I have what I consider a vast book collection. I'd never quantified its contents except to observe the growing physical space it occupied in my home, not always knowing how it was doing so. A few times, I bought a book twice, not realizing I already had a copy on my "to-read" shelf. I decided it would be a worthwhile undertaking to make some sort of index of my library, not only as reference but also as a backup: should my books ever be lost or damaged, I'll know what to replace.

Delicious Library 2I'd already compiled a similar catalog of my DVDs using the Macintosh program Delicious Library. It was a project that had to wait until I had a computer with an inbuilt webcam, as then I could hold my DVD cases up to the monitor and have their barcodes scanned, downloading all their metadata from Amazon.com. It didn't take long to scan all 200 movies or so.

But books are a different matter: they're larger, bulkier, and sometimes more fragile. It seemed too laborious to lug my laptop to each shelf of books (or to carry each book to my computer desk) and scan the titles individually.

I decided to get a handheld barcode scanner. Delicious Library supports Bluetooth devices and recommends (and sells) the Microvision RoV scanner, which costs hundreds of dollars. I opted instead for a secondhand Microvision Flic scanner off eBay, which proved to be a mistake. Although the scanner paired with my MacBook just fine and emitted the expected red light and beeped in recognition of a barcode, it never transmitted that data back to the computer, indicating a wasted purchase. Faced with that defeat, my project stalled.

But a pending move threatens those books with storage, and I wanted to know what I'd collected before they went out of sight. I finally caved and went about the scanning process the cumbersome way.

The part of the process that was least curmudgeonly was the software. Delicious Library recognized the barcodes easily and spoke their names as it downloaded their information. If I accidentally scanned something twice, it pulled up the existing entry rather than make a new one.

There were a few special cases that required manual entry. Some books didn't list their ISBNs at all, so I went searching on Amazon.com or Google for that data. And many older paperbacks have barcodes on their back covers that scan incorrectly; the right barcode is on the inside front cover.

Altogether, indexing just over 600 books took less time than I'd spent trying to get the Bluetooth scanner working. Many of those books had their original receipts tucked inside, so I later added the purchase date, place, and price to my digital metadata. This second pass was more tedious than the first, requiring as it did no scanning, just data entry.

Delicious Library book collection

A sampling of my actual shelf, represented virtually.

The result is an exhaustive and beautiful virtual bookshelf that catalogs my collection. With the trend toward e-books, this database of metadata only, without the books' actual contents, may seem antiquated — but I find it to be the best of both worlds.