How to Keep Track of All Those Books?

on Wednesday, April 22, 2020

With many people working from home or otherwise having time on their hands these days, no doubt many railroad fans are delving back into their library of books. I know I have, and over the years I have amassed a fairly large collection. I’ve got them organized on shelves, alphabetically by railroad, then if not specific to a railroad, alphabetical by subject matter. Still, over the years I’ve managed to actually buy two copies of a books not remembering I already had them, and I was always seeking a better way to keep track of them.


In this Internet age, there are now apps you can use to do just that. The one I use is called Book Collector, which was suggested to me by rail historian Jeff Terry. It has both desktop and mobile app versions (you have to pay for both, but you get a discount for a “bundle” purchase), and allows you to browse, sort and search your book collection with various layouts and views.


I’m by no means a computer expert, but I found the software easy to use. It allows you to enter the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) of a book (or in the mobile version use your phone’s camera to scan the QR code). If the software finds it (and in the majority of the cases it does) it will pop onto your screen with all the relevant information: title, author, hardcover or softcover, page count, publisher and year, subjects, even the book’s cover. It also has a feature that allows you to sync your information to the Cloud, so if something were to happen to your “base” computer, you would still have all your information available.


Book Collector’s main screen is customizable, so that you can make it look the way you want. You can choose between several differentlayouts for the main screen folder, book list and details panels. But to be honest, I don’t really care how it works, as long as it is easy to use.


And it is: you can search for books by railroad, author, geography, just about anything as long as it is in some way related to a title. For example, just entering the word “passenger” in the search window will bring up every book related to passenger trains, even if it is not in the title, because “passenger” would be found in the subject area when it was entered in the database.

The screen showing the layout for book collector.


But what happens if the book predates the ISBN number system? The system then allows you do a search by author and/or title. If this doesn’t work there is another way, entering the book manually. With a large library, this becomes very time consuming, since you have to enter all the relevant details yourself. If you can’t find a book’s cover using the software’s search engine or can’t find it on the Internet (if you want the cover in your system, it’s not necessary) then you have to enter that as well. Since railroad titles are often obscure, I found myself countless times taking an iPhone photo of a cover and uploading it.


There are other features that you can enter, such as where and when you purchased a book, its price (and current value), even if you’ve read it and how many times you have. The software keeps a running tally of how many books you have (my current count is 830). In addition to “real” books I decided to use it for other written materials, such as railroad annual reports, locomotive operating manuals, and some old railroad documents I collected over the years. Of course, all these have to be entered manually. I decided not to enter railroad employee or public timetables because I have so many of them, but that could certainly be done to help you keep track of those as well.


Once you start the process, it can become addicting. When I finally finished, I decided to create another catalog - which is easy to do – of all the “non-railroad” books we have in our home. That was also a fun exercise to discover just what we have – and how many there are.


While normally I wouldn’t take the time to sit down and log all those books at one time, being stuck at home and staring at the library every day pushed me to do it. It was a fun and helped take my mind off the reality of life these days.


Book Collector can be found at


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