Bookish people may not be known for their social skills, but a crop of social-networking Web sites aimed at bibliophiles are allowing readers to connect with the page — and with each other — in a brand new "virtual" environment.
Think of it as Facebook or MySpace for people who'd rather browse in a book shop than go to a party. Book-centered sites like LibraryThing, Goodreads, Shelfari, aNobii and BookJetty, among others, allow readers to keep track of books they have read or books they want to read or buy — and see what others are reading and recommending.
Book social networking is believed to have begun in 2005, when Tim Spaulding, founder of LibraryThing, launched the site as a way to organize his own personal book sprawl. The site took off immediately, and Spaulding added ways to socialize and exchange information about books.
LibraryThing allows users to search particular titles to see how many other readers have that book on their shelves, and how many have reviewed it. There are also suggestions of related books to read; it's a virtual feast of information.
"When you've entered your books on LibraryThing, it tells you that this person shares 50 books with you, and that provides a sort of possibility," Spaulding explains. "You can look at their library, you can get suggestions from it, you can even engage them in conversation."
Sean Flannagan, who runs the blog Deeplinking.net, explores art and cultural trends on the Web. He says there are around 40 book-focused networking sites.
"People tend to define themselves by their books, and they love to show off their book collections at home," Flannagan says. "I think book social networks act as an extension of that."
Book lovers seem to agree; hundreds of thousands of them are signing up. But the sites aren't just for readers. When poet Jennifer Chang's first book, The History of Anonymity, was published, she used Goodreads to promote appearances and reach new poetry lovers.
Otis Chandler, who founded Goodreads in January 2007, says its "authors" program was created specifically for members who write books.
"If you know anything about MySpace and how they've gotten big by allowing bands to have profiles, ... it's the same sort of concept," Chandler says. "We allow authors to have profiles; it's ending up being a really great way for authors — especially smaller, self-published authors — to build a fan base."
The social networking sites tend to specialize in customization. Many offer widgets that allow users to put their virtual book shelves on a private blog or Web site, and Chandler says Goodreads is constantly working to respond to user feedback. After all, if readers can't do what they want on one book social networking site, they'll take their libraries elsewhere.
Martha Woodroof reports from member station WMRA in Harrisonburg, VA.