Last month, I described how I created a virtual bookshelf, resulting in a digital database of my library's metadata. Once I had that local index, I wanted to find an elegant way to publish it online. The software I used offers a "Publish to FTP site" that produces an HTML listing, but it doesn't integrate with any CMS or social network that I use. I chose instead to investigate Web sites that specialize in this service and which offer social networking features that allow me to share my library with friends.

First I looked at LibraryThing, recommended to me by a librarian. Although its online tour presented a visually attractive interface, I eliminated LibraryThing as a potential contender almost immediately upon reading this caveat: "A free account allows you to catalog up to 200 books. A paid account allows you to catalog any number of books." Anyone with a sufficiently extensive collection that warrants indexing likely has more than 200 books. Since mine is in excess of 600, I chose not to join this community of 1.2 million readers.

By contrast, Shelfari is free and features a bookshelf that looks similar to the one on my computer. It's owned by Amazon.com and integrates with one's purchases there, which ostensibly is a benefit, but I actually don't prefer consolidation — Amazon.com is a store, not a social network, and I'd like to keep those needs distinct. Otherwise, I'd likely just use Amazon.com's own media library service.

One online service I did not investigate was aNobii. bookarmy, closed in December 2010, was also not a contender.

Ultimately, I chose Goodreads, which was founded in October 2006 (two months after Shelfari) and has 4.4 million members. Being one of the older and larger online book cataloging services, it seemed more likely to offer an extensive member and book database for me to exploit. Goodreads also provides a widget that I can easily embed into Wordbits.net to dynamically inform visitors what I'm currently reading.

Exporting my library out of my Mac software and into Goodreads was simple but required editing the CSV file's headers from the former's "Creator" to the latter's "Author" and the like. Even then, Goodreads did not acknowledge all metadata made available to it: importation of whether or not I owned a copy of the book, as well as when and where it was purchased, is not supported, even though that same metadata is included in an export out of Goodreads. I had to manually edit batches of my books to identify which I owned (ie, all of them). But since books can exist in my Goodreads collection without me actually owning them, Goodreads thus becomes practical as a list not just of my books, but of any books that I want to read or purchase, or books that I have read without having purchased (courtesy my local public library).

Goodreads has a couple other quirks. For example, it's not immediately obvious how to move a book among the mutually exclusive "To Read", "Currently Reading", and "Read" shelves. Simply removing it from its current shelf won't do; it must instead be added to one of the other two.

But that's a result of Goodreads being used not just for static metadata, like my local index, but also for dynamic content. I can mark when I started reading a book, how far I've progressed each day, when I finished, and what I thought of it when I was done. Each of these updates can be put into a newsfeed for your friends can see and comment on — though, despite its large audience, very few people I know are on the service, which limits its usefulness.

I don't know if I would find myself with more friends if Goodreads tried harder to be more like Facebook, but I'm glad it doesn't. In its discussion groups have been requests for half-star ratings and thumbs up/down on individual comments, both of which have been flatly denied. Neither of those features would encourage the sort of intelligent and literary discourse that will help me find and interpret books, and I'm glad to leave them to other social networks to implement. (That said, the Goodreads application for Facebook seems quite popular.)

I haven't yet found a ton of value in publishing my catalog to Goodreads, though once I start rating more of my books, it may help me find similar books to read — a problem I've never had, as indicated by the 132 entries on my "to-read" shelf! But as a social complement to my own inventory tracking software, I find Goodreads an effective and free service, and one I hope more of my friends will join me on.