Laws of Library Physics

by Lara

Some time ago I announced to interested parties (namely my parents and siblings) the First Law of Library Physics. This is the law that dictates that when a patron asks us to locate a book, a disproportionate percentage of the time the books turns out to be on a top or bottom shelf (of seven; this should only happen 2/7 of the time, so if it's 50%, this is weird). Now, for years we didn't think this was a law of physics at all; we thought it was a manifestation of the property of laziness found in patrons--we thought that if the book was on the stretchy-tall top shelf or the hunchy-over bottom shelf, people just weren't willing to look with much care and that's why we had such a ridiculous number of these searches, and probably in addition, was indicative of the property of laziness in folks shelving books, too, for the same kind of reason. However, events transpired which caused us to rethink this hypothesis. In the mid-nineties, we renovated the library and spread out the previous 2 floors of books onto 3 floors. We spread out the books as we went, allowing growth space that wasn't there before and necessarily changing the arrangement of books on ranges and so forth. Despite this complete overhaul of stacks arrangement, when we revisited searches which had initially been requested (and not found) before renovation, and now we were looking again, still some half or so were on top and bottom shelves. And so we discarded the belief that this was simply a manifestation of the laziness property, and called it a Law.

The First Law has at least a couple of corollaries.

The First Corollary to the First Law of Library Physics is as follows: if a patron is an individual with some physical disability which prevents easy access to some shelves in our collection (such as ones above the midpoint, or ones in particularly narrow aisles), that patron will find materials in her search of the catalog which reside entirely in those difficult-to-access areas. She will discover upon a trip to the Stacks that she will need assistance to garner every single book she needs. We have no doubt this is not a property to be associated with the patron. This is a corollary to The Law.

The Second Corollary to the First Law of Library Physics is: if a patron is trying to find a book which should be available but is shelved momentarily in a sorting area, that books will be on the shelf most difficult to sort through at that moment. This corollary came to our attention last spring, when, due to circumstances beyond our control, including total catastrophic failure of the library catalog's indexing system during spring finals week, the back-up of returned books at year's end was even worse than usual. The shelves in the sorting room (a non-public area) were at least full for each shelf, and about a third of them at any given time had two rows of books on them: against the back and then a front row overhanging the edge. The areas upstairs where carts of books remain to await shelving were full, there were stacks of books in call number order on the floor...it was a mess. Needless to say, any patron looking for a specific book returned during that time frame would have to ask staff for assistance. Stacks shelvers were trying to stay at least somewhat ahead of the game by trying first to relieve the doubled-up shelves. So for instance, if the shelf with call numbers D-DA was doubled up, the first time they had a cart available, they'd pull those books as top priority. Course, at the same time, more were still flowing in faster than they could be shelves as leases expired around campus (!) so just about the time they'd get that managed, well, the shelf holding DB-DC would double up. So here we became aware of the second corollary. If a patron asks at the desk for a book s/he can't find that is supposed to be available, at the moment s/he asks, the shelf upon which that book would reside in the sorting room is doubled up.

I have now recently (July 2001) discovered The Second Law of Library Physics, which is to be described as follows:

If the Library in the course of human and written events finds it necessary to identify some number of its Inscribed Inhabitants (colloquially identified as "books") to be relocated to a Storage Facility not within the confines of the Library, and if the Staff of the Library undertake to determine which of the Inscribed Inhabitants would be least missed by Readers and Patrons of the Library, by observing usage statistics gathered during the previous 11.3 years of available data, and if said Staff carefully review statistics to determine which of the Inscribed Inhabitants have faithfully guarded the Shelves, never leaving them, during the entre 11.3 years, and record a change in the Central Database to reflect that these, and only these, individual Inscribed Inhabitants shall recongregate at the aformentioned Storage Facility, it shall follow promptly that a previously unknown Reader or Patron of the Library shall urgently need one or more of the relevant Inscribed Inhabitants. In short, soon as you round up a pile of books to move and say so in the catalog, someone comes and asks for one of them.