The Invisible Library

I had a kind of epiphany, years ago, on the bookmobile.  We made a weekly stop every Wednesday at the Sing gas station and convenience store in the northeast part of Leon County, where most of the county's growth was happening in the '80's and '90's:  Killearn, Oxbottom Manor, Killearn Lakes, Golden Eagle Estates.

Our other stops were bi-weekly, but this weekly stop was so busy that I had to  take extra bags of books to restock the shelves.  We regularly checked out over 500 books in that three-hour stop.  Toward the end, before a permanent branch was opened there in 1994, our courier had to come in the middle of the stop to pick up the bags of returns stacked outside the vehicle for lack of floorspace inside.

Anyway, one day,  after a wave of patrons had picked the shelves clean, I realized that the living collection, the materials that are actually being used, is mostly not on the shelf.  This might seem obvious and simplistic, but it hit me then with some force: that what is on the shelf is what our users don't want, and what they want is not on the shelf.

This has become even more the case since patrons have been granted the power to reserve their own materials  online, even titles that are still on-order.  Bestseller books and DVD's often come down from processing with tens or hundreds of outstanding holds, and do not land on the shelf for months.  I think The Da Vinci Code must have set a record, having taken a couple of years before a copy could be found on the shelf.

The observation was brought home to me again recently when I began to create a display of what I initially called "Malcolm Gladwell readalikes".

I had noticed that Gladwell's bestselling non-fiction titles, The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, had inspired a host of imitators, many with unabashedly imitative one-word titles, Sync, Traffic, Drive.  He had sparked a new style of writing about popular social psychology.

One thing I did discover is that Gladwell was not entirely original in his very successful approach.  In 2000, Harvard Business Press published The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid:
From the chief scientist of Xerox Corporation and a research specialist in cultural studies at UC-Berkeley comes a treatise that casts a critical eye at all the hype surrounding the boom of the information age. The authors' central complaint is that narrowly focusing on new ways to provide information will not create the cyber-revolution so many technology designers have visualized. The problem (or joy) is that information acquires meaning only through social context. (PW)
The Social Life of Information has gained the status of a seminal work, continuing to garner reviews at Amazon as recently as last year.

In 2002, Gladwell published an article in the New Yorker magazine, The Social Life of Paper.  It was the first time I had heard of him, and I was fascinated, sending the article to a number of colleagues.  Brown and Duguid  had discussed paper, and I think that Gladwell used that as a jumping off point for his essay.  I am a "messy desk" person, and here was Gladwell demonstrating that the piles on my desk had a kind of logic and design.

When I was in the Library & Information Studies program at FSU, I was most interested by the classes that looked at bibliometrics, (the "behavior" of information), and at "sense-making", (how and why people search for information).  Understanding these things is what makes an Information Professional, (a librarian), more valuable than a clerk or a paraprofessional.  My Gladwell readalikes idea began to be very interesting.

I used Amazon to generate a raw list, using the "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" tool, and added titles by finding what else was on the shelf where those titles would be.  I came up with 40 titles, almost a third of which had all copies checked out or were only available from branches.  I was attempting to display a portion of that "invisible library", to take a snapshot of a moving target.  I was able to round up a fair number of them by placing holds.

So why bother, if these books are already in demand?  Because it pleases me to do so.  But also because of my duty to advise our readers.  They may have enjoyed Blink, and not know that other, similar books exist.

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