Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Social cataloguing: a discussion on LibraryThing and Goodreads

[This blog post originally appeared as an article in CILIP Cataloguing and Indexing Group's journal, Catalogue & Index no. 171. It is reproduced here by kind permission of the editors.]

Goodreads and LibraryThing are the two most popular social cataloguing sites on the Web: sites that allow users to catalogue their own books using metadata and slick interfaces. In March 2013, Goodreads announced that it would be acquired by Amazon.com. This transaction prompted much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the bibliotwittoblogosphere with users worried about the impact that Amazon.com – a commercial bookseller – would have on Goodreads' previously neutral online community of book-lovers. Following this announcement, the author of this article decided to compare the two sites to see if Amazon.com's acquisition is an indicator of superior quality and to explore the phenomenon of social cataloguing (1).

Assorted facts (2) 


Founder(s): Otis Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler 
Launch date: December 2006 
Based in: San Francisco, CA, USA 
No. of staff: 35 
Users: Approx. 17,000,000 
Books: Approx. 550,000,000 
Reviews: Approx. 23,000,000 
Owned by: Majority share: Amazon.com 
Cost: Free (with ads) 
No. of Twitter followers: 647,067 
No. of words in their Wikipedia article: 1682 
No. of capitalised letters in their company's logo name: 0 
No. of concatenated words in the company's name: 2 
Date the author joined Goodreads: 16 March 2013 
No. of books that the author has on Goodreads: 476 
No. of 'friends' that the author has on Goodreads: 30 


Founder(s): Tim Spalding 
Launch date: 29 August 2005 
Based in: Portland, ME, USA 
No. of staff: 9ish 
Users: Approx. 1,650,000 
Books: Approx. 80,000,000 
Owned by: 60% Tim Spalding; 40% divided (somehow) between AbeBooks (owned by Amazon.com) and Bowker (owned by Cambridge Information Group) 
Cost: Free for up to 200 books; $10 for one-year membership; $25 for lifetime membership 
No. of Twitter followers: 8742 (though Tim Spalding has 14,680) 
No. of words in their Wikipedia article: 667 
No. of capitalised letters in their company's logo name: 2 
No. of concatenated words in the company's name: 2 
Date the author joined LibraryThing: 3 September 2010 
No. of books that the author has on LibraryThing: 491 
No. of 'friends' that the author has on LibraryThing: 9 

A short history of social cataloguing 

Software for managing digital collections is commonly used by technologically-connected people (3). iTunes, Winamp, Spotify, Clementine, etc. are programs that organise digital music files. Other software like calibre, iBooks, and the Sony Reader Store organise ebooks and digital text files. Operating systems are built on frameworks of file organisation with a multitude of programs acting as mini-metadata-repositories for digital files of various formats. 

Social cataloguing sites emerged in 2005 around the time that social networking and Web 2.0 started to become a defining technology in our digital lives. Bibliographic cataloguing sites were among the first and are probably the most popular but alongside these there exists a range of cataloguing sites devoted to other information mediums: films, music, scholarly references, recipes, etc. These platforms allow users to store, list, and organise their personal collections in much the same way, on a smaller scale, that library catalogues – from card catalogues to modern OPACs – organise large-scale collections of material. 

Among the first social cataloguing platforms, LibraryThing was launched on 29 August 2005 offering users a space on the Web where they could catalogue books by drawing data from a range of bibliographic data sources. It was followed in 2006 by similar platforms: Goodreads, Shelfari, aNobii, BookArmy, douban, and others whose names are written in the Book of Forgotten Web Enterprises. 

Goodreads and LibraryThing 

Goodreads, despite being younger, is the site with more users and more books in its database. It is bigger and more successful than LibraryThing on most levels which is presumably why it was acquired by Amazon.com. Among social cataloguing sites, LibraryThing is the older, plucky outsider fighting valiantly against the larger, slicker, and younger Goodreads. 

Of the two, Goodreads has the larger focus on the 'social network' aspect of the site. The landing page devotes a lot of screen real estate to friends' updates in a familiar Facebook-like style. The design encourages the user to rate the books he/she has read and to write mini-reviews in the style of Amazon.com. Even when looking at a book's record, friends' ratings and reviews appear near the head of the page. Through these design elements, the user is encouraged to think of him/herself as part of a community of readers comprised of his/her friends and of people across the world reading the same kind of books. 

