Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Elusive Book Database

For years I had been storing all of my book information in a lowly Excel file - books that I owned, wanted to read, and wanted to buy (i.e. wish list). While this worked for a while, the whole thing started to become more than a little unwieldy and unmanageable after a fair number of entries were added. I realized I had passed that point when viewing all the content in the file required a ridiculous amount of scrolling. I had never heard of any suitable online systems for maintaining a book database, and a tiny (and insufficient) bit of googling failed to yield any promising results. Movies have IMDB and DVDs have DVD Aficionado, but books? I gave up my search way too hastily (that or my googling and web awareness skills suck), as it turns out that there are quite a few book cataloguing sites out there, but more on that later.

Needing an alternative to a crummy spreadsheet, I turned to personal database solutions. I have used Microsoft's Access software before and found it to be an effective solution. However, given my general dislike for all things Microsoft, I decide to give the oft touted open source alternative Open Office a shot. Open Office is a suite of office applications, much like Microsoft Office. When it comes to stuff like writing text documents, making spreadsheets, and preparing presentations Open Office seems up to scratch, at least where basic functionality is concerned. For my current purpose however, I only had need for the database component, the Open Office equivalent to Access which is named (rather blandly) 'Base'. Having wrestled with it for a while, I can only say that it is, for lack of a better word, weak. It's a shoddy program and it left me decidedly unimpressed, and the latest version is nowhere near as useful as the version of Access that I used nigh on five years ago!

Base is slow, there's very little in the way of useful documentation, and the interface is awkward and clumsy - there's a bit of lag and the highlighted cells don't update properly during data entry via forms, with entire rows sometimes just disappearing! The 'wizards' are less Gandalf and more Rincewind in their effectiveness - the selection criteria didn't work when I tried to create database queries and views. I had to create them manually, which is fine, but what's the point of the bloody wizard? Bizarrely, the views can't be modified once created, which means if you want to change something you have to do it all over again. It also keeps track of names of tables and views that have been deleted, so when you're forced to re-create a view to implement a modification, you also have to give it a new name. Bollocks! There's more that's wrong, lots more, but I just can't be bothered remembering or writing it out. All I know is that I persevered with it, based on the belief that one day the program will improve; I was also pleased that the data would be stored in an open format (although, at the moment there is no way at all to export the data into CSV or any other format). My book database is now somewhat finished, though there's some changes I want to make but am afraid to attempt for fear of the elevated blood pressure levels 'Base' is certain to induce in me.

My satisfaction at finishing the database was short lived, however, because soon afterwards I stumbled upon an absolutely fantastic book cataloguing site, Library Thing. The site is, as the Doctor would say... FANTASTIC! Part catalogue, part social network, it offers almost everything one could ask for in an online library database. It's a wonderfully austere, fast loading site full of cool AJAX based functionality. It's intuitive and incredibly easy to use - even the sign up procedure is simpler than most. There's a massive selection of books available via searches of various online databases (primarily Amazon and the Library of Congress), and each book has all the usual details plus a selection of covers, reviews, stats, suggestions on similar works, and tags. Each user's profile provides a load of stats and functionality, and there's also a wide variety of message boards which are actually active and seem to be populated by people above a simian level of intelligence. Library Thing also made me aware of a few other similar book database sites, but none seem to be as good; the strange this is how I never found any of them before!

(As an aside, I also found the incredibly useful 'Remember the Milk' site, which is a web based task manager that I'm slowly becoming dependent on. It takes a bit of getting used to before committing to it, and I'm still migrating with caution (since a cock up on a 'to do' list can have serious consequences in the real world), but I'm happy to say that I think I've found a great alternative to my varied collection of 'to do' lists scattered in different files on my computer. I'll just have to make sure to take regular offline backups for those pesky situations when I have no Internet access)

The only major downside to Library Thing so far is the lack of a wish list and 'books I've read' feature, which I hear is in the pipeline. Till then, I'm going to have to maintain my 'Base' database alongside Library Thing, with the hope that I'll eventually be able to migrate away from it. Ah, the wonders of the Internet... Fantastic!


sanity index said...

Hm, I've always used's Wish List feature for my books, since you can add notes. But it's not a perfect system...

Antimatter said...

I never actually thought of that! I've always been looking for a dedicated system for books I guess; I may have used Amazon if I'd thought of it a few years ago, but now I'm just gonna wait for Library Thing to implement the feature. A unified solution!

Thanks for the suggestion though. 8)