If it once took a special type of person to be a library cataloguer — one comfortable in back offices & around heavy rule books, methodical, perhaps quiet — now everyone wants to get in on the action. The rise of self-cataloguing has been one of the more inexorable effects of digital media. The discovery within cataloguing of social connections now seems to be another.

Of course long before all this web stuff we were being trained to collect content in various forms, and value assemblages as inherent identifyers of taste. Siva Vaidhyanathan’s recent presentation at Columbia’s Correcting Course forum carries this age-old ritual into my lifetime; he talks about a mass paperback industry that marketed (unread? unreadable?) books as class identification… VHRs marooned on shelves, monuments of their owner’s cinematic pleasures …. the fine art of of mixed tapes, now supplanted of course by playlists….

The fetishistic Mac application Delicious Library wraps a collection database into a pretty package so… so… well, so you can have a virtual representation of all your books — all your video games — all your DVDs, right on the hard drive of your computer. Scan the item’s UPC barcode with a webcam, and presto, metadata from Amazon flies right into your own library database — including cover art. Awesome, right?

Ok it’s actually fairly purposeless. You can assign items ratings, and you can designate their location in actual space, but I doubt many are actually relying on Delicious Library to find stuff. If you lend out an item to a friend, you can track it with DL — but really, if you’re lending out more than you can remember & your friends can’t be trusted to return things, well, maybe a policy change is in order. And DL’s symbiosis with Amazon’s API is worrisome — Amazon-hosted One-Click Shopping recommendations are just a click away.

But describe Delicious Library to someone, and it’s possible that they’ll turn cataloguer right in front of your eyes: huh, my things in a database….

Delicious Library

^ Finding Nemo and other treasures: virtual shelving in Delicious Library

LibraryThing — straight outta Portland Maine, btw — is a web app significantly tastier than its desktop cousin because it networks people’s collections. LibraryThing still invites you to play with representations of your books on virtual shelves for yourself — but now you’re doing your assembling among & amid a myriad of intersecting libraries. Now metadata is up for grabs, unregulated by Amazon or any other detached entity: social tagging comes to the fore. You can hear the 2.0 pitch — it’s for books! — and lo, tagging abounds.

But just around books — LibraryThing valiantly resists the siren call of other media on favor of bibliomania. It links its bibliographic records to OCLC’s Find a Library as well as Amazon and library OPACs via the good old Z39.50 client server protocol, and hosts discussion of titles among those who share it in their libraries.

In short, if you love books, LibraryThing seems an unrigged communal playpen, as well as a self-inventory tool. It provides branching recommendations based on mutual ownership, not Amazonian purchases. It presents clouds of a book’s common tags unseeded by commerce. It offers RSS subscriptions for any given tag, so you can track books as collections, not products, come in.

LibraryThing Screenshot

^Adding to my library in LibraryThing: I enter in a title, and LT checks it against a bibliographic database of my choosing. And I choose LC! No snappy webcam scan, alas, though barcodes are acceptable identifiers.

LibraryThing screenshot

^Now that I’ve added my book to LibraryThing, I can see how others have tagged and rated it. Looks like some people don’t care for literary theory, and yet they own the book. Go figure. This title hasn’t been reviewed yet in LibraryThing, but many have.

LibraryThing screenshot

^My so-far small library (the books on my desk right now).

Most intriguing of all, LibraryThing has recently added Library of Congress subjects into the mix. The premise is that user-created tags can coexist with library-tended subject headings, that folksonomy can play off of controlled hierarchy. At times, tags and subject headers coincide. In other instances, they hardly ever do. LibraryThing has only just embarked on this odd tango, and who knows where it will lead — but at the very least it should generate some intriguing friction.

LibraryThing screenshot

^Exploring the tag “literary theory” on LibraryThing. I see heavy users of this tag, works most often tagged by the term, and the latest books into the system so tagged (and I can subscribe to the tag via RSS). I also see related LC Subject Headings, in case I feel like faceted browsing.

Already user-tags are sitting up a little straighter and paying more attention to themselves. Discussion on LibraryThing’s metablog, Thingology, has been spurred by subject headings to characterize — dare I say categorize — tags. Discussants finds tags to fall into recognizable camps: personal location notes (“living room,” “office”), personal use tags (“read,” “damaged,” “study”), broadcast opinion tags (“excellent,” “lame” ), and personal subject tags (anything in the uncontrolled descriptive universe). The half-hazard felicities of user-tag surfing is getting measured right up against the precision of subject headings.

All this driven by Tim Spalding, a web developer, not a librarian. Or is he? Should we settle for patron?

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