Goodreads landing page

LibraryThing has the greater focus on metadata. Rather than a page of reviews, LibraryThing's book pages have long sections of metadata fields laid out in MARC-style (4) which users can edit in order to add to the global corpus of metadata surrounding each book. The fields include such varied information as awards, characters, locations, first words, last words, 'blurbers', series, publication dates, etc. LibraryThing pages also make good use of tags to show the categorisation of a book. This kind of classification system is indicative of the digital cataloguing mechanisms employed by both sites: mechanisms that emphasise the difference between physical and digital cataloguing systems. In the physical word, a book has a single place on a single shelf and cannot occupy multiple places at the same time. In a digital realm, items can be in several categories at once: as many as are necessary to show the various facets of the text. Both sites offer users means of organising books into categories and, crucially, means of putting books into multiple categories at the same time. Goodreads provides 'shelves' for organising books: the default shelves are 'Read', 'Currently Reading', and 'Want to Read'. LibraryThing provides 'collections': defaults are 'Your library', 'Read but unowned', and 'Favorites'. Using either shelves or collections, a user can organise books in whatever categories he/she chooses: by genre, by author's country of origin, by how the books made him/her feel, by prevalence of favourite words in the texts, by which room he/she keeps them in, by colour of the covers, etc. No matter how arbitrary or subjective or contradictory the categories are, digital items can be classified with them. This is indicative of the kind of subjective cataloguing that the modern world – and social cataloguing sites – is introducing and is a point to which the author will return. 

LibraryThings book page

The use of the word 'shelves' by Goodreads highlights another interesting distinction between the two sites. In an implicit way, Goodreads tends more towards the use of terminology related to cataloguing print materials and to old paradigms of organisation: 'shelves', 'friends', 'community' are familiar and comforting words associated with cosy, physical libraries and lovely, welcoming bookshops. LibraryThing, by contrast, uses words that actually apply to digital materials and which, while more technically accurate, are less welcoming: 'collections', 'members', 'contacts', etc. In this way, Goodreads tends towards the kind of currently fashionable skeuomorphic design that is the stock and trade of Apple's iOS software: Apple's own ebook management software, iBooks, for example, deliberately mimics the look of a bookcase and physical books with paper pages. It is the author's contention that this clever design philosophy subconsciously affects the user's perception of the two sites such that Goodreads appears comforting and familiar with the homeliness of a wood-panelled personal library in a country house and LibraryThing appears more distant, more clinical, and less friendly due to its decision not to apply physical paradigms to digital material (5). This may be a significant contributing factor in Goodread's relative success: do not underestimate the consumer's desire for comforting familiarity. 

iBooks as an example of skeuomorphic design

Given Amazon.com's famed recommendation engine, it is odd that LibraryThing, rather than Goodreads, produces the better recommendations. LibraryThing generates recommendations for books to read based on the books that a user puts into his/her collection; Goodreads generates recommendations based on the ratings that a user gives to various books. Goodreads therefore requires more data to begin the recommendation process and, as someone who doesn't like the reductionist rating system used by popular online booksellers (6) and therefore is reluctant to use Goodreads’ rating system, the author doesn't care for this method of generating recommendations. LibraryThing manages to generate intelligent recommendations for books to read without manipulating the user into engaging with the 'social network' aspect of it. 

To compare the two big social cataloguing sites, Goodreads is slicker, easier to use, and has a nice app for Android and iOS smartphones/tablets (7). With far more people using it, Goodreads has a distinct emphasis on the 'social' in 'social cataloguing' whereas, with its emphasis on metadata and intelligent recommendations, LibraryThing focuses on the 'cataloguing'. Unsurprisingly, considering the demographic of those who are asked to write for this publication [Catalogue & Index journal], the author of this article prefers the 'cataloguing' social cataloguing site to the 'social' social cataloguing site. 

