Geeking out with books…

SF Bookshelf

SF Bookshelf

Just finished with a fun little experiment, thought I’d share it.  Anybody that’s ever visited my house knows that I’ve got a lot of books laying around.  A lot.  The 2nd bedroom/office has a good chunk of 3 walls covered and there are bunches more out in the living room.  For some reason I’ve pretty much always held onto the books I’ve read – something I started when young and at this point it seems like  it would be a shame to stop now.   And I do love to be able to pull a previously-read book off of the shelf and dive back into it, even if only for a few minutes.    But I also can’t look at them without contemplating how everything one has read contributes to who they have become.  You are what you read, right?   There’s a little part of each one of these books up in my brain somewhere…

At any rate,  I’ve always thought it would be handy to have a list of them.  (Okay, I’m not really sure why it would be handy… it just seems like it would, okay?)

But even I am not quite obsessive enough to sit down and actually type in such a list… there’s just better things I could spend my time on.  Getting someone else to do the work, however, isn’t a bad idea… and anybody who is plugged into productivity blogs like Lifehacker or 43Folders can’t help but be aware of how easy it is these days to get some cheap outsourced labor for doing exactly this sort of thing.  So, mostly out of curiosity, I thought I’d see how well that sort of thing works.

The first thing I did was take good photos of all the bookshelves.  It took a little more time than I’d planned – I wanted to make sure the images were readable so I shot on a tripod to get nice sharp images and that meant each image took a bit of setup. (There also ended up being some shuffling of lights around in order to find a configuration that didn’t put text-obscuring glare on the books as well – I sure could have used a softbox, but don’t have one handy at the time.)  But overall it wasn’t too painful and as soon as I had a decent picture of most everything I tossed it all up on Flickr.  It took a total of about 50 photos to cover all the bookshelves – a subset of these can be found here, just to give you an idea of what the photos were like.  These are mostly the books from my main ‘SF paperback shelf’ – which is a pretty decent sampling of what I was reading while growing up, along with some newer works.

Just having the photos alone is kind of cool, actually.  At least to me.  But the next step was to get an actual text listing of all these books – so it was time to see if I could get someone to do that work for me.  I used Elance and the bid looked like this:


Convert photos of bookshelf into list of books

I’ve taken high resolution photos of all the books on my bookshelves (so you can see their spines) and want to have someone transcribe this information into a spreadsheet (Excel or Google Spreadsheet). The spreadsheet should have book title, author and then you’ll need to use this information to look up the ISBN for the book and include that. Presumably not all of the books will have an ISBN associated with them but do your best :-). The photos that you will be working from are located here:…

If you look through these you’ll see that towards the end there are several photos that overlap with each other, due to the difficulty in photographing certain shelves. Let me know if there are any other questions.


Elance is pretty straightforward – the interface is a little bit convoluted (actually it’s pretty poorly designed, IMHO) but once you get the basic idea it’s easy enough to set up the parameters of your project.   So I did that, posted it, and then the bids started rolling in.  The first few were a little frightening – several people set their price in the $500 range… and believe me, having a list of the books that I own isn’t worth that much to me.  But the nice thing about Elance is that you can choose to make all bids visible to other bidders so competitive pressure quickly brought the price down.   Like, wayyy down, until we were much more in the range I felt comfortable with.  I ended up choosing someone who had never done work on Elance and was willing to do the work for a very good price ($50) in order to build up his online reputation on the service.  At that price I figured it was a pretty safe bet, particularly since he’d already gone and transcribed the first photo from the set and the accuracy was great.

We agreed that a week was a reasonable timeframe and off he went.  And about 5 days later my oursourced librarian/servant sends me an email saying he’s finished.  Cool.

I quickly looked over the spreadsheet he’d sent (2000+ books!) and spot-checks seemed to indicate that the author/titles were reasonably accurate.  The few ISBN’s that I tested were also good.   I got online and released the $50 I’d put into Elance’s escrow and boom, we’re done.  Here’s an excerpt of the spreadsheet.  It’s all the books from my ‘SF paperback’ shelf… a testament to a youth spent down in the basement, exploring strange and fascinating new worlds…

But Wait, There’s More…

Having the ISBN for each book is particularly handy because now I can export that information into one of the online book-organizational tools like Shelfari.   Shelfari (and other similar sites like librarything and goodreads) allow you to keep a list of all your books online but also to gather additional information about the books, have online discussions with other readers, etc.  Social networking for book-lovers.   (There’s also the very cool Delicious Library, a standalone application for organizing your books, DVD’s and, um, power tools).

Shelfari allows you to enter the books you’ve read in a variety of ways, from manually entering individual titles to extracting them from a webpage.  But they also support importing a big list of books in a text document.  Hey, I just happen to have one of those.

