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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Library as Autobiography

A bookshop functions not just as a controlled environment from which books may be sold. Some shops also offer events with local authors, or host book clubs or writing groups. In some one may find a place to snack, or sip coffee, while relaxing with a good book. In this way and others bookshops serve as meeting places, and by their very nature inspire discussion of all things. Because a bookshop is also a storehouse of ideas old and new, a place to think and research and explore possibilities.

So in thought we sat, browsing an issue of the defunct Biblio magazine, where we encountered a quote from Richard Le Gallienne: "The catalogue of a man's library is a form of autobiography." This brought to mind a recent post from Litlove about the way a blog and the words a writer uses reveals much of her personality, in spite of a refrain from writing anything personal. This brought to mind a post from Doppelganger about books a man gave her that made her swear never to go on another date with him ever again. At the intersection of these three items sprouted the idea of LibraryThing as dating service.

Long ago, when the computer was still just a grain of sand lying oceans away from the rest of the world, our grandfather had a small notebook in which he carefully recorded details about every book he owned: bibliographic information, when he purchased it, how much it cost, when he read it, where it could be found on the shelf. Though his notebook served as a catalogue of his collection, it also formed his literary autobiography and a cultural history from his lifetime. How we wish we had that notebook today; how we wish we had kept track of our own book acquisitions in the same manner.

LibraryThing takes the idea of our grandfather's notebook online, as a digital database for individual users. The data from each book must still be recorded manually, but the digital nature allows the information to be instantly manipulated in ways that would have taken countless hours with the notebook. A keystroke can now display a book collection from every conceivable angle. We own seventeen copies of Parnassus on Wheels. Why do we own so many titles by Scott Fitzgerald and have read only one, five times? Here is our French literature period. With what else were we occupied the year we read so few books? We must be on the lookout to upgrade our Robert Anton Wilson titles from paperback to hardback. Why do we own more non-fiction than fiction books, but have read more fiction than non-fiction?

The true power in LibraryThing is the connection with others. Now we can see who else owns Endurance, and what else they have beside it on their shelf--a virtual tour of the personal collection of any other user. This insight, then, gives us a sort of autobiography of each person. We can take heart in the fact that more people own The Count of Monte Cristo than do The Da Vinci Code. We can cast aspersions on any person who owns The Bridges of Madison County. Someone who owns Jude the Obscure, on the other hand, might be someone we'd like to talk to. To go even further, the woman whose books are a 96% match of our own might be a perfect candidate for our shortlist of backup spouses.

So what autobiographical information might one have gleaned from this? That we are pretentious? That we are foolish? That we are solitary? That tragedy makes us happy? That we are old-fashioned? That we are always planning for the future? That we buy more books than we could ever possibly read? That Doppelganger places on our shortlist?

Last year we won a year's subscription to LibraryThing. We proceeded to enter about seven books to our online catalogue. Maybe we haven't found the time to add any more. Maybe it is too labor-intensive, as the books must be brought to the site of the computer. Probably we haven't identified a function of the database that would truly be useful to us right now. It is a great idea, a wonderful tool, and full of possibilities. Future additions will likely make LibraryThing even more functional. This old-fashioned book-fancier will probably just make the effort from now on to record his new acquisitions in a little lined notebook.


  1. The feeling that bloggers write for themselves means they're being personal, no matter how they try not to be. Even in some blogs where bloggers are paid to blog about a product or some website, you could feel how they really feel about that particular product or website.

    I can read a highly positive article about some product on any blog and can see how rubbish the blogger feels about that product.

    You can't miss it really.

  2. LibraryThing as dating service, I love it! I'd love it even more if I were single :)