The cataloguing of chaos 

The modern world is more chaotic, more disorganised, and more miscellaneous than ever before. For all our modern technology, information is more disparate and less cohesive than it was in the days before the telegraph. This is partly due to its abundance: in an information society, exabytes of digital information are produced every single day by every single technologically-connected individual. It's also partly due to the failure of traditional classification and organisation schemes and the increasing 'miscellaneousness' of information. 

Perhaps it is as a response to this mess of information that social cataloguing sites like LibraryThing and Goodreads have become such popular means for organising personal collections. In a world that has become so varied and complicated, it is not only professional cataloguers who feel the compulsive need to classify, categorise, and reorder the universe. In a messy world, info-civilians want to catalogue for themselves. 

If one views LibraryThing, Goodreads, and the overall phenomenon of social cataloguing as a new cataloguing paradigm, then there are two implications for traditional cataloguing. The first is that traditional cataloguers lose their authority (8). The user no longer views cataloguers as gatekeepers of knowledge who have privileged information and insight on how books should be arranged. Anyone can catalogue to whatever system they choose with whatever metadata they choose and whatever standards they wish to adopt. The user can classify using their own bespoke systems: there is no Melvil Dewey or S. R. Ranganathan to dictate how books should be arranged and even if there were, why should they be listened to? As community-driven movements, folksonomies, and crowdsourcing have become more popular, traditional knowledge authorities such as universities, scholarly publications, corporations, and libraries are losing their perceived authority. With the technology to allow users to organise books quickly and easily, the public no longer rely on trained cataloguers or complicated OPACs to tell them what books are about or how they should be arranged on a shelf. In a world of custom categories, tags, datasets, and user-driven metadata, MARC, Dewey, LCSH, etc. are less required than ever (9). 

The second implication is that cataloguing is more subjective than ever before. “We have given up on the idea that there is a single, knowable organization of the universe, a Book of Nature that we’ll ever be able to read together or that will settle bar fights like the Guinness Book of Records. No, you organize your data one way, I’ll organize it another...” (10) In the age of the network, as knowledge has become more democratised, the view that there is one classification system for the universe has fallen out of fashion. The epistemological philosophies of the Enlightenment are in decline. We are not one: we are multitude. We are not a body: we are legion. The democracy of the network and the democratisation of cataloguing mean that one system of order is both impossible and undesirable. 

In a postmodern world, every opinion is valid, every person has a voice, and cataloguing is a subjective rather than an objective phenomenon. Following the death of the author, who can say if a given book is optimistic or pessimistic, about life or about death, abominable or transcendent? And why do we have to decide? Technology allows multiple categories, classifications, and catalogues to exist simultaneously no matter how arbitrary, subjective, or contradictory they may be. All opinions can inform the cataloguing of a book. At the start of the 21st century, truth is varied and miscellaneous and cataloguing is, for better or worse, social. 

(1) All opinions expressed are the personal opinions of the author and do not represent those of CILIP, CILIP Cataloguing & Indexing Group, the author's employers, etc. etc. Let's move on.

(2) All facts presented are actual 'facts' as of May 2013 and, to be honest, a lot of them come from Wikipedia. Also, while we're being honest, they're presented in this lazy list format to reduce word count. 

(3) This phrase is a useful shorthand because the author realises that the term 'people' on its own would include vast swathes of the population to whom the sentence is inapplicable i.e. people who are either not located in developed countries or lack a certain level of affluence and/or educational level. Official figures published in May 2013 suggest that 7 million people in the UK have never used the Internet. 

(4) But more accessibly presented than MARC data generally is. This says more about MARC than LibraryThing. 

(5) Since the author regards technical accuracy as more important than almost any other design consideration, the author views LibraryThing's decision as correct and, he realises upon writing, this probably subconsciously contributes to why he prefers LibraryThing to Goodreads. 

(6) And indeed most other websites that include ratings systems. 

(7) The Goodreads app allows a user to use a smartphone/tablet camera as a barcode scanner to automatically add books to a collection. Which is quite cool. 

(8) Authority in the sense of expertise rather than the sense of power. 

(9) Note that this does not imply that MARC, Dewey, et al. are not required at all. The author makes no judgement on this matter.

(10) Weinberger, D., 2011. Too big to know: rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren't the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.