LibraryThing Releases One Million Free Covers
Josh Hadro -- Library Journal, 08/12/2008
- One million free cover images available for download and display in library OPACs
- 30 million items cataloged by LibraryThing users to surpass LC collection size
- Amazon.com to acquire minority stake in LibraryThing upon completion of AbeBooks purchase
LibraryThing, the popular social network book cataloging site, made waves in the library world with three significant announcements during the first week of August. Of the most direct benefit to libraries, LibraryThing announced on August 7 that it is now offering one million user-uploaded book covers for use in OPACS and other library software in a free service competing directly with similar offerings from companies like Syndetic Solutions that offer covers and bibliographic data to libraries for a fee. The book covers are freely available for retrieval and use via the LibraryThing Application Programming Interface (API), subject to relatively minor usage restrictions.
Book covers, often distributed by publishers for free and considered to be promotional materials, are included as part of bulk data packages to which libraries subscribe in order to enhance their online catalogs. Tim Spalding, LibraryThing’s outspoken founder (and a 2008 LJ Mover & Shaker), said of the new service: “I really hope this—or more probably what comes of this—ends the selling of covers to libraries.” Spalding told LJ that he is "no enemy of paid content," but that he sees "a future in which the lowest level—covers, basic bibliographic data—becomes completely free, forcing data companies to sell value-adds."
Prior to this announcement, book covers have also been made available for free from other sources like Amazon.com's Web Services and the Google Book Search API, but these are subject to “link-back” clauses in the terms of service, and many librarians are uncomfortable with being required to link back to profit-driven sites from their institutions' public catalogs.
Restrictions on LibraryThing's million covers do not explicitly require this reciprocal linking, though they do ask that "[u]se does not involve or promote a LibraryThing competitor." Also, no more than 1000 covers can be retrieved on a given day (libraries are encouraged to cache images locally), and the use of the service requires a one-time application for a LibraryThing Developer’s Key, available free of charge. Finally, in addition to the book covers, LibraryThing has also announced its own Web Services API, allowing programmable access to the data being developed in its Common Knowledge project, including “fields like series, important characters, important places, author dates, author burial places, agents, edits, etc.”
LibraryThing surpasses largest "real" collection at Library of Congress?
The release of the million book covers was announced partially in celebration of a significant milestone for the social cataloging site: a post from August 6 on the LibraryThing blog signaled the 30 millionth book cataloged by LibraryThing users. This number, achieved with the addition of The Making of a Surgeon by William A. Nolan, was touted as a particularly important milestone in terms of collection size, as it equals the number of volumes currently held by the Library of Congress (LC), the "largest 'real' library in the world." The blog post does, however, acknowledge that the 30 million user-cataloged books include a significant number of duplicates, and that “the unique count is more like five million.” Moreover, LC has recently revised its holdings to 32,124,001 books, which LibraryThing expects to surpass sometime in September.
But even this admittedly symbolic achievement highlights LibraryThing's impressive ability to engage users in the discussion of materials that are not necessarily at the forefront of popular culture. LibraryThing has a role to play in the growing demand for discussion of mid-list and "bottom-of-list" titles, Spalding said. "One reason people read bestsellers is to talk about them with others. Sites like LibraryThing make it possible to have that sort of shared reading experience well down the Long Tail."
Amazon.com acquires minority stake in LibraryThing
Finally, LibraryThing also announced August 1 that Amazon.com will gain, subject to closing conditions, a minority share of the company through its acquisition of AbeBooks, which purchased a 40 percent stake in LibraryThing in May 2006. AbeBooks is an online bookseller “with over 110 million primarily used, rare and out-of-print books,” according to the Amazon release. Spalding assured LibraryThing users that direction of the company and majority control will remain in his hands, and that “Amazon will not get access to your data.” Only “anonymized and aggregate data” is given to AbeBooks, he added, according to terms of the agreement between the two companies.
Of some interest is the fact that this acquisition technically brings LibraryThing within one degree of separation from direct competitor Shelfari. As reported in the press, Amazon’s acquisition of AbeBooks now gives the mega-online bookseller a financial interest in both companies, having invested $1 million in Shelfari in February 2007. However, Spalding told LJ that he considered any significant interaction with Shelfari through the new relationship with Amazon to be unlikely. "I doubt very much that anyone will try to marry us," he said. "Certainly, given their minority stake, it couldn't happen without my agreement, and I don't see that happening."