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LibraryThing – online book catalogue October 13, 2006

Posted by Al in : book,website , trackback

In response to my recent post on Shelfari I received the following missive:

I thought I’d send you a quick note about Shelfari. They’re billing themselves as the first social network around books, ignoring a welter of other sites. By far the largest is LibraryThing, which has 88,000 users who have entered 6.2 million books. It’s even available in a dozen languages. And unlike Shelfari, LibraryThing searches all the Amazons, as well as 60 libraries around the world. Check it out. I think you’ll find Shelfari is a shiny, but skimpy copy.

And visiting LibraryThing.com I did find a lot more books catalogued, and a lot more users. However as time ticks forever onward which will win? LibraryThing has it’s users and some good tagging and searching – I also liked the Zeitgeist function but was disappointed to see so many Harry Potter books listed (there’s nothing the owners can do about this – Harry Potter is a phenomenon). Shelfari has it’s shininess, and has a slightly more modern web presence. We’re only talking 6 months to a year apart, but in the ever-evolving world of the Internet this is quite a long time. Both sites have almost exactly the same basic functionality – so I will leave it to you to explore both and decide which best suits your needs, or wants. Shelfari is definitely more shiny, but LibraryThing could have that established edge. I think if LibraryThing spent some time working on a slightly slicker interface then it would be the certain victor – doesn’t need much and if it is making any money then maybe employing a designer to just revamp the interface would be worth the money.


1. Tim - October 13, 2006

Okay, I’ll rise to the bait, since you sent me the URL and asked me to comment.

Take a deeper look at the functionality. LibraryThing is and does MUCH more than Shelfari. Some points below.

