Friday, 16 July 2010

Thing 14: "I understand not what you mean by this"

So. LibraryThing. I should like LibraryThing, I really should.   It ticks lots of my boxes:
  • I like cataloguing, and like to have my own things organised;
  • there's lots to play with (as whispersinthewilderness says I could be kept tinkering there for weeks);
  • social interaction grows out of interest in books - it's not just social for the sake of it;
  • it was developed by someone who's still involved (Tim Spalding) and not bought out by anyone big;
  • it's large enough to generate useful user-generated tags and reviews (in contrast to most OPACs it exceeds the necessary critical mass of participants.  It will be interesting to see if new BL OPAC will exceed this threshold or not).
The two articles set as Cam23 reading (although now several years old) made interesting arguments in favour of it as a personal and library tool, and were echoed (though in less detail) by a recent CILIP Gazette article (link to online Gazette Flash version).

Looking at the two example libraries, I can sort of see the use.  As see Magistra notes, the CSL Library page seems to have been abandoned a couple of years ago, and is maybe a lesson it keeping things updated or getting rid of them altogether.  But the Nuffield College list of new accessions look useful - there's lots of information on the profile page about what's on LibraryThing, why, and about the library more generally - though it would be interesting to know if they're also used.  I've not chased up any of the libraries mentioned in the Gazette article for integrating LibraryThing tags directly into their OPACs, but that certainly sounds good in principal.

Thus far LibraryThing gets a tentative C+/B from me.  Time to try it out in a more practical way; let me take you on a little journey through the last few days' experimentation with this Thing...

Experiment 1: Authority Headings, or, Looking For An Author
I tried searching for "William Shakespeare" and this is what I got (click to magnify).

Yes, that's a large, undifferentiated list of names, one of which is "William Shakespeare", and the rest of which are typos, name headings with bonus added extra titles, and a few valid occurrences of Shakespeare in combination with other information.  I want to find out what there is from and about Shakespeare - how do I know where to click?  There's no indication of how many hits there are for each result, and it looks like I may have to check them separately to find what I'm looking for.  No thanks.

(At this point, I thought I was maybe being unfair to LibraryThing, and searched a bunch of OPACs for Will Shakespeare.  The results weren't always perfect, but they were a good deal better, as shown here.)

Cambridgeshire Libraries OPACNewton, Cambridge University Library OPACBritish Library OPAC (current)OCLC Worldcat

In the interests of Science, I clicked on one of LibraryThing's random typos to see what would happen.  It turns out that all those "Wiliam Shakespeer"s are actually linked to one entry with correct spelling, biography, bells and assorted whistles.  So LibraryThing's not a disorganised mess, it just presents itself that way...

William Shakespear on LibraryThingWilliam Shakespeare on LibraryThing

Experiment 2: I look for a book
So, I've discovered that I can find my favourite author, even if the denizens of LibraryThing have been misspelling his or her name with wild abandon.  But what about looking for one of his books?  I try another search, this time for Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud (vintage sci-fi aficiandos please note - to be re-published this September).  And, lo! I find a work-level (or is that expression-level? I haven't mastered FRBR yet) description page, with tags and reviews and popularity ratings, and further assorted bells and whistles.  All very nice.  But I'd like to know more about this book, so I click on details.  Here I find out it's LC and Dewey classification numbers, subject headings and get a recap of user ratings etc.  But I'm not satisfied - I'd like to know when this book was published, and by whom.  Indeed, I see that it's been translated, too - can I find out more about those translations, or about the various English editions I know to have been printed?

Well... kinda.  The editions page tells me that there have been more editions than I can be bothered to count from the screen, and that some of them were in languages that clearly aren't English, and that many of these have ISBNs.  It also tells me how many of each copy is held by LibraryThingers.  But I still haven't found a single piece of publication information about this book.

Am I missing something?  Is there really no place, publisher or date of publication included?  I note that there's no option to order search results by date, nor any date box on the search page.  Am I the only bibliophile who's interested in publication information?  If I'm not, why is it so hard to uncover from LibraryThing? Or is it something I can only find out once I've signed up? If so, not letting me know it'll be there isn't encouraging me to join. I've considered not publishing this post because I must be making some really obvious mistake (I tried searching the help wiki too, to no avail), but, well, I trust Cam23ers to be kind in enlightening me.

