Book Things


Link: Library Thing

The Fall have a song called Telephone Thing that I’m fond of and I like Library Thing too. Not that they’re in any way related, but I’m liking "Things".  Though book things are very different artefacts from images or URLs and as such Library Thing may struggle to replicate the kind of success that flickr and have enjoyed, unless that is they understand the nature of the medium and have a strategy that looks to roll with what connects us to "books" [as opposed to just any old media that you slap tags on to which may seem harsh but people seem to be slavishly adopting this model without much thought].

Books are inherently highly ‘social’ – from the subject matter to the shared meaning, community gathering [book clubs] and even distributed networks [e.g. Book Crossing] – but I’m unsure how their "nature" as predominantly material things will translate into an online ecosystem around sociality. I mean what would compel you to catalogue your book collection [and well, your entire material life?] when there are existing tools to assess relationships between authors and people such as Amazon’s "people who bought this" etc.  Some odd people do do this I know – even it’s it’s by size, colour, whatever on their bookshelves.  I just don’t understand it.

There are perhaps parallels with music in that you have authors [artists], books [albums/tracks], editions [compilations / re-releases] and publishing houses [‘record companies’].    It’s a bit like musicbrainz in the sense that it could serve to add a layer of useful metadata over formal classification systems to allow you to search horizontally as well as vertically [and just about any direction at all actually].  So where could it go beyond classifying books?   Library Thing
doesn’t satiate any need state particularly.  You’re left wanting more.  What could be developed on top of the service in the way that allows you to stream profile radio?  As most books are not actually digitised [yet]  it’s hard to know where you could go with it apart from extending services around ‘book clubs’ and such like that bring bookish people together via geography [but Libary Thing doesn’t even collect such data] or niche communities around books. 

Another important fact in the ‘nature’ of books is that they are slower than images, URLs and music.  They take time to ‘digest’.  They require more effort and in that sense our relationship with them is often stronger but it means that the frequency with which you can engage with a book ‘network’ would be somewhat more limited than for other mediums [think book clubs vis a vis going clubbing or eating].  It wouldn’t be as fresh, current or frankly as predisposed to the kind of activity that currently defines most online sociality – which is based on new ‘things’ [that’s a huge generalisation and I don’t intend to back it up].

  1. Read Shirky’s essay if you haven’t already.

    The significance of books, other than those you’ve already mentioned, is that there’s already formal metadata associated with them (author/title/format/publisher/etc) and that, as they exist as physical entities, if you’re categorising them so that you can physically find them, you need a definitative ontology. Online, though, ‘there is no shelf’ (see Shirky, above), and so tagging can go further than ontology.

    That said, to be useful, tagging books should go beyond the already-provided formal metadata, and should instead begin to fill in the gaps with other info, like descriptive words, subject matter specifics, etc.

    Apparently, Amazon are doing their own experiments with tagging, to see if tags could help their business. Their current category model fails, with search and the user-data (‘people who bought that also bought this’) filling in the gaps. Perhaps tags are another gap-filling-plug?

  2. Yeah – read Shirly’s essay. And I agree with him pretty much though see Peterme’s critique of Clay particularly around faceted classification rather than hierachical classification. But my main point here is that it’s the nature of the medium that matters – it’s a medium for debate rather than comment and classifying your books is a rather pointless exercise because there’s no ‘playout’ because most books are not digitised. if you could start to bring in some of the facted classification around books into other things that might be useful – like people who tage tracks with “indie shit” also happen to tag books with “coupland, dark, future” then you may get some related value from correlated ‘user tags’.. well you will get value.. but it’s still a big ask to get people to actually do it for such a deferred distributed kick back. isn’t it?

  3. (Some thoughts from the developer)

    This was very interesting, and very well presented. Here are some of my thoughts:

    1. I am also unconvinced there is much “playout” from the tagging of books, except on an individual level. On that individual level the playout is modest but real: when you have more than a few hundred books it’s useful to browse “secondary” topics. So, for example, I don’t have a “Turkey” section, but the books are distributed in various other sections (religion, history, archaeology, etc.). LibraryThing lets me browse a topic across shelves.

    2. I think you’re wrong about “existing tools to assess relationships between authors and people such as Amazon’s ‘people who bought this’…” I don’t know about you, but I find Amazon’s advice pretty useless. I don’t care what some anonymous person bought, less some aggregate of anonymous people. I care even less about his review. (The uselessness of Amazon reviews and the filters we apply to them are a topic for another time.) Even if I did care, Amazon knows very little. I’ve bought maybe 20 books through them; I have 3,000 books. That’s a pretty narrow window into my soul.

    By contrast, LibraryThing points you toward similar users and lets you check out their entire collection. For example, I quickly saw that LanguageHat shares my passion for Umberto Eco and has books on both Hittite and Greek religion. As Amazon would never tell me this and these are topics unlikely to come up together in a chat room or even at a dinner party, this is really something. It is the sort of information that would otherwise require going to his apartment. And once I know his tastes are similar to mine I scan through his colectionn with great interest, and I trust his recommendations.

    3. Your failure to “understand it” isn’t entirely remarkable. I’ve seen a few blog posts that ask “Why the heck would I want to do that?” It’s certainly a niche need; most people don’t have enough books to bother cataloging. For that niche, however, LibraryThing is the answer to a prayer. Check out the “buzz” page ( for a sample—the reaction has been excessive (and frequently erotic). Or take the numbers. Since August 29 LibraryThing users have entered 120,000 books, half in the last four days. Somebody’s getting a payout.

    4. Book collecting is a funny pleasure. Normal people own books to partake of their contents. Book collectors turn the means into the goal. Having thousands of books is a major inconvenience and its social value is questionable. Only rarely do I have a guest who enjoys poking through other people’s libraries as much as I do, and rarer still do they share my tastes and realize their true worth. Failing that the value is personal—the thrills of acquisition, organization and aesthetics. I run my eyes along the spines of my collection and think: “Ah, what an excellent little library I have!” LibraryThing heightens the social aspect—people now rummage through my library all day. And LibraryThing recreates the acquisition and organization experiences: adding a book feels like buying a book; tagging a book feels like shelving it. And even though my books are all out of order and my college ones are beginning to yellow, they’re in perfect order and perfect preservation in my LibraryThing catalog. Notably, I have two or three books in my catalog that aren’t in my real library. I lost them or lent them and never got them back. Putting them in LibraryThing feels like restoring them to their rightful place, a little sliver of my identity, now available for all to see.

    5. I think your generalization is wrong. The web has encouraged lots of “old” things. Take genealogy, bird watching and stamp collecting. Or take sex.

    6. On that subject, LibraryThing isn’t going to become a dating service, but there are real “matching” opportunities in the “space.” Girls with books in their hands are just sexier than girls without. If the girl is reading Nabokov or Greek poetry, she’s sexier still. But where I might see just one book in a girl’s hand, LibraryThing shows me her whole library.

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