I first mentioned my two book-cataloging affiliations in the “Against Friendship” social networking post:
From there, I also got into LibraryThing, which sadly seems to be superior but is not getting the new membership gestalt goodreads is.
I thought it was time to revisit the topic and really dig into the pros and cons of the two sites. Now, I do realize there are other book-cataloging websites – many. But it’s ridiculous enough to use two, so I haven’t tried any others.
The first thing to address is, why use a book cataloging website at all? Since this discussion is predicated on my use patterns and preferences, it’s only fair to set them out. Everyone’s intentions vary, but for me the benefits have been:
- It reminds me to go read instead of messing with the internet.
- It allows me to access my friends’ opinions (or at least star-ratings) on books when I need them – when I’m trying to buy Christmas gifts at 2 am, for example.
- It’s helped me develop a practice of summarizing my thoughts on each book I read, which made annotating my grad school reading easy and has, I feel, made my opinions on books sharper and better expressed.
- It provides a central place to save all my well-intentioned ‘to-read’ books.
- It captures data on my books – to kibbitz over with my Mom at her yearly-book-tabulation time, to keep track of books borrowed or lent, et cetera.
Goodreads was designed as a social networking site for book-cataloging. Its home page is familiar to users of networks like Facebook – a log of the recent books added, reviews posted, “friendships” established by your friends on the site.
LibraryThing was designed by librarians. It’s centered around the collection of book data, and social networking has only gradually colonized it – as noted in “Against Friendship”, it originally had only ‘Interesting Libraries’ and ‘Private watchlist’ and now has ‘Friends’ as well. Its customizable home page, recently revamped, gives pride of place to a search-box that searches your own library of books. By default, the next item down is your recently added books.
That gives you the basic difference between the sites in a nutshell: GR is centered on the social aspects, LT is centered on your books. Still, it’s more than possible to use them in a very similar way. If I had to choose a word to sum up each, I’d call Goodreads “simple” and LibraryThing “robust.” Goodreads’ interface is clean, appealing and fairly self-explanatory, and the conceits of social networking have been widely disseminated, so the bar to new user entry is low. LibraryThing can be more intimidating, its wealth of information necessitating and populating many fields all over the screen.
That data, though, is fabulous. Unlike Goodreads, which is committed to a categorization system called ‘shelves’, LibraryThing uses tagging. This encourages the user to find her own ways to use the system – combining fairly utilitarian and obvious tags like “own, read, fiction, novel” with the personal and highly useful “lent to Grandma” (and subsequent “read by Grandma” – my Grandma’s local library closed, you see) or “Box 25.” In addition, the basic ‘library card’ information for your book on LT is well-designed. If your book has an author, a translator, an editor and an illustrator, you can enter all their names and label the rôle of each accordingly[*]. You can, if you like, enter the date you bought or checked out the book and the day you started reading it, the date you finished. Goodreads has, by contrast, only “date read,” recently expanded from month and year to day, month, year. On Goodreads, book cover is linked to ISBN, an often inaccurate shortcut, whereas on LibraryThing you can choose from the covers uploaded by other users or a bunch of pretty blank covers as well as the ISBN-linked Amazon images. LibraryThing has a great book-adding interface that allows you to type the tags once for one group of book-adds and integrates a barcode scanner seamlessly. They have a versatile batch-edit mode for changes, and you can search hundreds of libraries worldwide as well as Amazon, whereas Goodreads only searches the various Amazon sites. If I’m going to spend time entering data on my books, I prefer to have complete and accurate information, so LibraryThing wins by a mile on that front.
Goodreads is free and runs on ad revenue, whereas LibraryThing is ad-free and free up to 200 books, after which you are asked to pay $10/year or $25 for a lifetime membership.
Probably as a consequence of the differences outlined above, LibraryThing has 473,080 users while Goodreads claims over 1,000,000. This despite LibraryThing being founded August, 2005 and Goodreads December, 2006. For the social aspects (accessing my friends’ opinions when I need them) the population difference makes Goodreads the victor – vast mobs of my acquaintances signed up for Goodreads (many of them, strangers to each other, at exactly the same time, in fact.) The social exchange Goodreads emphasizes is that of opinions, and therefore there are a lot more reviews on Goodreads in general, even if there aren’t any from your friends on a particular book. There’s also a nice feature (I was among the users petitioning for its addition) where you can mark which friend recommended a book to you. LibraryThing, being a little more focused on the collection and cataloging of books, generally has fewer reviews (in all fairness, while they have fewer ratings, they display a nice bar graph of them, which is helpful.) I hereby back up my anecdotal ‘feeling’ with data – I chose the first book my eyes fell on (The Blind Assassin) and found that on LibraryThing 5350 people have entered the book in their ‘library’, 1328 of whom have given it a star rating, and 79 of whom have entered a review. On Goodreads, it’s harder to determine exact numbers but I believe 9173 people have entered it, 7272 have given a star rating, and about 700 have entered at least a one-word review.
Which brings us to another, more delicate topic. I may sound elitist here, but I’m not running for office, so who cares? Probably as a consequence of the differences outlined above, LibraryThing’s smaller population is more serious about books. You see fewer, if any, really stupid or careless reviews, and the discussion groups (which I don’t really do much with on either site) seem to have lively, literate discussion.
So, returning to the reasons I use these sites, we see that both are equally good at reminding me to go read, at developing my reviewing skills, and keeping track of my books to read. Goodreads is better for showing me my friends’ opinions on books, and LibraryThing is lightyears better for capturing data on my library. Goodreads has been good about adding features, which has improved the site experience for me and captured more information, but they’re still far behind LT, and I really wonder if they should try to catch up. There are some limits they would have trouble shedding – they are really wed to the ‘shelf’ model for example, too wedded I think to swap it for tags, and adding tags on top of shelves would be klugey and make it more confusing for new users. If they try to make their site robust, they will sacrifice the simplicity and accessibility that have made them successful.
For me, LibraryThing is the clear winner. It’s versatile, and allows me to capture all the data I might ever want about my book collection and reading, the first time it comes up. It is fun to explore other people’s book collections, see library similarities and see the trends and recommendations that so much data produce. (Thanks for getting me started on it, Miss Thursday!) I keep up on Goodreads though, because the social aspect is fun, and I like to see what all my friends and classmates are reading. So I am doomed to keep both accounts, but I hope this blogget helps someone decide which one fits their book-cataloging needs.
Update, 9/7/2008: As I recently discovered while browsing a used bookstore in Mountain View, LibraryThing is quicker and easier to use on the iPhone, which surprised me.
*Updates, 2/16/2009: Goodreads has added multi-author and customizable role support to their book data, although it is not as integrated and easy as LibraryThing’s. They have added an experimental mobile version of the site, which loads more quickly. Current numbers of users at each site can be viewed by clicking through the links in the relevant paragraph above. On a personal note, Goodreads has risen in my esteem somewhat: they are very responsive to user input and requests, which can lead to quick improvement. I still use both, and plan to continue doing so.