My new library superpower

The recommendations that matter to me — for books to read, movies to watch, products to buy, places to visit — almost never come from algorithms. Instead they come from friends, family, acquaintances, and now also, in the case of books, from fellow library patrons whom I’ve never met.

This last source is a recent discovery. Here’s how it works. When I enter the library, I walk past shelves of new books and staff picks. These are sometimes appealing, but there’s a much better source of recommendations to be found at the back of the library. There, on shelves and carts, are the recently-returned books ready to be reshelved. I always find interesting titles among them. Somehow I had never noticed that you can scan these titles, and check out the ones you want before they ever get reshelved. Did it always work this way at our library? At libraries in other places I’ve lived? If so I am woefully late to the party, but for me, at least, this has become a new superpower.

I reckon that most books in the library rarely if ever leave the shelves. The recently-returned section is a filter that selects for books that patrons found interesting enough to check out, read (or maybe not), and return. That filter has no bias with respect to newness or appeal to library staff. And it’s not being manipulated by any algorithm. It’s a pure representation of what our library’s patrons collectively find interesting.

The library’s obvious advantage over the bookstore is the zero price tag. But there’s a subtler advantage. In the bookstore, you can’t peruse an anonymized cache of recently-bought books. Online you can of course tap into the global zeitgeist but there you’re usually being manipulated by algorithms. LibraryThing doesn’t do that, and in principle it’s my kind of place online, but in practice I’ve never succeeded in making it a habit. I think that’s because I really like scanning titles that I can just take off a shelf and read for free. Not even drone delivery can shorten the distance between noticing and reading to seconds. Ebooks can, of course. But that means another screen, I already spend too much time looking at screens, the print medium provides a welcome alternative.

This method has been so effective that I’ve been (guiltily) a bit reluctant to describe it. After all, if everyone realized it’s better to bypass the new-book and staff-pick displays and head straight for the recently-returned area, the pickings would be slimmer there. But I’m nevertheless compelled to disclose the secret. Since few if any of my library’s patrons will ever read this post, I don’t think I’m diluting my new superpower by explaining it here. And who knows, maybe I’ll meet some interesting people as I exercise it.


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4 thoughts on “My new library superpower

  1. Yep, this is a thing, can confirm. The thing is, there’s also strong overlap between library patrons and thinky-media consumers (NPR, NYT, etc.), so you’ll see a lot of current-topics (new and relevant old titles), recently-reviewed-or-discussed, and recently-published-with-strong-marketing books on those carts. And then you’ll think, “Oh, I’d been curious about that,” — because you’ve been listening to the same programs, reading the same stories — and pick up books. So for instance, as conversation heats up about socialism, and I expect it will in a few years, I’d look for new nonfiction there as well as new editions of oldies like The Road to Wigan Pier and How the Other Half Lives. Any time there’s hot action in the Senate you’ll see Robert Caro titles popping up. $4/gal gas spawned not only a Jane Jacobs renaissance (convenient, what with the 50th anniversary of the publication of Death and Life of Great American Cities) but a spate of popular green-urban-design and personal sustainability titles — again, big winners with the public library crowd. Nothing more “reduce, reuse, recycle” than a public library.

    I guess that’s the main thing. I think your technique works well so long as you recall that public library patrons who are not young children skew old, leftish, and well-educated. Your business-travel airport tablet-reader seldom sets foot in a public library, may not even know where the library is in their town. And well-appointed public libraries live in cities with high levels of education. The best small public library I’ve been in is the Wellfleet, Mass. public library, which has a piano for concerts and a 2nd-ed. Roget’s. Wellfleet is the summer home of many retired Boston-area academics. I’d say the collection there is as well-chosen as the one in the U of Chicago Lab School high school library. But most towns that size would count themselves lucky to have a library at all.

    Also, most public libraries cull frequently. Books that have not been checked out in 5+ years tend to get pulled, which is why you have to go online or to an academic library to find classics of yesteryear that no one reads anymore.

    More: Used bookstores are strongly reflective of the literary culture of that particular town or even neighborhood, rather than any national set of literary interests, though you’ll see the ghosts of past decades’ literary fashions there. Since a lot of used stock comes from estate sales, you’ll see strong representation of big names from 20-40 years ago.

    There’s also some overlap between recent-returns and face-out/tables in your nearest Barnes & Noble, but you’d have to know what you were looking for, since adult public library patrons tend to be further upmarket educationally than B&N customers are.

    Staff picks emerged as a marketing technique in the 80s, when people used to wander into neighborhood bookstores and wanted guidance from booksellers rather than an extended browse. (Browsing is more or less gone among younger people, but they get peer-group recommendations rather than employee recs.) It has some loyal fans but I don’t see it lasting much longer.

  2. I think Amy’s said it better than I could. I’m a frequent library visitor, but I’ve never tried this, so thanks for the tip!

  3. The one generality I’d accept in the post and original response is that scanning the just-returned carts is a thing. In fact, librarians love it, since every book (or DVD) plucked off the cart is one item less that needs to be shelved.

    Can’t speak for all libraries, but at our library (where I work) 61% of our books circulated last year (it’ll be a LOT lower in a large metropolitan library, and almost non-existent at a research library) and our turnover (circs/collection) was 4.1. So it depends on the community, and the support it gives the library, financially and with their presence, how the collection moves.

    Library usage definitely leans female, and older, but, again, it depends on the community. Our usage and circulation in a reasonably conservative community is higher than both the similarly conservative town, and the more liberal town, that are both adjacent.

    The slow trend in libraries is to put in materials management systems that accept your items as you walk in the door (or drive up) and convey them to sorters — obviating the need for just-returned carts. So use your superpower until it’s taken away by next-gen tech.

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