09 August 2008

What's In Your Library?

What with the recent spate of fires, floods, and, of course, notorious hurricanes, keeping valuable items like photos, documents, files, and heirlooms safe has been on the mind of many genealogists. But what about one resource you may take for granted? One resource that possibly surrounds you in your home, but for which you may have no printed record or inventory?

I'm talking, of course, about your books!

As a true bibliophile and recovering English major, I happen to have a full catalog of my books, including a listing of just about every book I have read since I was 16 years old. For most purposes, this list is a vanity thing. I learned years ago, however (when one of my closes friends experienced a fire in his Haight-Ashbury apartment building and lost alot of his possessions) that libraries are very difficult to replace if you don't know what it is you are trying to replace. Without a comprehensive list of the books you own, should disaster strike, and you lose your books, you may find yourself reaching for elusive volumes for years to come, only realizing what you have lost when you need it most.

To that end, I present two online websites dedicated to cataloging your home library. One I have tried exclusively for this post. The other I use for my general literature. I will present a little bit of information on both sites, as well as the positive and negative aspects of each, to allow you to make a decision on which site to try.

Library Thing

LibraryThing is a big thing with the litgeek types, and rightfully so: it provides an extensive database of books, ease of input, active community involvement and a pretty straight-forward, easy-to-use interface. It is here that I have cataloged my general library.

Once logged in to the site, the home page features items about your library, as well as a lot of community-oriented panels, like recent recommendations, site announcements, active forum topics, etc.:

The panel view for your own library is where the action takes place (browsing, updating, sorting and generally petting your collections):

Pages for individual books show tons of information, include links to reviews on LibraryThing, links to book discussions, and average ratings:

Some Good Points
  • Uploading books is easy, as you can enter books by author, title, or ISBN. The site mainly uses Amazon and the Library of Congress as its major databases to pull covers and publication information based on what you enter; it is rarely stumped.
  • The site is popular, and active, which makes it interesting to use for those who enjoy a social-aspect to their websites. To that end, you can browse other people's libraries, compare libraries, engage in discussions about individual books, and even leave comments on other people's book pages.
  • The site uses tagging, which makes browsing across genres, books and users incredibly easy.

Some Not So Good Points
  • Only the first 100 books are free to add to your library. After that you can pay a yearly fee or a single lifetime fee. The rates aren't that bad... it's sliding scale, honor system, and yearly fees start at $6.00, lifetime fees at $19.00. The rates are so modest I hesitate to call this a "bad" point, but my inner-frugality insists that I make mention of this point.
  • You can only upload books to LibraryThing, which means that if you want to catalog DVDs, Videos, CDs or anything else, you are out of luck.


I have been trying out GuruLib as a catalog tool for my genealogical collections, and am so far decently happy with the results. Entering books via ISBN makes additions snap-simple and the database seems to be fairly extensive, on par with LibraryThing.

The main page of the site defaults to your profile page when you are logged in. This page has the typical coverview of your library contents:

This screenshot makes clear where GuruLib really shines: you can catalog more than just books, and can include multimedia, and even documents! This could be a huge boon to genealogists whose collections include CDROMs and various software (I cataloged my CDROMs under software, for simplicity sake); the upload of documents could be very handy for printouts, research guides, etc.

Individual book pages are pretty sparse, without alot of the information seen on LibraryThing:

Some Good Points
  • As mentioned above, GuruLib lets you catalog more than just books; software, music, movies and games are also part of your potential catalog.
  • You can also upload documents like PDF, DOC, PS, PPT or XLS files, up to a 5MB per file limit. (It's not clear what the overall limit is).
  • GuruLib is free free free to use.

Some Not So Good Points
  • The GuruLib interface is.... lacking, and the design leaves alot to be desird.
  • The navigation is confusing at times, and it can be difficult to figure out how to get to what you want.
  • The site doesn't have the social function of a site like LibraryThing (note the book detail page, which does not have links to other users who have the same or similar catalogs). This could be a drawback for individuals looking to see what people with similar research interests have in their libraries, and also eradicates the possibility of finding new titles of interest.
  • The site lacks tagging outside of some automatically generated genre tags.
  • It would be great if the various categories were expanded, and if the document-upload feature were more prominently displayed.

A Choice

Overall, both sites perform the same function. If you are interested in cataloging your books for the sake of having an offsite record of what is in your library, then either may be right for you. In fact, while LibraryThing presents a host of social and organizational tools, the stripped down interface and lack of clutter on GuruLib may be just right for a no-nonsense cataloging project. If you want to interact with your collection and with others, though, then LibraryThing would be the site for you. In the end, both are fun to use, and cataloging can become strangely addictive. The thrill of watching your library go digital can be enjoyable in and of itself, making what could be a chore a fun hours-long project.

1 comment:

wendy said...

very interesting article. I'll have to check this out & see what I can do!