LibraryThing Data Dealing & Cool Collections

Eoin Purcell

Don’t you love it when something makes suddenly makes sense?
When I first heard about LibraryThing, I loved it but I just didn’t understand it. I paid my $25.00 for lifetime membership and I started adding my books and building up my still incomplete library. I understand it now and there is a little bit of me that feels ever so slightly cheated.

I use the service to record not just the books I have bought and read, but also the books I have bought and still need to read, the books I bought, read and sold and the books that I loaned out to others in the vain hope of return. The biggest problem I have had to date with it is that I have sold so many books and used the cash to buy new ones that I often forget which versions of books I have read. Not really a big issue I hear you say. And it is not especially when LibrayThing has such an active community of users keen to upload covers and bibliographic data for their versions so I am almost guaranteed to find the correct version with a bit of digging and memory sifting. But it seems that the very feature I value as a community member has a value in the commercial world that I had not seen, hence my slight disappointment.

Positive press
My disillusionment came with the New York Times the other day, which carried a really nice piece on LibraryThing the other day. The important element is here:

TAGGING is also becoming important to the ways that Internet services raise money, said David L. Sifry, founder and chief executive of Technorati, a company in San Francisco that tracks the tags people use to mark items on the Internet — including those at photo- and video-sharing sites.

Mr. Sifry said advertisers of a product like automobiles will pay a premium of $50 to $150 above the base rate to have their names on a page that many readers have tagged with words related to “car.”

Mr. Spalding, too, plans to take advantage of the targeted-audience information created by tagging to generate revenue.

For example, he is in the process of selling some of his recommendations data, which is based in part on tagging statistics, to other sites that sell books and book information.

Interesting I think you will agree!

There is more & its explicit!
Personanondata also pointed to the value inherent in such a system and I find myself loathe to disagree. Indeed I don’t. I can see no reason why these social networks cannot provide usable and useful data for commercial companies to take advantage of. It os certainly more efficient and effective to use such a system rather than to continue to pay out for workers as they currently do. Pesonanondata has a nice graph on this:

At Bowker one of our most important and costly editorial tasks was to assign subject classification to titles so that they could be found either in our own products or in the products of our customers. With well over 200,000 titles per year this is an expensive excercise and while it can be automated (and was) the process suffers from obvious limitations. Firstly, the subject classification methodology is quite rigid and is not always intuitive. Secondly, subjects change over time and books previously categorized could benefit from additional or changed subjects. Thirdly, the application of subjects is subjective and can pose a limitation on the subjects applied to the title. A subject expert wants to be as accurate as possible in applying the subject classification for relevancy and integrity. In BooksinPrint, we had an average of slightly more than two subjects per title over approximately five million records. Many had more and a few had more than 15 but the average was two. Many users of Librarything, myself included, have placed more than two tags against most titles.

But as I commented on Personanondata today:

It is a very strange thing to only realise the significance of something you have been involved with for a little while. The combination of your post and the NYT piece have really shaken my perception of what LibraryThing is or, at least, what it could be. Between the two pieces I see a thorny question:

If my tagging provides value collectively then do I not have a right to share, collectively as it may be, in that value?

As it stands if LibraryThing is in fact selling their tagging data they are selling data provided by paying customers. In an exact reversal of the previous set up the enthusiasm of thousands of book owners/readers is being used for commercial gain AT THEIR EXPENSE IN MONEY & TIME.

Such a situation is unlikely to continue unchallenged. At the very least the community providing the data will look for some return, even if that is only in features or services rather than cash incentives.

I can foresee a community as active as LibraryThing’s having trouble settling down to be the community providers unpaid labour.

In fairness to LibraryThing it is not as if they did not warn me when I signed up:

No sale of personal information

LibraryThing will not sell any personally-identifiable information to any third party. This would be evil, and we are not evil. We reserve the right to sell or give away anonymous or aggregate information. We are particularly interested in what the Library Science people discover when comparing the formal cataloging and the user-tagging data. If you are an enterprising grad student, give us a ring!

*[My Emphasis]

Don’t get me wrong
I still love the service. I will continue to use it and happily so. I will recommend any and all book lovers to use it too and I will slowly but surely continue to tag my books with tags that mean a lot to me and enable me to find and classify my titles. But my goodwill towards LibraryThing is dented.

On the other hand their new feature linking recommendation to AbeBooks is actually slick as hell and a feature I am sure to make use of so maybe I should just stop complaining!

Who will be first to say I told you so?