I figured I’d test it with a subset of the big list so I selected only the SF paperbacks again, exported that from Excel to a tab-delimited text (.txt) document and pointed Shelfari at the file.  And off it went.  Took a few minutes and then it came back with a notice that it had imported about 460 books.   That’s out of the 600 or so that I had on the shelf (excluding the bottom row of old Asimov’s magazines) which is a decent percentage I suppose but obviously it would be nice to have gotten more of them.  Still, pretty cool.  I’m not quite sure yet why most of the others didn’t import properly.   Some of the book in the spreadsheet, like J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World (ISBN 0380551608) didn’t import into Shelfari but a simple google search (as well as a search on Amazon) quickly turned up a correct match for that ISBN number.  Other books in my spreadsheet, like ISBN# 0380359561 (for  Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness) doesn’t show up anywhere online that I can find (including on the website which is what my Elance guy told me he’d used).  So clearly there is some inaccurate data in the spreadsheet itself.

Ah well, not something I’m going to worry too much about right now.  If you’re curious, the list of books that didn’t import properly is here.

And if you want to see my Shelfari bookshelf for the books that did import (all laid out on that nice wood-grain Shelfari bookshelf), you can go here:

And that’s probably about all I’ll be doing with all this information for now.  The next step is waiting for the day when I can send this list over to some magical machine that’s able to squirt a ‘refresh’ of all the plotlines and character arcs for all of these books back into my brain.   Someday…


16 thoughts on “Geeking out with books…

  1. Impressive Ron.

    My first thought as I was reading was that
    this is the perfect use for Delicious Library
    (mac based barcode scanner that
    cataloges your stuff with the help of the
    amazon Api)… But, given that you had
    the job done manually for $50, that’s a

    (nice collect btw)

    – Steve

  2. Duuuuuuuuuuuuuuude! This is unbelievable! I am a book geek in awe! I would love to do this as well (when I get back.) Good thing you did this now because at some point when (or “if”, no pressure!) you get married, I assume she’ll have lots of books and they might mingle and then you won’t remember who’s was who’s. (Well, I know for sure that Kurt brought all the Jung books…) I love this.

    Now, are you going to put them all on your Kindle? ; – )

  3. @SteveToth – yeah, doing this manually via barcode scanning would’ve taken me days I think. Not to mention the fact that ISBN barcodes on books weren’t common ’til sometime in the mid-late 70’s at least so a LOT of my books older books (and ones I bought used) don’t have barcodes on them.

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  5. What a great post! This is *exactly* how I felt and – almost – the process I went through to get my own catalogue up and running. I kept saying “I need an intern” but no one ever told me about Elance. So I did all the work myself, over many months (because it was so boring!! and involved moving lots of books out of bins, and out of other rooms, to piles near the computer), using – I needed about 12 different accounts, because they had a limit as to how many books you could add for free. Then I exported each account into an Excel file, merged them together, and voila! Then I took the whole thing and copied it as a text file onto the bottom of my blog ( cos I couldn’t be bothered linking to all 12 LibraryThing accounts :-)
    I’m going to put a link to this post on my blog… Thank you for writing about this! :-)

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  7. Would you condone slavery? Recommend serfdom to your family and friends?

    You are doing the moral equivalent by your gleeful engagement of people for sub-living wages.

    You would laugh at the prospect of working on such terms, but you do not mind subjecting others to it.

    Do not tell me about the low cost of living in the third-world as legitimating your exploitation.

    Every time you or others (e.g., multinational companies) outsource to these third-world serfs, you bring third-world conditions and miseries closer to western shores – and to you and your children’s future.

    Thanks to your greed and laziness, you and your children will soon be working for the same peanuts you are now gleefully throwing to these beggars.

    • Congratulations Stevep, you’ve just submitted the dumbest comment I’ve ever received on my blog. Actually I’d say that your ridiculous comparison to slavery probably crosses the line from stupidity to offensiveness. There was no forced labor here. Plenty of people bid on the project and nobody had to bid unless they felt that the time they’d spend would be worth the money they’d receive.

      I’m not oblivious to the very real issues of sweat-shop labor, etc. This has nothing to do with that.

      Let’s be honest here – the obvious between-the-lines point of your message is really about you being critical of paying money over to some ‘damn foreigner’, isn’t it?

  8. Judging by Stevep’s comment, it would have been better had you never done the project at all. Obviously, whoever accepted the bid thought the $50 was worth more to him than the time expended on the chore. Value was gained on both sides. This is horrific because….? What’s missing from Stevep’s constipated ruminations are any fair conceptions of either ethics or economics. In his view, presumably, it would be best if persons always did things in the most expensive possible way. Does he follow this principle himself when shopping at the local grocery store?

  9. The mind boggles…and I STILL don’t know what to do with my modest collection of books, although not modest to someone who lives in a 1-br apt. Uhh.

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