The ultimate in open-source e-book management.

I've got e-books—a lot of e-books. I was one of those geeks who, when he found Projects Gutenberg and Perseus, was convinced the Rapture would happen tomorrow because life had reached its highest pinnacle on the celestial plains.

If the rapture didn't happen, nuclear war might. So I wanted to make sure I'd have all the books I could get my hands on. When Fictionwise and Tor started giving books away, I was there too. When non-DRM-encumbered books became available through Smashwords, I started picking them up as I could afford them. Ditto for Doctorow's stuff and other e-books by friends of mine—and let's not even mention the hundreds of NASA, Navy and Army manuals I use for research.

Fast-forward 13 years since discovering Project Perseus, and I have more e-books than I really know how to deal with. More than an embarrassment of riches, it was a bloody mess and high time to do something about it.

E-book Management: the Old Way

Generation one of my library organization project went the way any competent, non-database-designing sysadmin would do it: with a sensible directory structure. After many hours, I wound up with a system that was excellent for nonfiction, but crap for fiction. After all, the best you can do with a good directory tree is break out by genre, author and series. That's adequate for reference materials, but not great for the inevitable “hmmm...what do I want to read next?”

A good library needs good metadata, and directory structures have squat. E-book management software that ships with many readers attempt to do this, but they tend to have proprietary ties to devices and operating systems. They're usually not Linux-friendly, and they're also not very friendly to collection longevity. DRM? Proprietary formats? Thank you, no.

What I needed was something like iTunes or Amarok, but with a decent interface, designed for books. Fortunately, I wasn't the only person with this problem.

E-book Management: the New Way

Enter Calibre, the Python-based, data-fetching, universally device-compatible e-book management and conversion program. The product specs are ambitious, and the implementation is, though occasionally bumpy, pretty darn spectacular.

Unlike most proprietary, device-specific management programs, Calibre converts all major formats into one another (I do not know how it handles DRM, as at the time of this writing the DMCA overthrow has just come down—happy day!—so any such features are as yet undocumented), and allows medium-grained metadata control over all of them. For fine-grained metadata control, you need more specialized tools, or you need to edit the files directly with a compatible editor. For example, Sigil does this quite splendidly for EPUB. For households with multiple species of e-readers, this is a must.

Calibre also can autopopulate your library's metadata, pulling it down from a number of different on-line databases by title, author and ISBN.

It allows rating, so you can keep track of how much you liked your book.

It has a very handsome cover art browser.

It can store Open Document Format files as e-books and create metadata for them. This gives it the nice unintended utility as a version control system for authors.

It comes with a native e-book reader that allows limited annotations and can view a number of the supported formats. For those formats that Calibre does not support reading directly, it will launch your operating system's default viewer with the click of a button.

It also nests multiple formats of the same book under the same entry in the database and directory structure, so when you convert, say, a PDF to Kindle format for your Kindle, you don't have duplicate titles popping up in your book list.

It syncs to more than 20 different makes and models of e-book reader and also allows you to access most readers (even the unsupported ones) in mass storage mode, so you're future-proofed if you change reader platforms later on.

So, what are we waiting for?


Calibre can be found at an uncommonly well-designed Web site: Click the download button, select Linux from the following screen (you'll notice that it also runs on Mac and Windows—a plus for those of us with multiplatform networks), and read the following screen first.

Calibre is picky about the dependencies; the glibc and Python versions are particularly important. Recent distributions are all in compliance, but older distros might require some updating to work properly (you also may need to compile them yourself—a fairly trivial undertaking—of course, your mileage may vary).

Assuming you're in compliance, copy the code from the code window into your root terminal (you must run the install as root; otherwise, it tends to fail with nasty comments about your intelligence, heritage and recreational proclivities), and press Enter. If all goes well, a new item should appear in your window manager's start menu. If it didn't, you most likely missed a dependency.