LibraryThing: Social Cataloging in the Libraries
by Charlie Terng
Information Technologies for Libraries and Information Analysis
December 17, 2009
Table of Contents
Abstract p. 01
Introduction p. 02
What can LibraryThing do? p. 02
LibraryThing For Libraries p. 06
Advantages and issues with LTFL in library catalogs p. 07
Conclusions p. 08
References (APA) p. 11
With the advent of Web 2.0, libraries are incorporating social networking features to
better connect the community with their information services. Using controlled vocabularies
such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings has been criticized as being difficult to
approach for the uninitiated. However, tags have recently provided new alternatives in cataloging
and searching, giving easier-to-handle, more accessible tools for users. LibraryThing, a social
cataloging website, has taken advantage of this, offering tag-integration for library online
catalogs. While issues still remain apparent, the new system has found its uses when applied
alongside established methods.
Social cataloging is a recent phenomenon capitalizing on the groundwork paved by Web
2.0. It incorporates “tags”, user-generated metadata, as a means for people to develop their
personal controlled vocabulary, to classify and categorize on their own terms as opposed to
relying on standardized, pre-set guidelines. Social networking sites, such as LibraryThing in
particular, take advantage of this by providing an opportunity for users to not only build their
own catalog, but to share it with the rest of the online community as well. The purpose of this
paper aims to assess LibraryThing as a social cataloging tool, and to evaluate its potential role in
the library setting, where Web 2.0 services are becoming increasingly popular.
What can LibraryThing do?
As Mary Ellen Bates (2006) puts it, LibraryThing is “the love child of Melvyl Dewey and
Web 2.0”. The website was launched in September 2005 by Tim Spaulding (O'Neill, 2007),
giving the masses a robust cataloging tool to maintain their own personal collection of books
with the added bonus of social applications to communicate and network with fellow booklovers.
In just its first year, LibraryThing raked in over 73,000 registered users and had over 5.1 million
individual books cataloged into the system (Terris, 2009). By May 2008, those numbers
ballooned past 400,000 for users and 27 million for cataloged books.
Signing up is free and fairly simple, requiring only an active e-mail account to get started.
Upon registering, each user is given their own “library” (Figure 1), where they can view their
collection either in list form or by cover. LibraryThing boasts a selection of over 30 million book
covers uploaded into the system, oftentimes giving the option to choose the original cover for the
book or an alternate version from a different edition (Hadro, 2008). The display is highly
malleable, which provides users the freedom to customize and sort their personal catalog to their
own preferences. For example, in Figure 1, the layout is set up by “title”, “author”, “rating”,
“tags”, and “comments” fields, where users can either add information or sort the list
accordingly. To the right of each entry, control options give users the ability to edit bibliographic
content (which will be visible to only the user him/herself), remove it from the personal listing,
or catalog the title under a certain category. Quick access points link to fellow members who
share the same book, as well as user-reviews that can also serve as social forums for discussion.
Figure 1 – Personalized LT collection.
Adding books to your collection can be a cinch by searching through the “works” field,
provided either the title, author, or ISBN information is known. Finding an “author” page, on the
other hand, is not quite as painless as the previous method. Going with a fairly unique name,
such as “Gaiman”, can already elicit over 200 results, most of which are fake or misspelled
entries by other users (Figure 2). Further adding to the frustration is a lack of ways to sort the
listing, which devolves the search process into a cumbersome trial-and-error approach. No
indications are made to help distinguish one entry from another, making it essentially a needle in
a haystack endeavor in certain circumstances.
Figure 2 – Author search results
For the more adventurous and daring browsers, the “tag” field allows for subject
searching, though the results can often be wide and varied. LibraryThing's “TagMash” was
established to potentially narrow things down by giving users the power to combine multiple tags
according to their tastes, and thus increase the specificity of their search. So, while there might
not have been any suitable hits listed under “hunting squirrels”, the once out-of-luck searcher
now has renewed hope with the possibility of combining tags “hunting” and “squirrel” to find
books consisting of both tags.
