Virtual bookshelves

card index

How much the world changes in a lifetime! Hands up if you can remember having to physically find a public telephone box to call from (when it worked) if you needed to tell someone you were running late? Or having to wait a few days for your film to be developed and printed by a specialist shop to see if those snaps you took were works of art or a waste of time? Or going into a library and searching through yellowing index cards in catalogue cabinets to see if they housed the book you were looking for?

Sometime in the last century I morphed from a bona fide student to a branch library assistant and I retain deeply imprinted memories of the rods you had to pull out and re-insert to add or change a card, the irritation at misplaced or missing cards, and delight at pristine new cards offset by the mere sensation of ancient examples, worn and greasy or defaced and illegible from equally ancient users. And the awful awkwardness of reading them when the drawer was crammed too full with the damn cards. For those times the theory was good but the practice was rarely a pleasure.

In olden days, when I had fewer books on my shelves I toyed with having a catalogue made up of those plastic containers, each the narrow width of a shoe box, stuffed with record cards (“6×4 inches Ruled Assorted”). But what was the point? I knew which of my books could be found on which of my shelves; I could ascertain from a tell-tale gap when a particular book was being ‘borrowed’, and there was an ordered randomness in my placement of volumes on shelves. The plastic boxes I bought now just contain a collection of ancient and modern postcards that once meant something to me (historic, artistic, personal) but which I rarely look at now — except if I’m looking for a potential bookmark.

No doubt most local branch libraries have now come up to date with digitised catalogues, and naturally — in the last decade — so can we. The joy now is that you can combine cataloguing and cross-referencing with all the advantages of social media. Two of the most used of these applications are Goodreads and LibraryThing. With a claimed 20 million users Goodreads is easily the market leader. Acquired recently by Amazon and accessible from your Facebook platform it has a very commercial approach — it includes advertising and there is every encouragement to buy — but is also free to use. On the other hand LibraryThing, with only 1.8 million users at the last count, is definitely an also-ran but deserves consideration. It doesn’t include advertising but the drawback is that only the first 200 books of your catalogue are free — thereafter one option is a one-off payment of a not very substantial sum, which gives you lifetime use and unlimited listing. It’s currently still owned by its founder, Tim Spalding, who remains hands-on and enthusiastic about his baby.

Now, I have to admit that, until I started blogging, I went to Goodreads and LibraryThing as much for their social media side as for their cataloguing properties. Now I rarely do as WordPress blogging more than adequately provides that aspect. But it’s horses for courses. What I currently do is review and catalogue on both these sites, linking to this calmgrove blog, which thus provide extra platforms for my ahem well-thought-out reviews. But if you want loads of chatty interaction on a whole range of subjects (not just books) Goodreads may be for you; LibraryThing presents a more erudite façade but is no less friendly. Ease of use? Like all platforms it’s a question of whether you prefer navigating round one or the other, not to mention taste — for me LibraryThing tended to be my first port of call.

So, cataloguing. You will of course want to know if I’ve done that for all those hundreds of books I chunter on about. Erm, well, I’ve got to 313 on Goodreads and 360 on LibraryThing. Some way to go to fill up my virtual bookshelves, then …


4 thoughts on “Virtual bookshelves

  1. I worked in my college library, where I typed up those cards (for a recently acquired jazz collection, all on 78 rpm discs). The cards came in a strip, making it easier to type to the very bottom when necessary. What I most needed was a portable record player set up next to the typewriter, so I could listen to some of that music.
    As for creating a personal catalog, whether digital or analog, I gave up on both GoodReads and LibraryThing, mostly because when I finish a book, I just want to dive into the next one.

    1. Lucky you to have a strip to type onto! Just individual ones when I had to do it, with many wasted. At least new acquisitions in the early 70s often came with a pre-printed card, though not always. Hated it when, with older cards, somebody’d typed on both sides — impossible to read in the drawer!

      As for GR and LT I just copy and paste my WP reviews.

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