Articles » Print

March 14, 2007

Shelf Life column

Post image for

As long as there have been books, there have been people eager to judge them–and their respective owners–by their covers. As Rob Gordon, the vinyl addict of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, enthused, we used to like people for what they’re like–now it’s about what they like.

Bibliophile Tim Spalding savors a time when nosing through a fellow grad student’s bookshelf wasn’t just egghead sport: it was the shortcut to sizing up possible affinities, not to mention a window onto that person, and how they saw themselves. “Today,” he concedes, “that just looks quaint.”

In recent years the profusion of social networking sites online has dragged Spalding’s bookworm parlor game kicking and screaming into the wired world, where Amazon Wishlists, Netflix Queues and MySpace playlists trumpet everyone’s media libraries–and their artistic tastes, discerning or otherwise. In August 2005, when Spalding quietly launched as a pet project for cataloguing his own library, he didn’t realize he was giving book lovers a new way to connect. Or to strut their collections, like a doctor’s office approvingly festooned with mounted degrees.

“For many people, their personal libraries are an important indicator of who they are. Whereas the first social networking sites all presupposed connections between friends, we did away with the concept altogether; your connection here is through books themselves.”

The premise of is that in building your virtual library, you’ll be inexplicably drawn to the far reaches of others’ stacks. Users enter the ISBNs or titles of their books and a virtual shelf is erected, featuring the edition-appropriate cover and all. They can then tag books or use the existing information slurped from Library of Congress metadata. A simple field indicates how many and which of your books are shared with the wider LibraryThing community, and with whom. Groups and forums exist to enable users to strike up dialogue and congregate.’s users run far afield of librarians and academics, and the frequent reviews of it as a literary MySpace have doubtless helped spread the word. From the Cincinnati College of Morticians to rare collectors, a wide community of book fiends is represented. Spalding recalls a few New Orleans area users logging on, post-Katrina, and trying to virtually recreate the physical libraries they lost. Ultimately,’s about our own compulsion to collect and our intimate relationship with books.

“There is a certain measure of exhibitionism and voyeurism going on in LibraryThing,” Spalding allows, although it’s a far cry from the shrill, pouting kid-scapes of MySpace or Friendster. “We don’t have that meat market thing happening.”

Maybe not, but some still find the idea declasse. George Murray, co-founder of the popular Bookninja literary blog, sees in “the digital equivalent of nice shelving or display cases.” Murray believes half the pleasure of searching out a book in his own cluttered stacks is the process of unearthing foregotten volumes and their associated memories, but acknowledges that the site is probably better suited to “the Moleskine and fountain pen set.” He’s reminded of a childhood analogy: “Like those little suitcases we used to get as kids that lined our Hotwheels and Matchbox cars up in orderly rows. Any kid could have a lot of cars, but the kid with his cars organized was a connisseur.”

While old-fashioned books show few signs of imminent demise, are virtual libraries and the increased use of metadata to parse our possessions–and in voyeurs’ eyes, our selves–taking us further from our books, or reacquainting us with them in new ways? Even if we’re not hurtling fast towards some Platonic ideal of the book, it looks like our bookshelves are already well on their way.

Leave a Comment

Additional comments powered by BackType