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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Through LibraryThing.com, you can catalog and tag your personal library - and meet people with similar tastes.
By COLETTE BANCROFT
Published January 21, 2007
At LibraryThing.com, old school met new media, fell in love and birthed a book geek's dream come true.
When Tim Spalding created the Web site, he says, he saw it as simply a place to catalog books.
The site allows users to enter the title, author or ISBN number of a book they own. The site retrieves information about the specific edition of the book, often complete with an image of the cover. Users can display their libraries as a list or as a virtual shelf with an array of covers.
"I was doing a bunch of Web development, little ideas. I figured maybe two or three people a day would join it, mostly my academic friends," says Spalding, a Web publisher and former graduate student in ancient history, Greek and Latin.
A year and a half later, LibraryThing has more than 130,000 registered users who have cataloged more than 9-million books. If LibraryThing were a bricks-and-mortar-and-paper library, that collection would be the ninth largest in the United States.
But, Spalding says, the most surprising part of the LibraryThing experience has been its social aspect.
"I just figured people would use it as a way to organize their books, but the first thing they did was start sending each other their URLs, saying, 'Hey, look at my library!' "
Instead of just being a virtual card catalog, the site has blossomed into a gathering place for "people who want to be in the company of people who love books," Spalding says.
Cataloging up to 200 books is free; for bigger collections, users pay $10 a year or $25 for lifetime memberships. "Five-sixths of the paying members are lifetime memberships," Spalding says. Some of them have cataloged more than 5,000 books.
But the book catalog is just the start. Once your library is entered, LibraryThing tells you about other users who share your taste in literature and lets you contact them.
LibraryThing has also become a giant virtual book club. Users have posted 110,000 reviews. Dozens of groups gather online to chat about everything from James Joyce to manga. Some people don't even catalog their libraries, Spalding says. "They just join the groups."
The site also allows users to create tags for their books. The most popular are obvious, like "fiction" or "American history" and a lot of books are tagged "unread".
But users can also create tags that identify much more specialized categories than, say, the Library of Congress uses.
"If you're a romance reader, it's not just this big undifferentiated blob, like it is for me," Spalding says, but a genre that contains many distinctive subcategories.
"There's an incredible number of books tagged 'paranormal romance,' " Spalding says. "Basically, that means 'The vampire falls in love with you.' "
To fans, that's important. "The tags tell you what real people think this is."
Though it began as a "little idea," LibraryThing has become a full-time job for Spalding, 35. He lives with his wife, novelist Lisa Carey (Every Visible Thing), and their young son in Portland, Maine, where LibraryThing has three employees. One more works in Boston.
Although LibraryThing links users to book sales and swap sites, it doesn't sell books. It does sell a few accessories.
For users who get tired of typing in their book titles, there's CueCat, a cat-shaped barcode scanner that zaps information from book covers into LibraryThing. Invented for a failed advertising model back in the first dot-com boom, millions of the devices languished in warehouses until Spalding found them and started selling them to his members. "That's been a great success for us.
"We're part of what's called Web 2.0, and it's nice that the second wave can use the detritus from the first."
Members can join LibraryThing with just a user name and password. Spalding says ensuring their privacy is important: "Many people are nervous about the implications of the government knowing what they're reading, or some future employer."
But that doesn't stop them from what Spalding calls a passionate level of involvement. "I outsourced a lot of the development to users, asked them, 'What would you like to do?' "
Among other things, members have translated the site into a dozen languages. Spalding sees it eventually expanding to allow catalogs of other media.
"But that's not our top priority. The bookish feel of the site is great, and I want to keep that as long as possible.
"There's a lot of hidden desire to talk about books."
- The Unsuggester: Type in the title of a book you like, and it gives you the titles of books you won't like. For example, if you love Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, you'll hate Sophie Kinsella's Confessions of a Shopaholic. (There's a Suggester, too.)
- The "Authors Who LibraryThing" list includes sex expert Susie Bright.
- LibraryThing groups include Librarians Who LibraryThing (the largest group at 1,484 members), Awful Lit and I Survived the Great Vowel Shift.
- Among the top 25 books with the highest ratings by members are The Book of Common Prayer, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes and Neil Gaiman's The Absolute Sandman Vol. 1.
- The top six books with the greatest number of registered copies are all by J.K. Rowling, with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince leading at 10,438. Rounding out the top 10: The Da Vinci Code, 1984, The Hobbit and The Catcher in the Rye.