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> He says his aim was actually to save the library money in the long run, by not having to repurchase books which often go in and out of fashion with readers. One of Finley’s choices, for instance, was John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row.”

Any librarian worth their salt will tell you that every library should have a copy of Cannery Row. Any algorithm that says it should be discarded is simply wrong.

Circulation numbers can be very useful. But they cannot tell you what people will be looking for in the future. Common sense and experience are necessary to put the list in the proper context.

A good librarian can talk knowledgeably about thousands of books. They are community treasures that are not easily replaced by algorithms. They do a lot more than just put books on the shelf. Just as there will always be bartenders, there will always be librarians.

There is a culture war going on in libraries. The old guard -- book reading, book loving librarians -- are being replaced, especially at the top, by hip "Library Scientists" who want to push ebooks, internet access terminals and even rock concerts in libraries.

Ultimately there is a balance to be struck. Budgets are tight and libraries are evolving. But if libraries are going to remain useful and relevant, they will need to provide both internet access AND copies of "Cannery Row".

That said, the guy in the article did a bad thing and he'll likely lose his job at minimum.

This effectively boils down to whether libraries should serve what people actually read/do - or what they "should" read. Pretty much all the comments from this article fall on one of the two sides with each person talking past each other.

I don't think that the issue isn't the difference between what people "should" and do read, but between what people read now and what they're likely to read in the future (on the scale of years or decades). Collective tastes of the public ebb and flow over time.

The trick would be between finding the difference between actually needing the book later, or just hoarding something that will never be needed again...or at least, that introduces more of a cost to keep than it would cost to dispose of it and buy it again later if it does come back into fashion.

Optimizing for future use would generally lead you to purging most older books altogether, as newly released books generally have higher readership. With few exceptions its unlikely for popular taste to switch to a classic book en masse at the same time.

The only exception is if you knew a school were to assign the book as required reading to an entire grade - but that's really a rare and special case.

FWIW I think there is room for curated "should read" sections in a library. Optimizing purely for use is more the purview of a bookstore. But to support that the bulk of the shelf space should be serving the broadest use possible.

I had in mind cases where a book might surge from being checked out once a year to being checked out once a month, maybe something like a historical book about a specific Native American tribe when they're in the news for a while, or something.

It seems like one of those "big data things", looking for odd relationships between things, like vampires being more popular during Democratic presidencies and zombies being more popular during Republican ones (as a tongue-in-cheek example: http://www.mrscienceshow.com/2009/05/correlation-of-week-zom...)

The librarian in the article cited a future need to re-buy a book that was previously culled. I guess what I'm trying to work toward would be an idea of finding non-obvious signs of when certain categories of books might become more and less popular, what patterns (if any) govern that schedule, and from that, make predictions of expected cost in keeping certain books around, as opposed to selling them off immediately. I'm playing around with the idea of whether there's a better way than "current readership + age of book" to predict, to a useful degree, the probability of it being more or less popular in the future.

There's more than just the merit of the title to consider, however. Condition is an ignored part of many library collection policies. Books that look old and dirty are a turn off for users. I've said over and over again, "If a book is worth buying, it's worth buying again." If in doubt, throw it out. Buy a new one.

Curious why you think Cannery Row is such an important novel?

Well, it's no Of Mice and Men, but:

- Steinbeck is a major American writer (Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize). I feel like any library should have a complete collection of his works, if possible.

- He wrote a sequel called Sweet Thursday.If you're going to keep a copy of that, you'd best keep Cannery Row too.

- It's really thin. Like maybe 1/6 of an inch. Won't take up much space.

- It's often assigned in schools.

To be honest, I didn't like it very much. Now that I think about it, maybe the algorithm was on to something. :)

There's a lot of important works that aren't very likable, but that doesn't diminish their importance.

Maybe you hate A Tale of Two Cities or loathe A Handmaid's Tale, but it's important that books that make up the cultural foundation or provide relevant commentary on it are available.

If it was all about popularity the library would be jammed full of nothing but garbage by John Grisham, Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer. It would be high-fructose all the way.

Eat your vegetables. Digest difficult, disagreeable things.

Honestly, if you're running an algorithm based solely on circulation numbers without taking into account at least one "Greatest 100 books of all time" list then you're overweighting immediate observation and underweighting historical consensus.

... Besides, what's the point of having books on shelves if you can't browse and find something great?

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