Cataloging Our Stuff

Here’s the deal. Like good consumers, we have a lot of CDs, DVDs, and books. Especially books. We have books on the bookshelf in Baby TBA’s room. We have them under the bed in Baby TBA’s room. We have them in closets. Under end tables. If you open the pantry? Books spill out, a tide of literacy and potential paper cuts. What’s a family to do?

Get rid of some of those books? Ha, you clearly don’t know us. No, what we need to do is catalog it all. We tried this a few years ago using a combination of Python scripts and chutzpah, but the scripts needed too much hand-holding and in the end I would have still had to do something with the information that was being saved in big long text files. But I hear there are nifty packaged programs now available to do the job. Maybe we should buy something from SIRSI. Ha! Ha! Just kidding, dad!

Anyway, I took a look at several cataloging programs. Here are the things I’m looking for:

  • Catalog books, DVDs, and CDs. The last is less important, since we’re about done with our year-long project to digitize all of our music, but I’d rather not have a program that just does books or just does CDs.
  • Decent interface. What doomed the project last time was all of the fiddling I had to do to add books, and I had no good way of looking at the data once I’d entered it.
  • Ease of data entry. Most of the software packages use barcode scanners, which is a fine way to read the UPC information. But it’s what the program does after that that is important. How much manual massage is required to turn that UPC information into bibliographic information?
  • Tracks loans. We hand out books and CDs and all, and it’d be nice to keep track of who has what. Our current system of writing things down on post-it notes that then get lost or thrown away is not so ideal.
  • Portable data format or good exporting tools. Any software package I buy today has no guarantee of being around in five or ten years. I need to be able to take the data elsewhere. Plain text is a bare minimum requirement, though export to something like XML or a CSV spreadsheet format would be nifty.
  • Portable data. One thing I’d like to be able to do is have the data on a PDA when trolling used book stores to make sure I don’t buy duplicates unawares.
  • Cross-platform. Ours is a house divided, with me using PCs and Misty using Macs.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have our judging criteria. Bring in the candidates!

Collectorz.com

Collectorz is the goofy name for an umbrella of software designed to catalog media. You type in author and title information or ISBN data; alternatively, you scan the media’s UPC bar code with a barcode reader. The software then gathers full information about the book, movie or CD and populates its database with the results.

The good: Adding media to the database is simple. The program pulls information from the Library of Congress, the British Library, the various flavors of Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, IMDB, and their own online databases. The program grabs cover images while it’s at it. You can create custom printed lists using XML/XSL, and can export to HTML, CSV, and XML. The software is available for Mac or PC, though you must buy one or the other.

The bad: Each and every type of media you want to catalog requires a separate software purchase at either $20 (standard version) or $30 (pro version) a pop. Music, movies, video games, books, comic books (!), mp3s (!!), all are separate programs. The standard version of the software has no exporting features, does “simple lists”, and will not track loans. You can buy “premium support” to get your support questions answered faster.

Summary: Collectorz feels like it was designed to extract as much money from me as possible. To cover both books and movies would cost $60; throw in CD cataloging and we’re up to $90. That’s before you buy a barcode scanner, too.

Readerware

Readerware is the granddaddy of these software packages. You type in a list of ISBNs or scan them in using a barcode scanner. Readerware then downloads the information including cover images. The data itself is stored in an SQL database, though it’s not clear to me whether or not you can do SQL searches directly.

The good: Like the Collectorz software, Readerware pulls information from many online sources and downloads cover images. It exports to tab-delimited files, CSVs, and UIEE. The software is available for Mac, PC, and Linux. It tracks loans. It has a built-in browser and integrates directly with sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble so you can purchase books through the program and enter them into your database at once.

The bad: Also like Collectorz, Readerware has separate programs for books, for CDs, and for movies. The programs are $40 apiece or $75 for all three. It’s a clunkier-looking program than the others reviewed here — it looks like one of those old Borland applications that companies use to keep track of items in their stockroom.

Summary: This has many of the same strengths and weaknesses of Collectorz, though you can get all three versions of Readerware for less than the three analogous Collectorz packages. On the other hand, Collectorz has a nicer-looking interface.

Delicious Library

Delicious Library, like the previous two programs, lets you scan your media and catalog them. It’s a Mac-only product that is tightly integrated with the OS and uses an iTunes-like interface.

The good: Delicious Library is extremely pretty. The iTunes-like interface has the benefit of familiarity. You can scan your books in by putting the barcode in front of an iSight camera. (How cool is that?) Your catalog is saved in XML format, and a number of pre-written scripts exist to take that data and export it as other things. It keeps track of loaned items. For $40 it will catalog books, movies and CDs.

The bad: It’s Mac only. The interface is only as good as the iTunes interface; you don’t have the flexibility of Collectorz in setting up views. It doesn’t pull data from as many sources.

Summary: Everything I’ve read has given a big thumbs-up to Delicious Library. I will admit my shallow outlook and say that the program’s look is just about enough to sell it to me. Plus the ability to read barcodes via a camera is genius. I’ve seen that application in industrial machine vision applications, but had never thought about applying it to the problem of cataloging media.

LibraryThing

LibraryThing is an online book catalog site that collates its members’ catalogs into a collaborative social catalog. You type in a book’s title and author, import a list of ISBN codes from text files or web pages, or pull information directly from a CueCat scanner. LibraryThing then collates information about the books from various libraries and from Amazon.com.

The good: The del.icio.us-like social aspects are intriguing, and allows the site to provide recommendations. You can enter 200 books for free; for $10 a year or $25 lifetime you can add all the books you want. You can export your book information as tab-delimited text or as a CSV file. Playing with the website is fun. You can integrate your library into your blog easily. It’s clearly cross-platform, and it has an API you can use to get at its data.

The bad: It only does books. It doesn’t track loans per se, though you can tag books that you’ve loaned out as being on loan. You’re giving your library data to a business to hold, which may or may not bother you.

Summary: LibraryThing is a really fun site, and if we were only cataloging books, this is the way I’d go in a heartbeat.

The Summary

From where I’m sitting, Delicious Library is the way to go, even though we have a number of PCs in the house. It has a number of nifty features and has a lower price point for my needs. I may spring for a full LibraryThing account as well because it’s fun to play with. Were I going to limit myself to software that ran under Windows, it’d be a toss-up. Luckily, everything I’ve looked at in this article has trial versions or free-but-limited versions. Talk to me in a few months when I’ve tried using one of these programs in more depth.

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