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words, words, words
how you keep where you keep them
by erik lars myers (@TopFermented)

When I was a little kid, maybe 6 or 7 years old, I taught myself the Dewey Decimal System and spent an enormous amount of time cataloging every book in my house. It was probably a day, but in my memory it seems like weeks. To what was most likely the abject horror of my parents, I cut out little slips of paper, wrote the DDC number on each one and taped them to the spine of the book with scotch tape to create my own library.

25 years later, I still have books with these tags taped on the sides. I no longer need them to find my books.

I've always owned a lot of books. I'm an owner, not a borrower. I don't like libraries. If I get a book, even if I really hate it, I don't want to have to give it back when I'm done with it. There's something comforting in the presence of books. They're nice to have around. The smell of old books is intoxicating.

And then I married someone who also loves books, who's working on a Ph.D. in English. The phrase, "I bought a book today" is common and everyday. There are books in every single room in the house. They're shelved and stacked and scattered. They're on the piano, the coffee table, the kitchen table, both bedstands, both computer desks, the beer fridge, and even on the floor at times. We have closer to 1000 books than 100 books and keeping track of them borders on the ridiculous. How do you go to the store to buy something new if you're not even sure off the top of your head what you own?

I've thought about programming my own card catalog, based on ISBN numbers, author information, publishing house, publishing date, etc. But it's a lot of work. I spend my entire day programming, it's rare that I want to do it again when I get home. Then I found Alexandria, a linux-based book cataloger. It pulls information from Amazon.com and the Library of Congress and keeps track of your books for you. But it crashes a lot, lacks some features I'd like, and is limited only to Linux. There's Delicious Monster which is pretty, but only runs on the Mac. So what to do?

And then a friend told me about LibraryThing.

It's terrific.

First benefit: It's cross-platform. It doesn't matter if I'm on a PC, Mac, or Linux box -- I can get to it. It doesn't even matter what computer I'm on, I just need to login. (Sounds like del.icio.us already, no?). Like the others I've mentioned, it can pull information about your books from Amazon.com and the Library of Congress, as well as 76 other sources online including Amazon.com in a few other countries and a solid amount of university libraries around the Country. It keeps full bibliographic information on each book including title, author, publisher, publishing date, number of pages, Library of Congress call number, ISBN, Dewey Decimal Number, and even the cover art (if it's available).

Since it's all a giant database, you can also see every other version of the work that's in their database, how many other people own this book, and reviews of the book from outside sources and/or other users. You can sort by title, author, date of publication, obscurity in the database or anything your heart desires if you're willing to put the time into defining it.

To get back to deli.cio.us similarities, and one of the strongest points of this application, you can tag your books. Use one word, or a list as long as your arm separated by commas; you can find your books in a way that you desire. It can be as complicated as "20th century contemporary fiction" or the tag that turns up all over the place in my library: "beer." Then, sort by tag, or search by tag, to find your books in a way that suits how your brain works.

Getting them into the computer is easy -- $15 will buy you a handheld barcode scanner, and most contemporary books will scan right in. Almost everything in the past 10 years uses the ISBN number as the barcode on the back of the book. Anything published after 1966 should have an ISBN number somewhere on the book, anything between 1897 and 1966 might have a Library of Congress Classification number, and you can find most anything else with just a normal author search. If it doesn't turn up that way, you can enter the book manually and create a unique entry.

Finally, just to keep it fun, you get to have all kinds of stats on your books. The number of books you have vs. the number of distinct works. The average publishing date of your books, as well as a decade-by-decade breakdown of when your books were published, and even a mosaic of all of your book covers.

And there's so much more to the site -- and so much more coming. It's only in beta, for crissakes. I can only imagine what these people are capable of with time and capital.

Maybe, as is probably shown by my young-life devotion to the Dewey Decimal System, I'm a little geeky about books. Sometimes, I feel like they have a life of their own, living in little communities on the shelf. Plays huddled together with mysteries, swapping ideas about the best way to build dramatic tension. Fantasy and sci-fi debating dragons vs. spaceships. The very fact that this fabulous site exists shows that I'm not alone. I'm not a whack job (at least about this) and books do have a life of their own, and you can see it all for yourself with a little time playing in your own library and the magic that is LibraryThing.