Each cataloged book contains its own individual page with specific bibliographic
information. The data may vary in terms of detail from book to book, but are essentially pulled
from credible sources like Amazon.com, catalogs from over 680 libraries worldwide, and even
the Library of Congress itself (Jeffries, 2008). In addition to the basic information found in
catalog records, LibraryThing also offers an assortment of applications to create a social
experience as well. Tag clouds provide one example, pooling together user-generated tags to
show the “aboutness” of a book (Figure 3). Tags that are more prevalent are larger in size,
whereas the more “unique-to-title” tags possess additional “salience” or boldness. Since only the
top few popular tags are initially shown, it also mitigates the issue of “bad tags” from surfacing
Figure 3 – Tag clouds
The social aspect is a crucial part of LibraryThing's identity. Personal catalogs are meant
to be shared among the community and spur social interaction. It acts as a platform for like-
minded members with similar tastes to discuss and learn about books that they are interested in.
For that purpose, LibraryThing incorporates book groups, forums, as well as “member review”
sections in each book page, inviting users to interact and share their own opinions.
The recommendation service is another highly-promoted social feature of LibraryThing.
Users are encouraged to both take advantage of and contribute to the community's wide array of
recommendation resources. One way to accomplish this is by simply viewing other personal
catalogs and examining their ratings and comments to determine their suitability as filters. From
there, they can then add them to personal watch lists to keep up with their latest library updates
or even invite them for conversation through private or public messaging.
For a more direct method, LibraryThing's “Will you like it” feature offers a simple and
unique tool to quickly gauge a user's potential interest in a book (Figure 4). It takes into account
the type of books uploaded into the user's personal library, the ratings given to each title, the
ratings given by similar libraries, and several other factors to assess the user's likelihood of
enjoying the book. All that is required to accomplish this from a user's standpoint is a click of a
Figure 4 – LT's “Will You Like It” Feature
LibraryThing For Libraries
Due to the popularity of tagging and its usefulness in creating meaningful keyword
descriptors, libraries are beginning to see it as a viable alternative to the already established
subject headings format. In lieu of this, LibraryThing created LibraryThing for Libraries (LTFL)
in 2007, which enables libraries to implement data derived from the LibraryThing system and the
contributions of its users into their own online public access catalog (OPAC). LTFL acts as an
generated tags from LibraryThing as a tag cloud or tag list in the OPAC system (Westcott et al.,
In 2008, LTFL followed it up with a “Reviews Enhancement” package to give patrons
access to user reviews from the library's OPAC, and even allow them to contribute their own as
well (“LibraryThing Adds Reviews”, 2008). The package includes 200,000 user reviews from
LibraryThing that were loosely vetted to ensure a certain respectable quality in effort to jump
start the program. As Tim Spaulding puts it, “Nothing kills people's incentive to review than a
desert” (“LibraryThing Adds Reviews”, 2008). With an initial injection of reviews, LTFL hopes
to spur library patrons to get involved as well, and thus push their social venture off the ground.
As further incentive, LibraryThing also extends its social capabilities into other networking sites.
Patrons who write reviews for their local library's OPAC will be able to share and display those
reviews on Facebook and blogs through widgets and applications, giving them additional
avenues to express themselves in their social communities.
Advantages and Issues with LTFL in Library Catalogs
The main selling point of integrating LTFL into library catalogs is the advantage of tags
as a more accessible searching alternative to the traditional controlled vocabulary, such as the
Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). Proper use of the LCSH often requires an
already established knowledge of the subject matter in terms of taxonomy, as well as an
understanding of the hierarchal structure of subject headings. It can be an intimidating process
for the uninitiated, and depending on the topic, a tricky issue for the experienced librarian as
well. Tags get around this problem by tapping into the “basic level” of a subject more aptly
(Steele, 2009), in that it allows users to search by terminology that is familiar to them, as
opposed to working with a rather inflexible, pre-determined set of of keywords. In other words,
the LCSH works in a structured top-down format that follows a very linear route of broad-to-
narrow exploration, whereas tags give users greater freedom in how they wish to begin or
navigate their search.
Many criticisms and doubts have been documented about this new venture, however
(Steele, 2009). For one, tagging's main strength can also be a weakness, in that a lack of
hierarchy can also mean a lack of comprehensiveness. If a user, for example, searches for
“chocolate ice cream” under a controlled vocabulary format, the authority file may also refer to
other terms such as “double fudge ice cream” and “chunky monkey ice cream”, as well as
broader terms like “cold desserts”. With tags, on the other hand, the responsibility falls on the
user to retrieve all related terms to search under. This is essentially an issue with synonymy,
since tags lack an authority file to pull together similar keywords.
