Social Libraries

May 18, 2006

Topics: Reviews.

I own a fairly large number of books. In fact, I own enough books that about four years ago I decided it was worth my time to build a database containing my library which I could keep on my PC and on my PDA. This little catalog provided about a half-dozen fields which I could perform searches on or sort by date, category, author, or title. It’s a nice little thing – but kind of a pain to maintain. The process of exporting the library back and forth between my PC and my PDA is a little awkward. The time to write in each item is a little annoying. Altogether, it’s not ideal. But, it was free.

The Web 2.0 phenomenon of bookmark sharing, image sharing, and social collaboration online has, unsurprisingly, also resulted in at least two (that I know of) online library sharing services – Librarious and LibraryThing.

What do I need from an online library service?

My priorities for such an online service are as follows:

  • Make it easy for me to add to my library.
  • Make certain I can add everything in my library.
  • Let me use my library from a handheld browser – I want to check whether I already own something while I’m out bookshopping!
  • Allow me to choose whether I’m going to share my library (or specific items in my library) with others.

In addition to these issues, which are important to me as a user of an online library, I’m also concerned about certain issues with these sites as I would be with any site.

  • Good searching and sorting functions.
  • Privacy and data collection policies.
  • Web site accessibility.
  • Web standards compliance.

Some of these could easily jump between lists, but I’ve split them up for ease of reference.

Critical Library Service Functionality

Make it easy for me…

Both services make it reasonably easy to add new titles. In Librarious, you have two options. You can search for books from the "add item" form, and add items directly from that form using AJAXian tricks and treats, or you can use the provided bookmarklet to add titles while browsing Amazon.com. The "add item" form is not perfect – there is no "Submit" button for the query. The search is performed as soon as the input box loses focus. This is easy – but not intuitive.

LibraryThing is even easier – it provides a side-by-side two-paneled interface where you can submit your search (with a submit button) and browse a list of results in the neighboring panel. You simply need to click on the title of an item to add it immediately to your list.

Both systems have advantages and disadvantages, and it’s not clear to me that there’s any need to discuss this particular aspect further, since there’s no clear winner. There will be on the next point, however.

Make certain I can add everything in my library

I own some rather obscure books – things I’ve picked up from library discard sales, at used book shops, etc. Librarious has a major flaw in their library system. You can only add items which appear in Amazon.com’s catalog. There’s no free hand entry, and no alternate database to query. A couple of the more obscure items in my library were simply not available.

LibraryThing, however, not only offers the ability to manually input a book, it also provides searching against library catalogs and Amazon.com. You can specify your search against libraries in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, or the Library of Congress. In this area, LibraryThing provides a vastly superior capacity to Librarious. (You even have the ability to view the MARC records!)

Mobile Browsing of my Library

Well, at the moment I don’t own a mobile browser. However, on the basis of tests using Opera’s small screen rendering and their Opera Mini simulator, I’m able to come up with some general appraisals.

LibraryThing, in general, performed better than I expected. Opera’s small screen rendering does a pretty phenomenal job of managing the table-based design. Although there are some limitations to the simulator, I found the site pretty easy to navigate. I was able to quickly access the search function, and fairly easy to browse my own collection of books. It’s not been designed with mobile navigation in mind – but does manage fairly well.

Librarious, although using a more contemporary CSS-based design, is actually less usable when linearized in Opera Mini. Unfortunately, the code is ordered such that a panel containing news announcements and another panel containing a Librarious-wide tag cloud precede your library listing. With no internal page navigation provided, this makes for quite a lot of scrolling to get to your own books. In general, it’s OK – but painful because it COULD be so much better.

What if I don’t WANT to share?

Well, as far as I can tell, neither service provides any means to choose NOT to share a particular book. There will be no need for the government to acquire a search warrant for my library, alas! LibraryThing does offer the option to keep your entire library private; but this isn’t exactly what I had in mind. I do like the social aspect of the online library.

General Functionality

Searching and Sorting

On any site, the ability to search is absolutely critical. On a library collection site, this simply becomes MORE critical.

I hate to say this for any site, but Librarious has a HORRIBLE search function. The search box is located well below the fold in the right panel of the 3-column layout. The search function does not appear on every page – in particular, it does not appear on the home page. Given that a search is quite likely one of the first things I’d potentially want to do on visiting, this is a MAJOR flaw.

