WITH TIM SPALDING
Library Thing is an online application that enables users to catalogue, tag, search, and sort their books,
as well as making book recommendations based on the collective intelligence of other users’ libraries.
The site searches all five national Amazon sites and over 80 libraries worldwide that provide open
access to their collections with the Z39.50 protocol (used in bibliographic software, such as EndNote).
Library Thing is also a blossoming social network, connecting people with similar libraries and inter-
ests. Since launching in 2005, LibraryThing has accumulated over 619,000 users, with 36-million
books catalogued and 47-million tags applied.
Crossroads caught up with Tim Spalding, the founder and lead developer of Library Thing, to find out more about the social networking
site for bibliophiles.
Your background is in the Classics. How did you go from studying
Greek and Latin to being a Web developer and Web publisher?
Actually, it’s something of the reverse. I was a computer kid—really
the first generation of computer kids. My dad got an Apple II in 1979
or 1980 when I was eight. So I was programming very young. I focused
on text adventures, so in a way I was also atypical—computers back
then were for math. When I went to college, I decided to let computers to the side for a while. Georgetown didn’t have a good program,
and my academic interests were otherwise. Majoring in computers
was for math-heads who didn’t read. I had no desire to take courses
on Assembly Language or even C. I worked in Basic and later Pascal.
In college and after, I did do some computer work, but it was mostly
n design and other applications. After the computers stopped shipping
with languages—which happened early on and now happens again, as
every Mac has Perl, PHP, and Python at least installed—I stopped
writing in them. But I did the Filemaker database for an archaeology
dig I was on. And, at graduate school, I even wrote a program to parse
Latin meter—still quite great, if you ask me—in, get this, Filemaker.
When I left graduate school, I took a job at Houghton Mifflin
managing projects” in their instructional technology division. I had
enough background to realize that the projects were in trouble because
they were ill-managed, but because nobody knew anything about computers. For example, there was this whole process involving manual
retyping of handwritten information on a PC, because the PC program
couldn’t read Mac files. I realized that it was a line-break issue, so I got
back into programming to futz with text files—choosing Perl, of
course. I spent the next 2+ years there learning everything I could
about everything. I rose rather rapidly and was soon running a sort of
start-up within the department, with four employees reporting to me
about eBooks. Abby, Library Thing’s first hire, was first hired there.
I moved to Portland to work on my fun but labor intensive
sidore-of-Seville.com site. Basically, the idea is to make authoritative,
highly comprehensive vertical sites on topics, and make a buck or two
per day off of Google ads. It worked fairly well, but the sites proved
harder to make than I’d like. I stumbled into making Library Thing as
a side project. I did think it would make money, but I was thinking on
the order of $10/day, and I figured I’d do it and finish it.
It’s hard to imagine LibraryThing as a pet project. What was the
point at which it exploded into a business venture? How comfortable is the pile of gold upon which you now recline? As I made it, I
realized it might turn into something modestly successful. It was so
much better than anything else. Still, I was focused on the cataloging
aspect and didn’t see it as a social project until a few weeks after
launch. Indeed, I tried to partner with another site that did some
social interaction but had crap cataloging ( Bibliophil.org, which is
still around). After a few weeks, it hit the Guardian online, and from
that point, I was sleeping with my laptop.
It launched in August 2005. After a few months, I wanted to get
ome financing, eventually coming to terms with Abebooks. It was a
small investment, but the terms were generous, and they were interested in growing it.
How comfortable is the pile? Well, on paper, I’ve got a lot of
money, by my standards anyway. But I have to sell the company to get
it. I don’t want to do that anytime soon. I’m not paid so well. When
[Cambridge Information Group] bought a small percent of the company, I sold a few percent. That’s given my family a down-payment
on a house, which was very good to get.
Library Thing has rapidly grown into a large project with a huge
repository of book data, drawing a lot of traffic from its many users.
This must take substantial resources to support. Tell us about the
technology behind it all. How much software is off-the-shelf, and
how much is in-house? Well, it’s a fairly standard LAMP setup—
Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP, and Python. We also use memcached a
fair amount, and other open-source solutions sites of our sort have (e.g.,
Nagios for monitoring). Apart from some laptop software—
Quick-books, BBEdit, Excel—we don’t have any for-pay software. I don’t know
what distributions and such. We have a sysadmin, John, who does.
Scaling is the great problem of a site like LibraryThing—both
inancially and as software. We’ve moved through various scaling and
caching issues. I have a really good handle on MySQL issues—what
to normalize and what not to, etc.
As far as boxes, we have something of a muddle. The other big
problem with organic growth is that your needs change, but you can’t