Polysemy and homonyms are also concerns linked with the user's vocabulary. Again, a
controlled vocabulary like the LCSH could overcome this problem with an authority file, but
tags are entirely dependent on the user's knowledge of the subject matter and the included
terminology. It would require users to be aware of multiple or variant meanings of words,
especially in the case of homonyms. Pluralities involve a related issue, since both singular and
plural forms of certain words will need to be searched in order to attain high recall of results.
Unlike a controlled vocabulary, tags struggle with the filtering and organization of multiple
spellings and meanings, making it rather fickle in some ways when searching for all possible
information on a certain subject.
Due to the nature of user-generated tags, issues can also arise from how or why they are
created. Part of tagging's attraction is the layman accessibility that comes along with it. However,
where controlled vocabularies are often derived from professionals, the quality of tags rely on
the general public, whose accuracy and intent can not always be vetted for. “Spagging”, the act
of spamming tags, is an unfortunate example, emphasizing the consequences that come with
relinquishing control of the catalog to the masses. The intent may not necessarily even be
malicious, but sometimes as a simple result of misunderstanding the system. For example, users
may tag books for personal purposes, such as “stuff I read over summer”, which provides little
use as a searching tool for anyone other than the original creator. These issues can partly be
mitigated through filters, either by librarians manually checking tags for relevance and quality or
relying on the salience and prevalence factor of tag clouds to weed out the ineffective.
The online public access catalog has long been maintained by librarians, in which users
are welcomed to access, but not necessarily participate. This is largely due to the unwieldy nature
of controlled vocabularies, where searching is highly dependent on the user's own knowledge of
the subject field and its specific terminology. However, the library world is gradually accepting
what Web 2.0 has to offer, and looking more to involve its community into the searching process.
LibraryThing, a social cataloging site, has provided a working platform for this new venture with
its “tag” feature. In this regard, the plan is to immerse users in the cataloging system, to give
them control over categorization and classification, as well as permitting them to search
keywords in their own terms. Simplifying the process to involve the general public not only
diminishes barriers, but gives way to new paths of searching as well.
As discussed, tags may bring many advantageous features to the catalog, but also a fair
share of drawbacks as well. It may not necessarily be in a position to completely supplant the
traditional controlled vocabularies (e.g., LCSH) just yet, but its features can be applied in certain
ways to instantly serve alongside established methods. A complementary model making use of
both systems would result in a more functional and comprehensive cataloging tool, ultimately
increasing the number of options and access points for users. For example, creating tags can be
made more efficient by using the LCSH as a reference guide. Another example would be to start
searches with tags, then use the hierarchal structure of controlled vocabularies to broaden or
narrow the focus (Steele, 2009).
So, as the modern day information consumer continues to grow and evolve in how they
search and perceive information, libraries must also match the progression alongside them. In
this sense, the librarian's role may be moving away from the position of authority, and instead
focusing more as a guide or filter, someone capable of working cooperatively with users to make
sense of their options. There is no perfect system with all the answers, but there may be plenty
paths to a solution. Thus, with the integration of social cataloging tools and the influx of Web 2.0
technology in general, libraries are increasing access points and routes to information for their
users, supplying them with the appropriate services of an evolving information environment.
Bates, M. E. (2006). Get your LibraryThing on. Online, 30(6), 64.
Hadro, J. (2008). LibraryThing releases one million free covers. Library Journal, 133(14),
Jeffries, S. (2008). Social cataloging tools: A comparison and application for librarians. Library
Hi Tech News, 25(10), 1-4.
LibraryThing adds reviews to OPACs (2008). Library Journal, 133(19), 20.
O'Neill, J. (2007). LibraryThing: Cataloging for the (social) masses. Information Today, 24(8),
Rethlefsen, M. L. (2007). Chief Thingamabrarian. Library Journal, 132(1), 40-42.
Steele, T. D. (2009). The new cooperative cataloging. Library Hi Tech, 27(1), 68-77.
Terris, O. (2009). A quizzical look at LibraryThing. Multimedia Information and Technology,
Westcott, J., Chappell, A., & Lebel, C. (2009). LibraryThing for libraries at Claremont. Library
Hi Tech, 27(1), 78-81.