Books get social

“You show me yours, and I’ll show you mine”. That just about sums up the whole web 2.0 thing. Sharing what you like, and hoping to discover something you didn’t know before.
I think I first saw the principle applied in Amazon. You know the sort of thing “People who bought X and Y also bought Z”. It was an obvious retailer’s trick but honed to perfection by Amazon. Then suddenly that idea was everywhere – for music with iTunes, for web bookmarks with delicious, scholarly web content with connotea, and even private book collections could get in on the act with LibraryThing . I loved LibraryThing when I first read about it mainly because of the name. It is so wonderfully unspecific but somehow apt. It allows you to create a personal catalogue of your book collection with minimal effort, by tapping into the bibliographic riches of library catalogues online.
When I first looked at LibraryThing a couple of years back I observed that there few science book collections in it, but that has definitely changed. Two years on there are also some other players in this book-sharing arena: Anobii , Book Rabbit , GoodReads and Shelfari .
I asked myself, which of them has a good network of scientific users? So I have taken a closer look at all these sites. Not a very close look mind you, but you can find a summary of LibraryThing, GoodReads and Shelfari
elsewhere. I noted recently that Tim O’Reilly recommends Goodreads .
I had an idea for a little experiment to test out a) the coverage of some biomedical topics in these catalogue sites and b) the numbers of users who have catalogued some key biomedical textbooks on these sites. This brief foray into experimental librarianship brought home to me that research is not always plain sailing!
The first results – to test the coverage of some biomedical topics – may seem conclusive but are not.

I grew suspicious at the large numbers reported in Shelfari. It wasn’t just that the search for “homeobox” included titles with “hump back whale” in the title, or that the search for “synapse” also brought up “clan apis” and “space sex”. It was also the fact that none of the scientific titles I examined on Shelfari seemed to have any readers on that site. The same seemed to be true at BookRabbit. Finally, I couldn’t help noticing the prominently positioned icons to “Buy this” by each title listing in Shelfari and BookRabbit. Both sites had much more the look of an online book retailer than a site dedicated to sharing and knowledge discovery. In other words, searching on those sites was just searching a bookseller’s catalogue rather than searching for items in people’s collections.
The second batch of results – to test the numbers of users who included specified key textbooks in their collection – also fell at the first hurdle. For a start, two of the sites didn’t seem to have any readers for these titles, or at least I couldn’t see them. The remaining three sites did report some healthy figures but I wasn’t sure they were all measuring the same thing – two showed the number of readers, the third showed the number of reviews.

The text came out a bit small here – the books in question were:
Molecular Cell Biology (Lodish)
Molecular Biology of the Cell (Alberts)
Immunobiology (Janeway)
Principles of Neural Science (Kandel)
My overall conclusions:

  • Both LibraryThing and GoodReads have a reasonable base of users with biomedical science interests
  • Anobii is a little behind, but BookRabbit and Shelfari have very few
  • You need to be very careful searching Shelfari as it broadens the search unhelpfully
  • Proper research takes time
  • Even half-baked research takes time

Interesting to note that Amazon own Shelfari and also have a major (but not majority) share in LibraryThing.
Also interesting – Google have just announced a new set of API tools that enable full-text search and partial browsing of books, embedding onto websites, and integration into social book sites.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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3 Responses to Books get social

  1. Kristi Vogel says:

    I had cynically dismissed LibraryThing as akin to one of those pretentious internet memes in which participants embolden or italicize the listed books that they have read. I’m not sure why such memes annoy me – perhaps because I feel either that 1) people are lying about at least some of the books they claim to have read, or 2) I am not as well-read as I should be, and am therefore an uncultured and unlettered peasant.
    I had also assumed that in LibraryThing, one listed only books owned or downloaded, which would seem to discriminate against those of us who use … errr … libraries. Perhaps that’s not the case, though, and the main criterion for listing a book is that one has actually read it, or at least used it as a reference.

  2. Frank Norman says:

    Kristi – I don’t think there’s any rules about how you use LibraryThing. My interest in it is as a way of sharing a list of recommended medical books, developed by a group of UK medical librarians. I’m sure it could work OK as a way to keep track of books you’ve read (or even planned to read) rather than necessarily owned.
    As for people using it to be annoying, I think that annoying people are always with us and will crop up in any situation.
    I’m interested in the social side of these tools; like Connotea you can perhaps discover other people with similar interests by this means. I seem to recall Matt Brown mentioning something like this.

  3. Kristi Vogel says:

    My interest in it is as a way of sharing a list of recommended medical books, developed by a group of UK medical librarians.
    I could see that being very useful in the context of medical and dental student education. For example, I regularly receive copies of new anatomy, embryology, and neuroscience textbooks, and it would be great to have a format in which to share and discuss student and faculty critiques and suggestions.
    We have a microscale, local version of Connotea associated with a couple of our journal clubs here; I think it works quite well, but on a larger scale might be overwhelming.

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