For the last two hours or so, I have been participating in a paradigm of collaboration on the World Wide Web, seeking to interact with other users in a social media dialogue as a prosumer of user-generated content in a virtual community. To be more specific, I’ve been adding books to my LibraryThing account.

So what’s this LibrayThing? Well – it’s a ‘social cataloguing web application’ (‘social’ is like the  internet equivalent of sartorial black – if it’s not ‘social’, then it’s not cool. Or something) Social-ness aside (for the moment), at its simplest LibraryThing is a free online database for your books. It allows you to catalogue your books: books you read, or your entire book collection. Sign-up, log in, and start entering your books. If you are totally anal incredibly organised, and some of your favourite words are sort, order, collocate, arrange, organise, classify, systematise then you are going to melt in a puddle of chartulary ooze.

There are various ways you can enter records into your LibraryThing catalogue, from manual searches (by title, author, ISBN etc) to more sophisticated methods such as importing your data from a csv database, from your GoodReads or Amazon wishlists or … by scanning your books directly into the system! I don’t what it is that appeals to me so much about this option – scanning my books – but it took me less than a picosecond to buy myself a barcode reader (a mere US$15 + shipping directly from LibraryThing). Oh – and the reader is shaped like a cat! It’s actually called a CueCat – and it received the dubious distinction of being one of  “The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time,” according to PCWorld Magazine.

The reader scans the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) barcode, found printed on the back cover of most books – and not to be confused with a price barcode that may appear as a sticker from the book seller. LibraryThing translates the scanned data into coherent book details by searching a data source – it links to 696 international data sources from book sellers to libraries; from to the Central Scientific Agricultural Library of Russia, and you select which source is most relevant for your search.

This weekend has been my first opportunity to sit down and start scanning. So far, I have added 302 titles to my LibraryThing account – I reckon that’s something over half my total collection.

The social part

LibraryThing is ‘social’ because it allows you to connect with other users – the site will automatically tell you things like who else has a book you have; what other books you might like. I now know that only 551 people have catalogued Nick Harkaway’s The Gone Away World (my Book of the Year for last year, when I read it); Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash appears to be the most popularly catalogued of my science fiction collection (10,319 members).

You can “tag” your books. Tags are user-generated keywords, and ‘social tagging’ is practice of publicly labelling or categorising resources in a shared, on-line environment (like LibraryThing!). You can tag your LibraryThing books in a personal or altruistic way: tagging your books in personal way might mean that the words/phrases you use are meaningful only to you. For example, I might want to add the words “study” and “right bookcase” to my LibraryThing record for Spares, by Michael Marshall Smith. Why? Well, because that book is located in my study, on the bookcase on right-hand side. In this way, I could build up categories that would allow me to not only know what books I own, but where they are located in my home. Such tags/categories are meaningful to me, but won’t be to anyone else. I could also tag that title more altruistically, in a way that would help other LibraryThing users identify what sort of book it is – I could tag it with “science fiction” and “humorous”, for example.

When large numbers of users are tagging in this way, you end up building so-called ‘folksonomies’ (think ‘folk’ + ‘taxonomy’), and this is eventually how one ends up participating in the Web 2.0 phenomenon of user-driven design and social participation through LibraryThing!


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