LibraryThing: Fun, but is it useful?

I’ve used LibraryThing for a while now, but today I used it to set up a public catalogue of books about user experience that I like (I will keep updating this catalogue as I read more interesting books).

LibraryThing is a piece of software that I find quite compelling — one of the most compelling out of all the ones we are using for 23 Things, in fact. There are other pieces of software that do similar things, for example Shelfari*, but there is something about LibraryThing that I really like.

I don’t believe anyone I know will upload a list of every book they own (though it has a bulk upload function, if you do keep a list for insurance purposes), and I don’t believe anyone in the world will upload every book they have ever read. There are a couple of things about LibraryThing that are just bad usability, like not allowing users to rate a book when they add it in the simple add interface, and not being able to see reviews in the catalogue interface. I have no desire to talk to strangers about books, so the social functions are completely wasted on me.

So why do I like it so much? Well, part of the reason is because it is fun. The personal stats that let you know how obscure your reading taste is are interesting, and the unsuggester is pretty hilarious (and reasonably accurate). Terms like “special sauce” recommender might technically be poorly usable (because they require a specific cultural context to be understood), but they make me smile when I read them. Now, having fun can make for a very positive user experience, but it is dangerous to rely on fun (not everyone would consider it “fun” to try and push up their obscurity rating, for example), and fun has a limited lifespan — to really engage people, it pays to be fun and useful**.

If you have a good reading community, and if you have no reason (such as providing a reading list) to share a catalogue of books then LibraryThing might not be that useful. Having said that, when you have uploaded a few books (and most people will think of their favourite books first) LibraryThing gives pretty good recommendations — for example when I was creating my reading list, it suggested a couple of books I had been meaning to add and forgotten about. The Suggester is really worth a try — and the unsuggester could potentially broaden my horizons.

I don’t know that LibraryThing makes life any simpler, but it is pretty usable, somewhat fun, and it certainly doesn’t make life any worse.

*Shefari put me off because when I tried it it was slow and only worked properly in Internet Explorer. These things have changed, but I haven’t really been back. This is a classic example of how one bad experience can put a user off for life.

**Not everything can be or should be fun, but for a service designed around a recreational activity, for example recreational reading, a little bit of fun can be a good thing, if it is done right.

Update 03 October 2007: A couple of my commenters have pointed out their frustrations with LibraryThing, notably that there is a 200 book limit on a free account, and that certain profile attributes that would be nice (like hand picking favourite authors, rather than relying on catalogued books) are quite difficult. These limitations are not things that would have occurred to me, but I am a casual user who is just looking for recommendations (and a researcher who is interested in recommender systems), and my commenters are librarians. The moral of this story is that if a system has many usable feature but some features let the side down, or if the system doesn’t offer what a regular user might consider to be a reasonable feature set, or if it depends on being “fun” to create a good user experience, it is doomed to create a poor user experience for at least some, if not many of its users.


4 Responses to “LibraryThing: Fun, but is it useful?”

  1. 1 nylusmilk Tuesday, October 2, 2007 at 8:44 pm

    there are actually a lot more sites similar to this around the internet. i like librarything’s layout and user-friendliness but the only down part is we only get to catalog 200 books for free and the rest have to be paid a lifetime fee. others like reader2, shelfari, gurulib, allconsuming, delicious library, bookpedia and goodreads are free, though librarything seems to be the best in terms of features.

  2. 2 Tony Wednesday, October 3, 2007 at 9:52 am

    Hi Dana, I’m interested that you like LibraryThing because I’ve found it the most frustrating thing I’ve used for a long time! I started it at lunchtime yesterday and gave up and ended up spending an hour at home trying to complete the task. I kept going around in circles trying to do what I thought were the simplest tasks and I still haven’t worked out how to add a favourite author to my profile. The social stuff seems to me much clunkier than in say Flickr. Having said that, I did manage to upload several books, and I had fun changing the cover art, and I managed to upload an image for a book that didn’t have any cover art, that was easy and fun. But in the end it all just seems a bit old fashioned and difficult.
    – Tony

  3. 3 Sara Jervis Wednesday, October 3, 2007 at 4:55 pm


    I completed the LibraryThing task, as that, a task. I am a wee prejudiced about the program as I have no interest in cataloguing or sharing reviews of books I have read. I was encouraged by Chris to persevere with the program as I had experienced the frustration of Tony. I entered one favourite author and then for the life of me I could not find how to enter my other favourites. I was also irritated that I could not include all the books by one author that I liked with one flick of the button. I had to go back painstakingly each time to re enter data. May be there is an easy way to do this.
    I did, however enjoy the play with creating logos. I am going to play some more and create logos for my family and friends and wow them.

  1. 1 A blessed LibraryThing it is …* « Libodyssey Trackback on Monday, November 26, 2007 at 5:04 pm

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