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LibraryThing Concepts

What are tags? | What are works?

What are tags?

(short answer)

Tags are a simple way to categorize books according to how you think of them, not how some library official does. Anything can be a tag—just type words or phrases, separated by commas. Thus one person will tag the The DaVinci Code "novels" while another tags it "trashy, religion, mary," and still another only "summer home." Tags are particularly useful for searching and sorting—when you need a list of all your novels or all the books at the summer home.

(long answer)

Once you have a hundred books or so, you need some way to organize them. Library subject classifications, including that of the Library of Congress, are one solution. For most personal libraries, however, they aren't much use. "Tags," informal, personal markers used on blogs and sites like Flickr and, provide a better model.

Here are two examples from my (Tim's) experience:

  1. The LC catalogs Bean's Aegean Turkey, a guide to the archaeological sites of Turkey's western coast, under the single subject, "Ionia." For me, however, the book is about turkey and archaeology, tags I've applied to dozens of books, including Bean's other archaeological guides.
  2. The LC thinks Bernadette Brooten's Love between women: early Christian responses to female homoeroticism is about six different things, including the mouthful "Bible. N.T. Romans I, 18-32 — Criticism, interpretation, etc. — History — Early church, ca. 30-600." I get by with the tags early church, and homosexuality. To these I added the tag divination. Although the book doesn't say much about divination, its comments on the topic were actually the reason I picked it up.

Tags can also mark "favorites" or "books to read." I've used the tag ben's to mark books I should return to my friend Ben. (That I included them in my catalog is, however, a bad sign for that!)

In addition to being a way to organize your own collection, social content sites like Flickr and have shown that large numbers of different users' tags produce categorization structures ("folksonomies") that can surpass traditional taxonomies. (See Clay Shirky's talk "Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links and Tags" for a stimulating discussion.) As LibraryThing grows, I expect to use this data in new and interesting ways.

What are works?

The purpose of works is social. Books that a library catalog considers distinct can nevertheless be a single LibraryThing "work." A work brings together all different copies of a book, regardless of edition, title variation, or language. This works system will provide improved shared cataloging, recommendations and more. For example, if you wanted to discuss M. I. Findley's The Ancient Economy, you wouldn't really care whether someone else had the US or the British edition, the first edition or the second.

What is a book then?

The "This Book" data on the book information page is particular to YOUR copy—the distinct edition that's sitting on your bookshelf. None of the combining and separating of works will change anyone's personal book data.

What works should be combined?

  • Title variations. The British Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is, apart from a few slang tweaks, the same as the American Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. These people ought to be able to speak to each other.
  • Non-English editions. Il codice da Vinci and The DaVinci Code are, for social purposes, the same book. For example, there are too few Italian books in the system for any of the recommendations to be good, but with work combinations, the system can suggest that people who own Il codice da Vinci might also like Deception Point.
  • Special editions. The deluxe, illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland is the same work as a humble Dover edition.
  • Formats. The unabridged audio book of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility is the same work as the paper copy.

What works shouldn't be combined?

  • Part/whole issues. The Fellowship of the Ring is not the same work as The Lord of the Rings. This part/whole relationship will be handled by a future improvement.
  • Books ABOUT a book. This includes "Cliff's Notes," "Spark Notes," critical interpretations, adaptations, etc. A study guide to Foucault's The History of Sexuality is not the same as the book itself.
  • Derivative works. The CD of the musical Wicked is not the same as Gregory Maguire's novel. Nabokov's screenplay to Lolita is not the same as his novel.

What are some edge cases?

Remember, the purpose of the system is social. Therefore, I feel that some edition or language differences are so major as to be socially significant. Two examples:

  1. The Kama Sutra is not the same as the The Pop-Up Kama Sutra (a remarkable assemblage of paper and thread). In theory the same text, the content is really quite different, with attending social differences.
  2. A Greek edition of Homer is not the same as an English translation. Socially, the former connects you with other Greek scholars, and should recommend other Greek-language works, not the "Classics of Western Civilization" works that the English translation does.