LibraryThing v. GoodReads: What I Want From a Book Database

My friend Mike and I have been discussing book databases.  We both use online services, but we’ve been thinking about what features would make a perfect book database to carry around on a smartphone or tablet.  I’ve tried several online programs, a few mobile apps, as well as few desktop programs.  Every book database reflects a different idea how to manage books, but none approaches the concept how I expect such a program to work.


A book database is essentially a list making program, but bookworms want different kinds of lists.

  • List of all books owned
  • List of all books we’d like to own
  • List of all books read
  • List of all books owned but unread – our TBR (To Be Read) list
  • Books in series
  • Books by authors
  • Books by genre
  • Books by subjects
  • Books by year published
  • Books by date read
  • Books by price

Because there are so many different book database programs I assume there are millions of bookworms out there with piles of books they want to manage – but manage differently from everyone else.  If listings were the only feature people wanted, then using Word, Excel, or Access would be all we needed.  Or even just Notepad.

The advantage commercial databases have is for creating super powerful lists.  I especially love the various book cover listings.  LibraryThing gives me many ways to look at my book covers, which I find very inspiring.  It often triggers a desire for what I want to read next.


I can even change the size of the covers.


Personally, I want much more than a list, and I assume other bookworms do too.  But what other features are essential?

Social v. Private

The obvious next big difference is whether you want your library public or private.  LibraryThing and GoodReads are designed for social bookworms who want to find out what other people are reading, reviewing, and leaving comments about.  Book Collector, Readerware, iBookshelf, etc. are designed to catalog your collection only.  After playing with all these programs I decided I wanted to go social, although my needs might dictate needing two or more book database systems to do everything I want.  As long as you have a mobile device with a data connection, then online programs will work fine when you’re out at a used bookstore and wanting to know if you already own something.

One of the coolest features of LibraryThing is their Zeitgeist page, which shows how popular books are through various metrics.  Also, for each author, you can see how successful their books are with other readers – for example, here’s three of my favorite writers, Robert A. Heinlein, Jack Kerouac and Philip K. Dick.  This offers far more information than just listing my books.  I can see who else likes my favorite books, and read their reviews.  Checking the same authors on GoodReads shows different, but often correlating information.  See Heinlein, Kerouac and Dick again.  And if you’re a collector, GoodReads offers links to editions, like all these versions of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

LibraryThing also matches my collection with other collectors and lets me know about other bookworms with reading interests like mine.  It’s rather eerie to go through a stranger’s cover display and see so many books I own or have read, or even notice we share the same larger interests in genres and subjects.

Sitting down with either LibraryThing or GoodReads teaches me so much more about my books than just listings them out in programs like Book Collector, Readerware or iBookshelf.  However, LibraryThing and GoodReads aren’t the obvious winners.  Especially if you have a large collection of books, magazines, comics, videos, etc.  Then what you want is a library database that can catalog your entire collection.

Library Catalogs

All the programs I’ve found so far are built around books and using ISBN as a quick entry tool.  Real libraries, like public and university libraries, use card catalog software that can track any kind of media you want in your library (books, music, video), including special collection items like photographs, letters, paintings, tape recordings, etc.  Unfortunately real library software, like Small Library Organizer, also includes check out systems, which are not needed for private collectors.  There are even several open source library cataloging systems, that use standard library database formats like the MARC record for defining any media in a library collection.

The online programs LibraryThing and GoodReads can catalog huge collections, just look at the 5000 Largest Personal Libraries at LibraryThing.  I would imagine LibraryThing would be cumbersome to use for thousands of books.  If you have thousands of books I’d think you’d want a desktop program like Readerware or Book Collector – but those programs require separate programs to handle video and music.  You have to live with that, or consider going to a real library card catalog system.

What I Really Want

I don’t want to just manage my personal library as a list of books.  I want to mentally grok my library.  I have about 700 physical books, and another 400-500 audiobooks, and 100+ ebooks.  That’s too many to remember what I own.  That’s too many to remember for thinking about what to read next.  That’s actually too many to even care about.  I’m not a book miser.  I’m a book lover, and having too many children to love means I’m not giving them their proper attention.  I need to put some of my books out for adoption.

I want to book database that helps me remember what I have in my collection, and that means having a great visual cover interface.  Right now I consider LibraryThing the hands down winner.  But there’s one feature that LibraryThing or GoodReads doesn’t do that I really want, and that’s a text field where I can add my comments, reviews copied from the net, quotes from the book, etc.  I want each book to have a page I can pop for annotations.

Look at the Main Page at LibraryThing for The Catcher in the Rye.   On the left is a menu of additional information about the book.   Here’s the same book at GoodReads.  As much as I like GoodReads, I think LibraryThing is the winner.

I actually have many of my books in both databases, but it’s very hard to keep them synced.  But as of tonight, I’m going to devote myself to getting my LibraryThing catalog up-to-date.  When I get through I’m going to try to delete my catalog at GoodReads and export my updated LibraryThing listing to it, and then work harder to keep all my new purchases added to both systems.  Both programs are great.  I just love LibraryThing more.

Strangely enough, I want to delete books from my book database.  Sure, those that I’ve gotten rid of, but also books I might own, but don’t really care about.  I’ve decided that the important thing is to list the books I love, or want to read, more than just the books I own.  I want my book database to be a system for the books I want to study, remember, annotate and review.  I want to forget the forgettable titles, and memorize the great books.

When all is said and done, I want my book database to define me by the books I care about.  When I die, I want my book database to be my memorial that defines my life.  I wish LibraryThing was a true library catalog program.   I wish it could include music albums, films, and copies of famous photographs and paintings.  So all you masters of C++, fire up your editors and get to coding.

JWH – 9/25/13

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