January 22, 2008

Alexandria: Book cataloging the way it should be

Author: Bruce Byfield

GNU/Linux inherits a tradition of small programs that do one thing very well. A modern example of this tradition is Alexandria, a dedicated book cataloger for GNOME. Although a few workarounds would make it almost as useful as KDE's Tellico for other collections, especially music, Alexandria's focus remains squarely on books and their organization by library, status, and ratings. Perhaps its closest analogy is the online LibraryThing, although Alexandria actually predates LibraryThing and is designed for private, desktop use.

Available as a Debian or source package, Alexandria recently released version 0.6.2.b2 after a couple of years without an update. The new interface is much the same as the one in earlier versions, with libraries listed in a table of contents page on the left and the contents of selected libraries on the right as either a series of book covers or a list. The main difference is that the left pane now includes a series of views or Smart Libraries based on the ratings assigned to individual books. Read, Wishlist, Owned, Loaned, and Favorite are the default views, although you can add additional ones based on tags.

Libraries are Alexandria's equivalent of directories, and its main organizing principle. For example, you might choose to use a single library for all your books under the default name of "My Library," or create a series of libraries by subject or publisher. You can also import libraries from a text file consisting of one ISBN number on each line, or from a Tellico file. You can also rename and delete libraries, although the availability of these functions is inexplicably intermittent. Similarly, clicking the Refresh button -- when it works at all -- only alphabetizes the list of libraries once; after that, the position of libraries remains the same, regardless of how you rename them.

There are four ways to add a book to a library. The easiest way is to click the New Book icon on the toolbar or press Ctrl-N to open the Adding a Book dialog window. From the dialog, you can search online lists of books such as ones on Amazon.com for an ISBN, title, author, or keyword. Alternatively, you can scan a book's barcode. If you cannot find a book -- perhaps because it is out of print -- you can enter it manually. A fourth choice is to import it, either from another library or from a Tellico or plain text file that lists ISBNs one per line.

In addition to bibliographical information such as the writer, title, ISBN, publisher, and publication date, each book listing in Alexandria includes a cover, if one can be found online. In addition, you can choose to enter information about the binding -- generally, hardcover or paperback. You can further describe a book by adding tags, rating it on a five point system, and noting whether you own or want it or have read it. On another tab of the dialog window for each book, you can record when and to whom the book was loaned. A third tab is reserved for general notes.

To find a book as your catalogue grows, you can either use the Smart Libraries, or a browser-like search feature for bibliographical information or notes, which narrows down selections as you continue to type. You also have the option of exporting a library to Tellico or Bibtex formats, a CSV file, a text file of ISBNs, or an HTML file complete with cover graphics.

Alexandria works by searching online sources for bibliographic information. To some extent, these sources are editable from Edit -> Preferences -> Providers. Some of these sources can be edited -- for instance, you can choose which country's version of Amazon.com to search.

However, the most useful customization is to arrange the order in which providers are searched. In particular, English-speaking users will probably want to make sure that Amazon and Barnes and Nobles are at the top of the list of providers, while providers for non-English books are at the bottom.

Aside from the intermittent library functions, Alexandria leaves little to be desired. Its interface and functions are understandable at a glance, and detailed online help is available if you want to ensure that you aren't missing any finer points. Moreover, online searches are as fast as your Internet connection can make them, rarely taking more than 20 seconds.

I have no doubt that, by its 1.0 release, Alexandria will be a fast and efficient program. Meanwhile, I recommend it with only the mildest reservations.


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