Writer, beer drinker, brewer. Not necessarily in the order. For more, check Top Fermented and Mystery Brewing Company.

more about erik lars myers


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sarah ficke
7.16.07 @ 12:50p

I'm having a ton of fun adding books to our library. It's so cool!

jael mchenry
7.16.07 @ 1:59p

I know several people (myself included) who made check-out cards for their personal book collections when they were kids, but I don't think any of us went so far as to use the Dewey Decimal System. Erik, you're special.

We set aside seven boxes of books for the centerpieces at our wedding and gave away five bags of books shortly afterward... and yet all our bookshelves are still full. Not sure about the physics of that.

erik myers
7.16.07 @ 2:40p

Yeah. I built a new bookshelf for Sarah last year. It took us approximately 20 minutes to fill it entirely.

The problem, now, is that we're out of wall space.

Jael - you two should check LibraryThing out - it's an idiotic amount of fun to create a taxonomy for your own books.

jael mchenry
7.16.07 @ 4:06p

I like the idea, but I think I'm going to be hopelessly retro about it -- when I'm looking for a book I really just want to run my fingers over all the spines, revisiting the old favorites on the way to finding what I want.

Then again, we don't buy a lot of new stuff, so we never have the problem of wondering whether we might already have a book one of us is thinking of buying. I imagine this is incredibly helpful for double-checking on that kind of thing.

mike julianelle
7.16.07 @ 5:31p

I love owning books. I hate libraries. I am anal about my books and therefore reluctant to let friends borrow them and won't do it without lecturing them on not dog-earing them and not bending the spines, etc.

I was spending too much on books though, so I finally made myself start using the library. It's a hassle to have to return things by a certain date, even when I'm done I usually don't get it back on time. As a result, I go to the library far less than I used to go to the bookstore. This 'borrowing' phase will end soon. As God is my witness.

lucy lediaev
7.17.07 @ 7:40p

Thank you for an intro to "Library Thing." It may be the cure for a problem my daughter and I have: we buy duplicate books. Clearly, unless it is a "must have this minute" book, it is much more efficient and economical for us to trade books. If I could check a list online before ordering from Amazon or anywhere else, it would be great. Now for the time to set the whole thing up. I'm afraid a lot of my books may fall in the pre-barcode era.

erik myers
7.17.07 @ 11:00p

A lot of ours do, too. Many of them are still findable, and you can easily enter them yourself, if you're enterprising.

tracey kelley
7.17.07 @ 11:44p

My God, Erik - that is so incredibly geeky, adorable, and functional, all at the same time.

I'm toying with the idea of not buying or borrowing any books within the next year until I have read everything I have on the shelves. Again. Kind of cycling back through the books I considered good enough to keep and why; reading old books again as an adult, rather than a 15-year-old; and studying them all from a writer's p.o.v.

But then, part of me still has a stack of about 20 or so books that I -needed- to have at any given moment, and they are in my "to read" stack. So would I read those first, THEN go through the shelved ones, or would I save the "new" ones for last as treats? Hard to say.

Everytime I walk into a public library, I think "I can have anything in here that I want." And that excites me considerably.

But I hate-hate-hate being on "hold" lists. Too impatient. Which is why I usually end up spending more on books than I probably should.

But, it could be crack, or, worse, techie gadgets. So books it is.

lisa r
7.18.07 @ 12:09a

Books as a vice are a good thing. Then again, I'm an acknowledged bookworm so I WOULD consider a book addiction as good. I have some books I've read so many times I've lost count.

I worked in the libraries at NC State and Clemson when I was a student, in the best of all possible departments: Marking. I got to see the new books before the rest of the student body, and I learned to make useful repairs such as replacing ("tipping in") a page and gluing a binding. There's something wonderful about being one of the first (and especially the first) people to open a brand new book--it ranks right up there with being the first person to dip a spoon or knife into a new jar of peanut butter.

A word to my fellow book repair DIYers--get acid-free glue, it will protect your books. The regular all-purpose stuff has a lower pH, and weakens the book over time.


alex b
7.18.07 @ 11:44p

Erik, given that I'm reorganizing my book (and graphic novel) collection, this is a timely read. I love books, and well... people have come to understand that I own enough to decorate with.

ken mohnkern
7.19.07 @ 1:26p

Hate libraries? Hate paying for books?

Check out one of the book trading sites. I use bookmooch.com. (Have I mentioned that before?) Just find someone on the site with the book you want and "mooch" it. They'll send it in the mail for free. And you do the same when someone mooches from you.

Advantages: it's free and you're giving away books too, so you're not accumulating a lot.


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