Somehow, it just seems like the kind of thing a Greek and Latin graduate student with free lance experience in web development would do. It began as a pet project of Tim’s to catalog his own books, and those of his book-loving friends. And so began the first social book cataloging site. LibraryThing.com launched on August 29, 2005.
What made this thing go, it appears, is that Spalding is a computer geek who leveraged experience in Houghton-Mifflin’s instructional technology division to acquire the tech savvy for an enterprise like LibraryThing. As he put the site together, he realized it was better than anything out there at the time. To help finance the effort, he sold a portion of the company to Abebooks, now owned by Amazon. So Amazon, which also owns GoodReads and Shelfari, does have an interest in LibraryThing. Spalding still holds the largest share of his company. He is fairly adamant about providing alternatives to the Amazon/GoodReads world. He wrote on the “talk” page of LibraryThing:
“We need to embrace being the “un-Amazon” and “un-Goodreads.” If they zag, we should zig. This is the way I like it—I find Goodreads too pushy on the social side, too cavalier about user data and–on average–not as intellectual as LibraryThing can be(1). So I want to be unlike them. But it’s also good business practices. If you want a ham sandwich, Goodreads will give you one. We need to be the site for people who hate ham sandwiches…. Trust me or don’t, but my motives are pretty pure. I like my job and I’m not looking to flip the company to Amazon or anyone else.”
One of the big things Spalding has done is integrate capabilities to search and incorporate library information from over 1000 libraries using Z39.50 connections (a data sharing protocol) that allows users to access cataloging information available through Dublin Core and MARC records. At the same time, Spalding is zealous in protecting user privacy. No email is required to set up an account and collections can be set to private, so that no one need see the books you have.
In a 2006 interview with Abebooks, he describes the features of the site he developed in this way:
“The idea is simple: You enter an ISBN, a title or a keyword, and it picks up the rest from Amazon, the Library of Congress or over 30 libraries around the world. Deweys, LC Call Numbers and MARC Records are all available. Once you’ve entered some books, the system points you to other users with eerily similar tastes. You can start a conversation with them or just browse their libraries to get ideas. The system also generates great automatic recommendations; it turns out “people who OWN X also own Y” can be more interesting than “people who BOUGHT X also bought Y.” I had cataloged my books one way or another since childhood, and making LibraryThing was a dream for a few years before I went ahead with it. I barely hoped that it would eventually repay the month of programming it took to launch the basic service, but it took off beyond my wildest dreams.”
A significant part of LibraryThing’s business is with libraries. LibraryThing for Libraries provides information that enhances online library catalogs. This helped me understand how they stay afloat. I wondered how they did it on annual memberships of $10.
Tim Spalding lives in Portland, Maine with his wife, author Lisa Carey, and their son Liam. Among the books he is currently reading according to his LibraryThing page are John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Enrico Ascalone’s Mesopotamia: Assyrians, Sumerians, Babylonians, and J.R. Ward’s Lover Avenged.