A blessed LibraryThing it is …*

26 November 2007

I’ve already talked at length about the constant preoccupation of our profession with image, so rest assured that I’m not going to do it again (at least not in this post). Instead, I’m going to discuss the one love that binds us all together … the one word that gives our profession (and place) its name … the objects with which users will always associate us …


Despite all (misguided) attempts to portray librarians as sexy young things obsessed with the web and social networking (shudder), I think it’s pretty safe to say that most librarians remain lovers of reading. Derek mentioned to me once that a young librarian of his acquaintance isn’t particularly interested in books; that’s the only reason I hesitate to say ‘all’ librarians love reading. To be honest, I can’t understand people who aren’t passionate about books. Taking pleasure in reading is reflective of a thirst for knowledge. My own thirst for knowledge shapes a list of books I want to read in the future that is comprehensive enough to provide fruitful entertainment for my retirement (expected to be a minimum of 40 years away).

For some time now, I’ve pondered the use of LibraryThing for maintaining my reading wishlist, instead of Excel. I see that the 23 Things LibraryThing task requires me to add ‘books I own or books I have read’ to my LibraryThing account, but I’m going to rebel. After all, this program is about making technology work for me, right? My LibraryThing ‘bookshelf’ (I don’t like that metaphor; I already have enough books to fill a whole house so a single bookshelf seems pretty paltry) is populated not with books I have read, but with books I’d like to read, some of which I own, most of which I don’t. I have a list of over 700 books at home but at the moment I’m at work, so these are just a sample. Many of them are recommendations I’ve garnered from my other 23 Things colleagues’ bookshelves, while others come from the plethora of good book review blogs I subscribe to daily.

The best of these book review blogs is definitely Blogging for a Good Book, which contains a daily title recommendation from the Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, United States. They ran a theme on apocalyptic novels last week, but the content varies and even includes some films and audio books. You can subscribe to the blog in a feed reader (as I do), or visit the site directly and use subject tags like graphic novel, magic realism or literary fiction to find a good read. Blogging for a Good Book is a wonderful resource both for blog readers around the world, and the Williamsburg Library as an institution. It provides an inspiring book club-like atmosphere for daily subscribers to encourage reading, discussion and debate, but it also acts as a showcase for the Library’s collection by providing links to each book’s entry in the catalogue.

(‘Books’, from Matt Carman’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence)

I’m quite happy with LibraryThing as a personal tool; it allows me to quickly search for a book and add it to my bookshelf with a single click. It also provides an interesting feature called ‘tagmashing’, which allows me to conduct a search on more than one tag term and combine it with another similar or even completely different term(s), which makes for some interesting results. An example from iLibrarian shows what happens when you mash fiction, horror and vampires and exclude books by Anne Rice. Here’s another one I’ve garnered from things sitting on my desk: red + time travel (my red mouse mat and the book I’m reading, in case you wondered if there’s a portal to other worlds right here …).

There are certainly downsides to LibraryThing, like the 200 book limit on a free account, which will prove to be a real problem for me down the track as I start to upload my whole wishlist. However, I think it’s an improvement on my previous not-particularly-friendly Excel spreadsheet system. It’s worth mentioning that I also trialled the Facebook application iRead for this purpose, but while I like that it places a picture of books I’m reading in my Facebook profile, because of privacy restrictions I can’t share my collection with people I haven’t added as friends. I suppose I should point out that I’m happy to discuss books with complete strangers, but not my personal life (excepting obviously that post about Sinead O’Connor).

I’m not sure about the use of LibraryThing as a substitute for an OPAC (online library catalogue), but as you can see, Los Gatos Public Library is putting LibraryThing for Libraries to good use, providing additional functions such as tagging and book recommendations within a traditional catalogue entry structure. Many librarians don’t like tagging (or other user-generated content, for that matter); they’re worried about a deterioration in the quality of keywords, and about users introducing spelling errors, swearing and vandalism to the taxonomy. These are valid concerns, but not reason enough to abandon the idea of user tagging altogether. Library of Congress subject headings, a controlled vocabulary that looks like this: Commerce — Australia — Social aspects — 1900-1945, are frequently not particularly self explanatory. At a time when users are becoming increasingly proficient at using keywords to expand or narrow their Google searches, we should be making an effort to adapt our tools to match new trends in information-seeking behaviour.

Other good book review blogs:

  • Paper Cuts
  • * ‘A blessed thing it is for any man or woman to have a friend, one human soul whom we can trust utterly, who knows the best and worst of us, and who loves us in spite of all our faults.’ – Charles Kingsley
    Blogger’s note: only books and pets will ever fit this category. Kingsley’s a dreamer.


    What’s wrong with being a librarian?

    14 November 2007

    I’ve never come across a profession so completely fixated on its own image as that of librarianship. Even now, for me choosing the word ‘librarianship’ is contentious and marked with a delicious hint of danger; I’m meant to call it ‘information services’ or ‘information management’ or ‘online content provision’ or something equally wanky. Yet I can’t get the image out of my head, from the first episode of the ABC‘s new comedy series The Librarians, of the fresh new paint on the window of the building, ‘Middleton Interactive Learning Centre’, and bluetacked underneath, a handwritten sign with a single, instantly-recognisable word … library.

    Of course, for anyone who’s ever visited Swinburne Library at Hawthorn, the facade of the Middleton building may have given you another (more institutionalised) chuckle …

    (‘Library of Swinburne University’, from WilLiao’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a restricted Creative Commons License)

    Accountants, historically plagued by the tag of ‘boring servant to the bourgeoisie’, are likely to be just as worried about their image in the media and in the hearts and minds of the people as librarians. But at least they’ve done something about it; those CPA adventurer ads are fantastic! What have librarians done about our situation? Prior to the series screening, there was mass panic about the effect The Librarians might have on our reputation, so much so that our professional association started a blog about the possible fallout. For God’s sake; the series is not even really about libraries; the library is just a convenient setting for a more extensive critique of the public service and the pervasive prejudice of middle Australia.

    Why were we worried? Is it because we librarians are dogged by the unfortunate stereotype of the unfashionably dressed, bespectacled, book-reading middle-aged female pedant with a penchant for telling people to be quiet? This is slightly better than another emerging film-derived stereotype … that of the dominatrix librarian (I strongly advise against running a Google search on that one …).

    The Librarians is just comedy. This has been my stance from the beginning. Of course, as anyone who has been watching the series will know, the only downside to my argument is that it’s not particularly funny comedy. Not like the wonderful British comedy The IT Crowd, aimed at our unfortunate colleagues in the IT department …

    Has The Librarians adversely impacted the image of librarians in popular culture? So far, I would say not. Frances O’Brien, head librarian, is a petty, vindictive, hysterical, small-minded, hypocritical witch, but I think most of the audience will have met people like her before (particularly if they’ve worked in the public service). I don’t think the 1 million plus people who watched the first episode of the series will immediately associate her behaviour with that of librarians. The notion that people are so easily manipulated that a single TV series can change the way they view libraries is typical of the academic superiority many people resent in librarians.

    Ultimately, library patrons are going to take us as they find us. That means that if we want it so badly, it’s our responsibility to change how we’re viewed, not the ABC’s.