Monday, January 9, 2017

Not Overdue, but Maybe Overdone

Libraries have limited shelf space, and despite the claims we may see that nobody reads anymore, they regularly purchase new books which are checked out and (avert your eyes!) read from cover to cover.

Of course, the new books require shelf space, which means older books have to go. Sometimes a library will dispense with extra copies of a former bestseller no longer in such demand. Sometimes it will unload a copy that's seen better days. And sometimes it will trade out a full-sized hardback for a smaller edition, such as a rebound "library-cover" paperback.

But sometimes it will just have to get rid of a book entirely. How can librarians determine which books are more burden than boon? Quality might be one way, of course. Anything Al Franken wrote after 1999. Or anything that Ann Coulter wrote, ever. James Patterson, Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer could do the library more good as buck-a-copy fundraiser sales than they ever did as actual novels.

That way, though, lies madness, if for no other reason than having to justify buying the crap in the first place. So there is, as so often these days, an algorithm. It sorts books according to how often they are checked out, how long they stay out, which users are more likely to seek them out, and several other factors. Books which rank highly on the algorithm get to stay. Books which do not go bye-bye. The process seems disturbingly similar to the way teenage social circles function, but never mind.

A problem can crop up when an algorithm says that a book should be yanked, but then for some reason it suddenly becomes popular again (blasted Hollywood!). The library must then spend money to get a new copy of a book it tossed.

Enter the seemingly great idea of one George Dore of the Orlando library: Create a virtual patron who would check out books and keep them above the boot line on the algorithm. Dore and an assistant created a job, address and driver's license number for their virtual reader, and now we see why it was not such a great idea. By doing so they created a "false public record," which is not legal.

Attention came to the scheme when it turned out that their virtual patron checked out more than 2100 books in a nine-month period and kept some of them only an hour. It helped raise their branch's circulation rate by almost 4 percent, which seems like a lot more than necessary to keep a few books on the shelves. Some of the branches in the Orlando system are funded based on circulation numbers, but Dore's is not one of them, which speaks either to his honest intentions or his failure in research.

Amusingly, the online magazine Mental Floss, in choosing a stock photo to go with its story on the matter, chose one of a gently curving set of shelves stuffed with brightly-colored book spines. Which, upon closer examination, are all blank.

Meaning that this story about a fake library patron is illustrated with a picture of fake books, and that's probably got something significant to say if I could just figure out what.

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