Open Source Musings The thoughts, ideas, and opinions of an open source guy

Managing ebooks with calibre

An ebook reader

Chances are, have a pile of ebooks in any number of formats — like PDF, EPUB, and even .mobi — on your computer. Chances are those ebooks are scattered across a directory or four. Which means finding an ebook at any given time can be a bit of a chore.

One way around that is to do some housekeeping. You can manually move your ebooks around into dedicated set of folders or subfolders. Instead of doing that, why not use calibre to manage your ebooks?

Let’s take a look at how to do that.

A short introduction to calibre

calibre is a kind of like a Swiss Army knife for ebooks. It lets you manage, convert, and even read ebooks. It can also transfer them between your computer and your ereader. While many people see calibre as being an ebook reader, it excels as an ebook management tool. In case you’re wondering, I’ll be looking at using calibre for reading and testing ebooks in a future post.

calibre treats your collection of ebooks as a library. That, plus calibre’s features, gives you a lot of flexibility with how you can categorize, view, and maintain your books.

On top of all that, calibre is quite flexible when it comes to ebook formats. Among others, the application lets you work with ebooks in the following formats: EPUB, PDF, MOBI, ODT, HTML, plain text, and DjVu. You can get a full list of the supported formats here.

Getting up and running

Obviously, the first step is to download and install calibre. Linux users have the choice of installing the application automatically or to install by compiling the source code. I’ve always used the automatic installation and have never had a problem.

Once you’ve got calibre on your computer, a launcher icon is added to your menu. On Linux Mint, for example, you can find it under Menu > Office.

calibre main window

Adding ebooks to the calibre library

When you first start up calibre, your library is obviously empty. You need to manually add ebooks to that library. The most common ways you can do that are to add:

  • Individual ebooks.
  • The contents of a single directory.
  • The contents of a directory and its sub directories.

Click the downward-pointing arrow beside the Add books button on the toolbar.

Adding books

Select one of the options from the menu that flies out. If you’re adding the contents of a directory or a directory and its subdirectories, calibre scans every folder for ebooks before importing them.

Books being added

Depending on how many books you have in one or more directories, calibre can take a few seconds or a minute or more to pull in your books.

Here’s what a very basic library looks like:

Imported library

Editing books

No, I don’t mean editing the books themselves (although you can do that with calibre). I mean editing the metadata associated with the book. When you add books to calibre, sometimes bits of metadata are missing. Often, I’ve found, that happens with PDFs and the main bit of information that’s missing is the name of the book’s author. Sometimes, the title isn’t correct.

You can add or edit the metadata associated with a book by clicking on the book and then clicking on the Edit Metadata.

Editing metadata

In the example above, the name of the book file is in the Title field and the Author field reads unknown. Highlight the text in those fields and replace it with the actual information. You can also add tags that will appear in the left pane of the calibre window, specify the language of the book, its publisher, and the date on which it was published.

If you don’t want to do that by hand, then you can click the Download Metadata button. calibre will try to get the metadata for the book from, Google, Open Library, and the online ISBN database (a database of nine- to 13-digit book identification numbers).


With some books, though, that information might not exist online and the download will fail. When that happens, the following error message appears:


Sorting books

calibre sorts books by the date on which the books were added to the library — the ones that were most-recently added to the library appear at the top of the list. You can also sort based on the title and author of the book by clicking on the header of the book list.

Sorting books

That works well if you have a handful of books in your library. But what happens if you have a lot of them? You can use the Tag Browser in the left-hand portion of the calibre window.

Tag Browser

I usually use the Tag Browser to sort by author. To do that, click Author and then select the author from the list. In the example below, I’ve narrowed in on the author Leo Babauta.

Sort by author

If you edited the metadata for any of your books and added tags, you can expand the Tags item in the Tag Browser and then click the tag you want to focus on.

Removing books

I never thought I’d say this, but sometimes you can have too many books. At least, too many books in calibre. Those could be books that you no longer want to read, or for which a new edition has been released. You’ll want to get remove those books from calibre.

To do that, click on the name of the book that you want to remove. You can Shift-click or CTRL-click to select multiple books. Then, click the Remove books button on the toolbar. You’ll be asked to confirm whether or not you want to delete the books. Click OK.

Note that doing this doesn’t delete the books from your computer. It just removes them from the calibre library.

Final thoughts

calibre is one of those great tools that’s very flexible. It does a number of things, and does many of those things well. It especially excels at managing ebooks. If you have a large library of ebooks and want to better organize them, you should definitely give calibre a look.

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