Describing a reference library with LibraryThing

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PACKED tested the online platform LibraryThing to describe its collection – mainly consisting of books, magazines and DVDs. It wanted a good overview to improve the collection’s internal usability. LibraryThing was chosen in an attempt to create a very flexible approach and rich searchable metadata with minimal effort. The work was carried out by a trainee from the Librarian-Documentalist course at IESSID college under supervision from PACKED employees Alina Saenko and Bart Magnus.


PACKED trialled LibraryThing at the end of 2018 by registering 199 pieces of work (the limit for the free version).

screenshot Librarything


Lots of arts organisations have collections of publications in house which they find very useful alongside their own archived material. Sometimes they’re used for inspiring or supporting a creative process, and sometimes they contain books and magazines that mention the artists or arts organisations themselves.

Library in the PACKED office, 2018

In order to ensure this reference library can be used internally, it’s useful to have an overview of what your organisation has in house, and to make your collection searchable. Library or collection management systems are currently generally much too extensive, unworkable and costly for the needs of arts organisations. As a centre of expertise, PACKED faced this same problem, so it tested how useful the online platform LibraryThing was for describing its collection. This system offers a number of interesting benefits:

  • You can make the metadata for your collection available online, so anyone can see what you have in house.
  • If a piece of work has already been described in LibraryThing by someone else, you can simply copy their description (including assigned tags) and possibly improve and/or expand it. Users include individuals, small organisations and large libraries such as the Bibliothèque nationale de France. It also provides links to Amazon, Google Books, WorldCat, etc.
  • LibraryThing is completely free for registering up to 200 pieces of work. You can describe an unlimited number of works for $10 per year or a one-off payment of $25.
  • The interface is available in various languages.
  • There are good online tutorials available via the LibraryThing YouTube channel.
  • It uses TinyCat as a simple online search portal for your own collection.
  • LibraryThing allows you to export your own collection’s data. This is useful in case you ever want to use a different system or if LibraryThing should cease to exist. You can export to Excel, TSV, JSON and MARC. You can also set a number of parameters to determine what data you want to export.


Determine what needs to be entered

An organisation’s bookcase can sometimes include diverse and unexpected works, and it can quickly become apparent that some of these things don’t actually belong in the reference library. For example, among other things we found a coffee machine manual, empty notebooks and a five-year-old catalogue for office supplies in ours.

If your organisation produces its own publications, it can happen that some of your stock finds its way to the bookcase. You can choose to keep this stock strictly separate from your collections or – as PACKED did – to register all reference items in LibraryThing and include information about how many copies there are.

Define a keyword list

You can assign tags to each piece of work to help make your collection more searchable. Having good control of this tag list can only be beneficial. For example, it doesn’t make sense to have single and plural versions of the same category (such as one tag for ‘biography’ and another for ‘biographies’), or to use synonyms (such as ‘play script’ and ‘theatre script’), or to have tags in different languages alongside each other (such as ‘auteursrecht’ and ‘copyright’). You can decide for yourself whether to strictly control the ‘keyword list’ for your own collection to prevent proliferation, or rather to leave it relatively free. The tag list at PACKED initially grew quite organically. Once the first 50 works had been registered, we evaluated the resulting list and adapted it where necessary. LibraryThing is very user friendly when it comes to merging and renaming tags without needing to make changes at the level of each linked work.

screenshot Librarything

The tag list in LibraryThing is not hierarchical. This means for example that tags such as ‘literary heritage’ and ‘cultural heritage’ can simply exist alongside each other. This flat structure means you cannot define ‘literary heritage’ as a subsection of ‘cultural heritage’.

Classification and placement numbers

Standardised classification systems, such as those used in public libraries for example, are not useful for very specialised (niche) collections like PACKED’s. We therefore chose a simple system whereby one or more letters are combined with a serial number:

  • Published books: letter B followed by a number (e.g. B-001)
  • Magazines: letter T followed by an abbreviation for the magazine title (e.g. T-META-001). This means all issues of the same magazine are classified alongside each other
  • DVDs: letter D followed by a number (e.g. D-001)
  • Other, including ‘grey literature’: letter R followed by a number (e.g. R-001)

Print labels

The placement numbers were entered in a spreadsheet so that we could then print them on labels and stick them to the backs of our reference library items.


What worked well?

We found the LibraryThing application to be very intuitive. It works very well for published books and it’s great that you can re-use so much of the metadata entered by someone else. Grey literature (research reports, theses, etc.) combine perfectly in LibraryThing, even if there are fewer possibilities for re-using them.

screenshot Librarything

What was difficult?

The biggest difficulty we encountered was finding a good way to describe magazines. Ideally, you would enter the magazine once yourself and then link it to all the issues in your collection. But the LibraryThing data model prompts you either to include all your issues of a magazine under one record, or to create a record for each issue of the magazine. We chose the second option because this meant we could assign specific tags per magazine issue to increase the findability of specific information. The disadvantage of this approach is that different issues of the same magazine are not linked to each other. We dealt with this by assigning the placement numbers in such a way that different issues of the same magazine are kept next to each other.

Author: Bart Magnus (PACKED vzw)