Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Using LibraryThing for Genealogy

I have a confession. I buy books and never read them. I just can’t resist a second-hand bargain of some obscure history title that I may never see again or a new genealogy reference book that promises to help me break through that impenetrable brickwall. 

I have the best of intentions, but too often I just read the introduction, flick through a couple of chapters, then stick the book on my groaning bookshelves for "when I have more time". I’ve now reached the point where not only do I need a new bookcase, but I’ve also several times found myself in a bookshop looking at some inviting title and wondering if I already have it. 

Currently awaiting shelving.

I’ve recently seen a few of my Facebook friends discussing using LibraryThing as a way of cataloguing and sorting their book collection and decided to give it a try. I spent a few happy hours earlier this week going through my bookshelves and putting the majority of my history and genealogy titles online. 

According to Wikipedia, LibraryThing is a social cataloguing web application for storing and sharing book catalogues and various types of book metadata. For me, it’s a way of figuring out what books I actually have and, hopefully, the first step in becoming more organised and doing a bit more reading. 

LibraryThing is free to join, although if you want to enter more than 200 books you will need to upgrade your membership. A lifetime membership starts at as little as $19.00, depending upon your generosity. So far I’m at 193 books so may well be upgrading soon. 

You can choose to make your account completely private and only need to enter personal details if you wish. There’s a short introductory guide on the website but I pretty much just leapt straight in and got started entering books and found it very intuitive. 

I entered most of my books by ISBN number and then selected the matching edition from Amazon or one of the many available library catalogues, which include the National Library of Scotland. 

It turns out I have more books than I realised, including a few I don’t remember buying (‘The Scottish hosiery and knitwear industry, 1680-1980’???).  Despite it being rather an unexplored interest of mine, I apparently have 23 books on the history of the family (as opposed to family history), including four with sex in the title - well what Scottish genealogist could resist a book called ‘Scottish church attitudes to sex, marriage and the family, 1850-1914’! 

For me, the most useful feature is ‘collections’ which allows you to put each book you enter into one of the predefined categories or any other you choose to make up (I’ve yet to discover if there is a limit to the number of collections you can create or the number of collection you can place a particular book into). This means you can arrange your titles in a way that’s meaningful to you. 

For example, I’ve created an ‘Old Documents’ collection which includes my books on old handwriting, Latin and Scots dictionaries, glossaries of words useful for family and local historians, reference books such as ‘Dates and calendars for the genealogist’ and more general guides to particular records such as ‘Wills and Probate Records’. This means that when reading or transcribing an old document I now have a quick way of checking what books I have that may be of use. You could perhaps create a collection of books dealing with a particular country or region, or an area of research in which you specialise. 

I’m not sure how involved I’ll get with the social aspects of LibraryThing, but for now have made my account public and joined the Genealogy@LT group (yes, of course there’s a genealogy group!). I also signed in with my Twitter account which meant I could immediately see some familiar faces who were already using LibraryThing, although I’m not sure how to find that information again. I have come across some people whose names I recognise from other social media sites through having books in common. 

As all the books I’ve entered are genealogy or history related, the recommendations LibraryThing makes are fairly useful, although all the ones I’ve added to my ‘wishlist’ are books I’ve previously heard of but not got around to buying yet. 

If you are interested, you can find my book list at 

I’m currently looking at developing an educational plan (a ProGen assignment). It turns out that to improve my genealogical knowledge and skills I probably need look no further than my own bookshelf!

© All images and text copyright Kirsty F. Wilkinson


  1. I started using Shelfari a couple of years ago -- it's been a very useful tool for me. My Shelfari widget is on my Relatively Fiction blog (mostly mysteries, though, with a few history books too).

  2. Really interesting post. Thanks. I've started adding my books to LibraryThing in the past, but gave up due to the scale of the task (I need a new house for books - ha!. Also many of mine don't have ISBN numbers. Being able to search the NLS catalogue helps, but I was having to enter a lot of details manually. Your experience is quite inspiring though. I may give it another go.

    In the meantime I use Goodreads to manage my recreational reading. It keeps track of books I have to read (physically piled up, or waiting on my Kindle, or on my Amazon Kindle wishlist), and those I've read. I like being able to produce a list of books read at the end of the year/month/whenever.

  3. Love the opening line about buying old books and not reading them - ditto! I have a fair few here which I suspect will finally be read when I reach retirement, which at the current rate will be when I am 93.

    Library Thing sounds interesting - can it be used to catalogue magazine articles? And does it have an application to help you find the book you know you have but which you haven't seen in three and half years?!


  4. Reading this made me revisit my own Library Thing account, which I see was set up in September 2007. I don't think I've used it since! I can totally identify with your first two paragraphs - as a haunter of second hand bookshops I have more than once bought a book I already owned.

  5. As an early adopter of LibraryThing I find it a useful resource for genealogy and am following a number of genies in my Private Watch List, perhaps I should follow in a more public way. I have now added your name to this list and look forward to perusing your library.

    I am wrestling with whether I should have a second account just for genealogy related books as my bibliaugrapher account lists all the books I have read or own. For the moment my small genealogy collection is just tagged "Genealogy" in the bibliaugrapher account.

    I put in a proposal to present on Librarything at a forthcoming genealogy conference - if I am successful I would appreciate being able to talk further with you on this topic.

  6. Buying books then never reading them is obviously a common trait amongst genealogists!

    I see we've a lot of books in common (including (‘The Scottish hosiery and knitwear industry, 1680-1980’!) but I think it'll take more than a few hours to enter my collection :)

    Sounds interesting - I'll need to give it a try & it might be useful to keep track of the various old books I've downloaded from the internet archive which I keep loosing. These might be the final spur to prod me into buying a Kindle.

  7. Thanks to everyone for the comments. Interesting to read about other similar services people are using. I perhaps should have explored the various options before entering my books into LibraryThing as I don't think I could go through it all again!

    Chris - I think you could add information on the location of your books to keep track of them in the future but that probably won't help with ones that are currently missing!

    Geniaus - I'm still a newbie when it comes to LibraryThing but would be happy to share my thoughts so please feel free to contact me at

    Sheena - You'll have to tell me if 'The Scottish hosiery and knitwear industry' is worth a read! I also thought of adding books I've downloaded from the internet archive as apart from a few I use regularly I tend to forget what I have, but I ran out of energy after entering the others. It could definitely be a useful way of keeping track of them.


  8. Interesting blog I too have books I have not read mainly about photography and photoshop. Now following your tweets

  9. Not sure that would help Kirsty - they are supposed to be on my shelves! I would just write "shelf" down, and still be disappointed.

    Damn this eternal war to keep organised...! :) lol


  10. Is there anyone in Scotland who buys or sells unwanted Genealogy books? Someone asked me this the other day.


  11. Re: previous comment

    I don't know of anyone that specialises in secondhand genealogy books. I would imagine that many secondhand booksellers would take genealogy books. I've certainly bought a lot of mine secondhand, mostly from charity shops but also from commercial booksellers including on a trip to Wigtown where you can find just about every type of book - see