A WELSTech Listener Review by Pastor Tim Wagner

libraryThingAs a pastor, I own a lot of books. I have also encouraged the congregations I have served to grow their library of books with solid doctrinal content for members to borrow and read. A few years ago, I was looking for two solutions: one to keep track of which books I own and another to give members of my congregation a way to find materials in our church library. We didn’t have the resources, equipment, or staff for full-featured OPAC programs that often come with a price tag. As I searched for a free or low-cost alternative, I came across LibraryThing (www.librarything.com), which also happened to be mentioned on the WELSTech listserv and podcast in February of 2012.

Users can enter up to 200 books into their LibraryThing library for free. Or, for $10/year or $25/life, they can enter an unlimited number of books.

A simple way to enter a book into a user’s library is using its ISBN. LibraryThing uses a number of sources to recognize the book and automatically add details about the book (title, author, publisher, copyright, cover photo, etc.). If a user wants an even simpler approach, LibraryThing sells a CueCat scanner for $15 (+ S/H). It is a handheld USB scanner, with which the user scans the barcode of the book, and all of the details about the book are instantly recognized. I have ordered and used a CueCat, and it works great. It saves a lot of time that would be spent typing ISBNs or titles or authors or other details LibraryThing might use to identify a book.

libraryThing2After a book has been entered into LibraryThing, a user can edit all of its details, add tags, add reviews, create and use customizable fields, see what other users have the book in their library, and much more. This editing can be done with individual books or several books at once (for example, if you wanted to select several books and tag them as “NT Commentary” or “Worship”). A user can also set up “collections.” By default, LibraryThing includes six collections: Your library, Wishlist, Currently reading, To read, Read but unowned, and Favorites. However, a user can delete and add collections to fit their purposes.

While LibraryThing does not have a circulation feature yet (It was said to be in development in 2009 but has not appeared yet), collections are one way for a small library to manage what books are available. A user can create collections such as Checked Out (and use private comments to indicate who has borrowed the book and when it was borrowed or due back, if desired). It’s not an automated system, but a simple and effective workaround.

Of course, for LibraryThing to be effective as a catalog system that others can access to search for books (e.g., in a church library), it must be shareable. And it is. In fact, with a simple URL (www.librarything.com/catalog/[username]), a user’s library is accessible to anyone on the web (books can be made private if a user wishes to hide them). This accessibility is also why it is wise to keep circulation to specific readers in the “private comments,” which can only be seen by the main user. LibraryThing also has a widget that a user can embed on a blog or webpage, a simple way to let members search the church library for materials.

LibraryThing is also intended to be a social tool. Users can see other users’ libraries, comment on their pages, create and join groups, discuss books, share reviews and more. I have not made use of many of these features, so I can’t comment much on them. One useful feature that I have found and used that results from the social character of LibraryThing is the recommendation of tags for books based upon how others have tagged them.

Finally, LibraryThing facilitates the distribution of free books. Many of these books are made available either in paper form or in e-book format by beginning authors who want their books to be reviewed either to help in in revision or to use to promote what they have written. I have not often seen books available that match my interests, but some users might.

In my opinion there are a few weaknesses and potential areas of improvement. First of all, it does not work well with media other than books. If the user wants to catalog DVDs or other media, they have to enter all of the information manually.

A circulation feature would also be a great improvement, but, as I mentioned, there is a usable workaround that can be used until that feature becomes available.

Finally, the interface is not entirely intuitive. You have to dig a bit to discover all of the features and how to use them. But the number of features available and the flexibility of the tool makes up for this weakness. In addition, based upon Q&A forums on the site, the LibraryThing developers seem to be interested in users’ needs and willing to work to address them.

Overall, I would recommend LibraryThing (including the CueCat) for those who are looking for a simple online tool to manage their personal or church library, to keep track of what they are reading, and to share reviews with others. However, school libraries or other libraries with a large volume of circulation (who want patrons to know what materials are available) would probably be wise to look for a different tool or wait until the circulation feature is added to LibraryThing.