Thursday, February 23rd, 2006

LibraryThing leaps forward: Everyone a librarian

UPDATE: I changed the way I load covers. Is anyone still getting a “stack” error?

In the last three days I’ve added a slew of new features, and a new structure to support future improvements:

“Works” : user-controlled book combination and separation

LibraryThing would be pretty useless if connections, ratings, comments and recommendations considered every edition of something like Pride and Prejudice a separate thing, as other online cataloging applications do. In the past LibraryThing made a guess, like Amazon does, and failed about as often. Library technologists are starting to do somewhat better, but there was no perfect answer. It was time to try something new.

Starting three days ago, I announced a trial project to let users determine what books belonged together, the first time anything like this has been attempted. Using simple check boxes, users could go through a favorite author’s works, combining and separating editions as necessary.

The response has been startling to say the least: In three days, users have combined 17,000 times, mashing together 42,000 works! Users have spent hours at the task, and debated the nuances in a blog post that now sports 182 comments. Although only a few of these Christmas elves are actual librarians, but most are experts on the authors they labor over. As one wrote on the blog, Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall the short story collection, is distinct from Nightfall the novel and from Nightfall One. Do libraries know that? Does Amazon?

As with tagging, reviews, ratings, uploading scanned covers and other user content, LibraryThing users are taking book information into their own hands. And they’re doing it because it’s fun and they see the benefit right away—filling out the catalog with covers and cataloging data they wouldn’t otherwise have, and connecting them with like-minded reasons, even if the person who’s read every Asimov book they have did it in Finnish.

Book pages revised

Book information pages (the card-catalog, people and pencil icons) have been enhanced in a variety of ways.

  • Social pages show all the work’s covers, by popularity, including user-contributed ones. (Note: Some Windows IE machines fail to load all the images. If the book has very many covers, this can show an error. I am working to solve this.)
  • Each edition links to Amazon, Abebooks, Alibris and other online merchants.
  • Editions also link to the OCLC’s “Find in a Library” project.
  • Users can now swap covers easily, and for the first time snap up covers uploaded by other users.

New Recommendation Options

The new “works” system has opened things wide up for improvements. One of the first is an enhanced “recommendations” engine, now based on the “full work,” not just some of its editions.

The new engine shows both “People who own X also own Y” and “Similarly tagged” books. The “raw” option shows “People who own X also own Y” without any weighting applied (J. K. Rowling rules!). The “exclude author” option is useful when a book triggers ten or fifteen suggestions by the same author, as happens with authors like Agatha Christie or Stephen King.


LibraryThing now allows library-wide title and author searches based on the new work system.

Deweys and LC Call Numbers for everyone!

Until now, members who found books through the Amazon search (most of us), had no access to Library of Congress Call Numbers and Dewey Decimals, which only came through library searches. The new “work” system leverages everyone’s cataloging, bringing true library data to 175,000 works, including most popular ones. These numbers now appear in your catalog, in green to distinguish them from your own numbers.

In addition to Deweys and LC Call Numbers, card catalogue pages now allow you to browse works’ MARC records, a Matrix-like stream of data librarians are said to be able to decipher, and even enjoy looking at.


The new features have gotten a workout since starting testing three days ago, and users have been very helpful with bug reports and suggestions. Some systems are still transitioning, and some problems remain, but issues are being knocked down one-by-one. In my defense, developing LibraryThing is usually like working on a train while it’s in motion. The recent changes were like turning a train into a monorail while it was in motion…

Some anticipated improvements include:

  • Fixing all occurrences of that MSIE6 “stack overflow” bug, and the pesky double-frames issue
  • A definitive statement on when translations should be combined (I’m working on it!)
  • Work disambiguation—there, I said it—available through the search system
  • Improved author disambiguation
  • Deweys and LC Call Numbers for all books, not just books in the system
  • Browsable LC Subject headings for all and sundry
  • A space-based laser to smite people who write in library books

Comments, suggestions, criticisms, complaints and bug reports always welcome.

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