process of adding new acquisitions to LibraryThing can be automated, with a string of ISBNs passed to the site, but I suspect not every new item in many academic libraries would have an ISBN, and it would still be quite a lot of work setting up the feed initially. For some kinds of library and library user, I can see the big attraction of LibraryThing. For academics and academic libraries, Im much less convinced so far.