Not only does the search function fail to appear on every page – it is not actually the same SEARCH on each page. Depending on the section of the site you are currently browsing, you will be searching a different data index. Perhaps the creator felt this was a neat advantage, but to my sense of usability, this is a huge mistake.
If you have navigated to your collection page, you have the ability to sort your list according to five categories – title, author, rating, date added, and popularity. You also have the ability to search your collection or browse by tag.

However, if instead you’ve navigated to the "Users" page, you are presented with the ability to search all media. (Actually, you are presented with a search of a non-existent index "medias" – but this is clearly a typo.) On navigating to the "books" page, your view is that of the most recent books added with the same sort options – and the search is of all books.

The variability of the search feature is moderately intuitive – not always, but mostly. However, the site has only that single one-book interface for search (no advanced search) and I feel that the box, in order to be helpful to visitors, should really remain consistent.

LibraryThing has a much more traditional search interface. It also has no search tool on the main page, but unlike Librarious (with no link to a search function at all), it provides a prominent link to the search page at the top of the screen. They provide 7 separate searches, for books and tags within your library, and for books, tags, authors, users, and user locations for all libraries. Although not inspiring, this offers a quite reasonable degree of functionality.

Privacy and Data Collection

It’s important to always be aware of what kind of data you are offering up to a service. And when you’re providing such extensive personal data as a multi-thousand item library, you should definitely consider who will have access to what information.

On privacy, once again, LibraryThing wins hands down. First of all, it actually has a privacy policy. Not only this, but it’s privacy policy seems very reasonable and honestly concerned with your privacy. With LibraryThing’s ability to keep your entire library private and profile private, you’ve got good reason for confidence concerning your data.

Librarious, unfortunately, doesn’t appear to provide any kind of privacy policy. Nor can you make your library private. So, no benefits there. It’s not that I believe their untrustworthy – I seriously doubt that they’ll be selling library lists to the government, for example. However, it’s very comforting to have everything written out and explicit.

Neither service, however, actually requires any personally identifying data at all in order to use the service. You only need to provide a username and password to use both services. So it does appear, despite the lack of an explicity privacy policy for Librarious, that you could sit reasonably secure if you’re bothered.

Web Accessibility and Standards

This review has gotten a lot longer than I originally intended – so I’m going to let this pass with a cursory glance. Suffice it to say that neither site has done anything of significance to consider accessibility, and neither site successfully validates. In fact, both sites failed validation quite badly.

I wouldn’t see that either site is a nightmare for accessibility, when it comes to basic navigation, but they are both AJAX-ian services – and it is inevitable that a significant degree of functionality is lost without the use of Javascript. However, it must be said that LibraryThing does maintain a significant level of functionality even without JavaScript, because it is not, infact, an AJAX service. It has made use of iFrames and other tricks which look very similar. Although this technology is less "Web 2.0", it behaves much more successfully when Javascript is not available.

To sum up:

Both of these projects are the results of very dedicated work from individual programmers. LibraryThing was developed by Tim Spalding, a web developer and publisher based in Portland, Maine. Librarious is the project of one person who appears to go to a great deal of effort not to provide his name anywhere. In my hour and a half writing this and half an hour explicitly searching for it, I failed to find a name. Regardless, Librarious is certainly the more recent project – still in Alpha, the project was begun, apparently, around January of 2006. LibraryThing dates at least back to August of 2005, which is the earliest entry of it’s blog. In addition, LibraryThing requires a $25 lifetime subscription or a $10/year fee to maintain a library greater than 200 books. This gives it the advantage of an income.

At any rate, I have to favor LibraryThing as my online library of choice, given everything I’ve looked at above. Although neither project is perfect, LibraryThing has fewer flaws – and a lot more project transparency.

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2 Comments to “Social Libraries”

  1. How social libraries can be useful in education or teaching? Not sure, exactly, to be entirely honest. I wouldn’t say that there’s an “advantage” to social libraries in any particular way. They are able to do things in terms of managing your book collection and helping you identify or find books you are less familiar with fairly well, but this is all a fairly personal use.

    In terms of using them for research? Well, you can find out a lot about the most commonly owned books, I guess…

  2. Nice blog, I am just getting started in the web 2.0 social library world…Can you tell me what is the biggest advantage and any examples you might have, on how this might be useful in education or teaching?