Answers on a postcard, please.


  1. Hi Girl in the Moon,

    You can get all the publication information when you click on 'Details' on the lefthand side... but only when you are logged in to an account it would appear. Definitely less than ideal, but it is there. At a guess it's to stop people/libraries just helping themselves to lots of complete records without signing up for an account.

  2. Ah! I see. Funny though - it could at least let me know something was missing. And couldn't people get records from any other library OPAC anyway? I'd better go and do like I've been told by high command and sign up for an account now, I suppose...

  3. The problem is that you're wanting LibraryThing to be an OPAC, and it's not. LibraryThing is a book cataloging and social networking feature. We are about what books you have, and we care about how what you have relates to others.

    I will certainly agree the search page is a horror. We do need to improve it. In our defense that's not really a feature people use. The searches that matter to most users are the ability to search for a book on Amazon or one of 690 libraries, and the ability to search your own books. The global level, which you were in, is about how you relate to the rest of the LibraryThind world, and how books relate socially to each other, not what editions are in theory available.

    There are many things to criticize about LibraryThing. But I think you started out on the wrong foot. I notice from your screenshots that you never made an account. That is, you're not using the site for what its about. You might as well look at Facebook and, without making an account, declare it to be a lousy tool for finding phone numbers, or at an OPAC, that it doesn't organize your home library very well...

    Tim Spalding
    Founder, LibraryThing

  4. Tim,

    Thank you for taking the time to read my post and to comment on it. As you may have seen over at Helen's post, she and I are both taking part in 23 Things Cambridge, a programme which is all about librarians trying out new web 2.0 tools and thinking about them with at least half a mind on their relevance for libraries.

    You're right that I did start out the wrong foot - lots of the other 23 Things participants had already blogged about how great LibraryThing is, and so my expectations were very high. That's no-one's fault but my own. At the recommendations of many, I did sign up for an account, and have blogged about my steady change of opinion (here and here). I'm even considering signing up for a lifetime account, so you could probably say that I have been converted.

    I appreciate that my original post in particular comes across as fairly harsh on LibraryThing, and it must be pretty galling to read someone write like that about a service you've created. Sorry about that, and thanks again for stopping by to comment.


  5. Dear Girl,

    I'm sorry if I came off as angry. Actually, I just really like to talk about LibraryThing with people like you. I do a lot of talks these days, particularly to LIS students, and am convinced LibraryThing has some interesting things to say to both the intellectual and the practical aspects of the profession.

    You did, incidentally, nicely shame me into realizing how crappy the search page is. I wouldn't be surprised if many others did as you did, and came away scratching their heads. You actually HAD to use LibraryThing. I shiver to think how many people we lose because they see it, and are under no obligation to continue!

    Thanks again for the comments, and sorry for droning on!


  6. You're not droning on at all. It's really interesting to hear opinions from the horse's mouth (not that I wish to imply that you're a horse!). Out of interest, how did you stumble across our blogs?

  7. I should have known! I've been thinking about more about search over night, or more specifically about what my expectations were regarding searching and adding books to LIbraryThing.

    I appreciate that having 690 OPACS and booksellers pages to search is a great way to find details on a very large number of books. But what surprised me (once I'd got an account and started adding books) was that you have to go to the external catalogues every time you want to add something. For a mainstream book with an ISBN this is no hardship - they all turn up without too much hassle. But for more obscure books, it can take several searches before it's found. If I'm the first person on LibraryThing to have it, then that's fair enough. But if someone else has already added it to LibraryThing, and I can see that their record is what I want, why can't I just use that one? It's quite frustrating having then to do a trawl to find a library that has it, too, and it might turn out that the library record is slightly different, so the two records for the same book need to be 'combined' to keep LibraryThing neat. Does that make sense?

    I guess I'd expected a two-part search when adding books: 1) look in LibraryThing, if it's there, then use that 2) if it's not already there, or not in the right edition, etc. look to the great wide world.

    This point has veered slightly off from my original post about the confusing search results, but I wonder if re-using existing records more would lead to less duplication (and near duplication), and thus a cleaner search?