*Shelfari searches Amazon.com. That’s great if you buy books and throw them away, or if you’re 22. If you not, you have books not currently in print, and for those Amazon is spotty or absent. If one of their used booksellers has the item for sale, you get what they typed in. And you can *forget* foreign-language books.
*LibraryThing searches all the Amazons (even Japan), plus 60 library catalogs around the world, amounting to hundreds of libraries (many of the catalogs are local or national consorita) amounting to a significant percentage of the world’s library data.
*Library data is better data. Amazon data will have stuff like “Movie tie-in edition” in the title, or authors for illustrators, which annoy book people to no end.
*No matter what Amazon delivers, you can’t edit the data in Shelfari. It’s not a cataloging ap., it’s an ap. to create pointers to Amazon’s data. LibraryThign allows you to edit anything–title, author, whatever–with in-place Ajax. You own and control your data.
*Shelfari has a humdinger of a “terms of use.” Submit a review? They own the copyright now. Your tags? You mean *their* tags. LibraryThing explicitly denies itself these “rights,” which are an insult to the principles of Web 2.0. Web 2.0 is about respecting users. Who the hell do they think they are?
*You can put LibraryThing on your blog–recent books, favorite books, books tagged X, etc. You can put your tag or author cloud, etc. You can even put a search box on your blog–it searches your library without ever leaving your blog. Shelfari has none of this. None.
*LibraryThing has RSS feeds for users (recent books, recent reviews, recent books held by X but reviewed by others), tags (recent books, top books, recently-reviewed books, etc)–well you get the picture. Shelfari and RSS? Well, their *blog* has RSS.
*LibraryThing users get their own tag cloud, author cloud, author photo gallery, page of recent reviews of their books, and a detailed page of statistics (eg., how many books did I review in December?). Shelfari has none of this.
*There’s no way to see your “shelf” in list form. You have to look at them as covers. Readers are–surprise–*readers*. Words are more dense. You can arrange your LibraryThing data however you like, and manipulate it in all sorts of complex ways (eg., give me all the books tagged “history of science” and “unread.”) Of course, LibraryThing *has* a shelf view too.
*LibraryThing allows complex searching and sorting. You can sort by Deweys, languages, date you entered a book, the date you read it–whatever. Shelfari sorts by date, title and author.
*If your book doesn’t have a cover on Amazon of if the cover is wrong–book people know that changing covers doesn’t require a publisher to change the ISBN, only changing the inside does–Shelfari is helpless. LibraryThing allows you to load your own cover or use one uploaded by other users. LibraryThing users have uploaded 180,000 covers, and what they upload helps everyone. Oh, we don’t claim we own those covers, of course.
*LibraryThing pulls in or extrapolates Deweys, Library of Congress Classification, Library of Congress Subject Headings, primary languages, secondary languages, the original language, series info, and even the gold-standard of book data, the MARC record. Shelfari pulls in the same Amazon feed thousands of other websites do.
*Shelfari pushes Amazon at you because they hope to make their money off it. LibraryThing lets you pick from a variety of shops, from Amazon to Booksense, and including OCLC’s Find in a Library. We’re 40% owned by Abebooks, yet we give their main competitor as much commercial play as them. This is because we care about books, not selling books. Nor will LibraryThing ever run ads. Ads are in Shelfari’s *stated* business plan.
*LibraryThing has deep integration with the wildly popular BookMooch, and other book-swapping sites (3 others now, 7 by Monday). Not Shelfari.
*LibraryThing has a complete “groups” system. You can set up a group for your friends, your office or people who love tea. You can search the group’s library, get group statistics, see everything in RSS, etc.
*LibraryThing has comprehensive and ground-breaking forum system. You can, for example, see at a glance what conversations are going on now *about the books in your library*. Shelfari has no way to communicate except person-to-person.
*LibraryThing has true community cataloging. Users disambiguate authors, works, tags, add author photos, etc. Your library builds the larger library–Wikipedia for books. Shelfari has none of this; It has the same old feed.
*LibraryThing has tag pages, giving very complete details–books sorted by tag X, recent books tagged X, users who use the tag X, related tags, related LC subjects, etc. etc. all available by RSS as well. Shelfari has a bare list of books for each tag. It’s not clear if they are sorted in some mysterious way or not.
*LibraryThing has author pages, listing their works, the tags applied to them, ratings, reviews, author pictures, etc. And authors are combined by users–so C. S. Lewis and Clive Staples Lewis are put together. Authors are keywords searches on Shelfari.
*LibraryThing has similar detail pages for languages–what are the most popular French books?–and LC Subjects.
*LibraryThing went from English-only to eight usable languages in less than a week. If you want to use LibraryThing in Welsh, you can. (We’re still working on the Catalan.) Even before that, LibraryThing was international. The “works” system means that, if you love Heinlein, your book recommendations are influenced by the catalog of someone who only read Heinlein in Finnish.
*LibraryThing’s collective catalog of books and tags gives each book a detailed list of recommendations that many have said is better than Amazon’s, and is certainly more detailed. You can also get recommendations based upon your entire library. Shelfari allows you to manually send a recommendation comment to another user about a book.
*LibraryThing has a number of APIs, including thingISBN, which opens LibraryThing’s uniquely authoritative user edition-disambiguation to the web.
*LibraryThing has a mobile version, so you can check your books while standing in a bookstore.

In sum, Shelfari has basically two things: (1) a way to point to books on Amazon and add tags and reviews that Shelfari then owns; (2) a way to mark someone a friend, or make them not a friend. LibraryThing is an entirely different class.

Lastly, I agree the interface could use some work, although I don’t think that a straight Web 2.0 “look” is necessarily better. I think it’s becoming quite cliche, and can lead one into missteps. For example, it’s _de rigeur_ now for “Web 2.0” sites to present square profile pictures whenever you see a user’s name, but LibraryThing users have told me in no uncertain terms that they hate that. It works if your young, visual and appearance-oriented, but that doesn’t describe most readers. Most LibraryThing profile pictures, for example, are of shelves and cats and whatnot. It’s not that we’re ugly, it’s that the convention of the headshot as one’s digital self isn’t as firmly established among other sorts, and can rub people the wrong way. It feels vacuous and like a waste of space, and readers value neither 🙂

Incidentally, if I missed any features in Shelfari, let me know and remove the bullet!