A couple of weeks ago while reading Jerome Lettvin’s obituary I noticed this gem:

“At MIT, his office in Building 20 was crammed with books, most overdue from the college library. Dr. Lettvin claimed he did not return them because the library would send him the students who wanted those books, and he would interview them as potential assistants.”

Jerome was gaming the library. He was holding onto resources that like-minded individuals desired in order to make professional connections. Cool.

Jerome’s approach clearly has some scaling problems and some issues surrounding content that can’t be stacked in an office (digital content), but he was onto something. People connect through works held at the library and the library should encourage these connections. How do we do that? I’m not sure, but I’m giving it some thought.


29 Responses to “Gaming the library”

  1. Andromeda

    I hear a lot of librarians talking about community, conversation, and connection these days. In my experience the ones who have the most innovative thoughts & have done the most about putting them into practice are teen librarians, so I’d talk to them for ideas.

  2. Paul

    >> People connect through works held at the library and the library should encourage these connections. How do we do that?

    Easy. At the automated checkout kiosks, add a button that a potential customer can select that says, “allow fellow patrons who check out this book to see my email address.” Bonus if the system knows/remembers your email address from the bar code. Customizable sub-setting options might include: professors, students, non-affiliates, etc.

    This professor intrigues me.

  3. Paul

    When you return the book, have an option to “Like” it on Facebook, or just skip that step.

  4. Carter Schonwald

    the problem with the idea allowing the library users to publicize what they’re checking out is that libraries are also required by law to keep those very records private. It sounds like the professor was taking advantage of the one loophole

  5. Exim

    Borrowing a book from library to complete some course doesn’t necessary mean “like minded”.

    Professor missed many good candidates who actually bought books (new, used ones or international editions…) outside library.

  6. Rich

    Once could discover various important and useful items of knowledge, and instead of publishing the knowledge, require that people employ you as a consultant or teacher.

  7. Madigan McGillicuddy

    As a librarian, it is considered a huge professional point of pride to never reveal who has checked out a book. Most folks borrow unremarkable popular fiction, it’s true, but we offer a lot of items on sensitive topics. It is the same as doctor/patient confidentiality, or a journalist who won’t reveal sources.

    I think most people would find randomly connecting with strangers at the library over books they’ve shared to be creepy and invasive. There are book-related social networking tools like Goodreads, librarything and shelfari for people who want to connect over books. Or, if you are interested in meeting people in person, you can join, (or start your own!) book club. Many libraries will provide free meeting spaces for book clubs.

  8. T

    goodreads.com api is kickass … Prof. should lookup bookshelf by student name and then find intersection with (sexy books) -> A weighted average of analysis of the ratings of reviews the student wrote on (sexy books) -> sort(reverse=True) -> take top N.

  9. Jarrod

    I am building a tool that I hope will have the same effect. Cool hack by the professor. I can only pray that I become that creative.

  10. Dahlia

    Back when we had slips of paper pasted in the front of the library book, with the borrowers name and due date on it, we could just see who had borrowed the book. Yes in “those days” people could be looked up in the phone book, assuming they had a phone.

    But there were less than HALF the number of persons in the world then, ditto in the US. We are the goats on the island.

  11. Nick Such

    Scribd.com is doing some interesting stuff in this area as well. The company describes itself as “the world’s largest social reading and publishing company.” While there are some technical similarities to SlideShare, Scribd has a much stronger focus on reading and sharing with other users. I like that it doesn’t expect me to create from scratch an entirely new social network, but uses my existing network of Facebook friends.

  12. Steve

    Book community connections are done through social sites like LibraryThing, it’s much more efficient than the Harvard prof’s method.

  13. Tep

    Brilliant hack! I think there’re plenty of useful derivatives in this direction, be it within or outside university/school settings.

    For example, how about tying TA/RA classified postings in with the library catalog? e.g. a professor recruiting TA/RA’s would also include a reading-list in each entry, from which the library’s system would link up with its eCatalog. Upon checking out matching title(s), the student would receive an alert via his registered contact channel (email, twitter, …) with pointer to the job(s) linked to the individual books he borrows.

  14. Heather B

    Um, NOT cool, sorry. By keeping those books out and trusting the library to send him the students who asked for them, this professor ensured that only those students who knew that they wanted a precise book would have access to it. What about all of the students who browsed the stacks looking for something interesting in a subject area and didn’t see those books because the professor never returned them? I’m sure some of them would have found those books very valuable – if they had been able to discover them.

    I agree with the general point that we should try to find ways to help people with similar interests connect at the library. But we shouldn’t do that by catering to people who feel they are entitled to break the rules – and who possibly deprive other patrons of the resources we’re supposed to be sharing with all members of our community, not letting a single person hoard.

  15. Heather B

    Sorry, one more thing to add — what about the students who knew they wanted the book and saw it was out but were too shy to approach a librarian to put it on hold or didn’t know how to put it on hold? Another group of patrons excluded from access to the resources this library was supposed to be equitably sharing.

  16. robyn

    i agree with a couple of commenters regarding this not being cool. the library is truly at fault for releasing the name of the patron who checked the books out and i don’t care if the patron gave them authorization. not only that, but then you are sending unsuspecting students to a situation that they are not informed about to be “observed” and “interviewed.” kudos (inject sarcasm here) to the professor for sheer laziness in not having to get up from his desk but 20 lashes with a wet noodle for the library as co-conspirator and temp agency.

  17. Justin W.

    I do think that was an excellent idea to pick out the best like-minded assistants out there. Clever!

  18. Renaud

    Open source software! If you want to connect to potential students/assistants/partners, just publish your code and see who uses/tweaks/enhances it. It’s how I got my first job in IT, by the way.

  19. Rhys Ronin

    ive got a great idea how about putting cards in the back of the book that you write your name and date you checked out the book on and then when you wish to meet people with like minded interests just pull out the card and see who checked it out before you.