A The Problem with My Books

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research, now in all-pdf form. Get a subscription now for only $25 a year!

By Catherine Caldwell-Harris
Department of Psychology
Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts

[Editor’s note: This is a case study inspired by the report “Where The,” that appeared in July/August 2006 issue (vol. 12, no. 4) of AIR. That article profiled the study “The Definite  Article: Acknowledging ‘The’ in Index Entries,” Glenda Browne, The Indexer, vol. 22, no. 3, April 2001, pp. 119–22.]

Three long shelves span the wall of my office. Over a period of years I neglected to shelve books and they piled up in odd stacks. So many students responded to my announcement seeking a research assistant for $10 an hour that I felt compelled to pick a student almost at random. I chose a student from China, enrolled in law school, because I thought I might learn something about Chinese students, as I had recently been assigned to be the doctoral supervisor of a student from Taiwan, Hui-Wen. I asked my new assistant, Yi-Chuan, to alphabetize the shelves, and indicated where there were clumps of books that needed to be alphabetized in with the others.

Alphabetizing took Yi-Chuan a long time. I chatted briefly with her, but mostly ran errands, checked email or talked with students while she worked, two hours a week, across the period of a month. She had to climb up on chairs, and haul stacks of books from one end of the shelves to the other. Finally she announced she was done. I thanked her cheerily, glad to get my Friday afternoons back, and said good-by. A few days later, I was distraught over a missing library book that Hui-wen had checked out for me and needed to return. I thoroughly searched my home and both labs, worried that I would be viewed as criminally irresponsible by dutiful Huiwen, who could barely contain her panic at the idea that she might soon be labeled a library felon. Usually a library book that had been recently consulted would just be lying around on a table or... yes, a corner of a bookshelf. Might Yi-Chuan not have understood that I meant her to alphabetize my books, not library books? I scanned the shelves. They made no sense. I cleaned my glasses. “These books are totally unordered!” I finally exclaimed to Hui-wen.

She figured it out and offered, “No, they are ordered -- by title!”

While I know fifty percent of the authors of my books, for the titles I know at most some key words. But worse, my books were also ordered right-to-left. Even worse, titles like “A Natural History of Rape” sometimes followed “Artful Scribbles.” “The Society of Mind” kept company with “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” I would have to not only know the book’s title, but whether the first word was “A” or “The.” But if the jacket artist had not made “A” or “The” prominent, the book might still be filed under the first content word.

For our lost book, we knew the precise title because it was printed on the overdue note from the library. We finally found it by systematically checking each spine. The book was filed under its series title. There it was, complete with prominent call number.

For a while I reminded myself to appreciate the fact that my shelves at least appeared tidy. But the tidiness is now gone, and I still can’t easily find a book when I need it. Whenever I search for a book, I wonder: how much supervision are we suppose to do when we hire someone to help us get out from
under disorder?


The article above by Kurt Allerslev Reynertson, Julie Velasquez, and Nat Bletter is republished with permission from the January-February 2008 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift! Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.

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1) Hiring a non-native speaker.
2) Not giving explicit instructions.
3) No intermediate quality inspections.

Can anyone else come up with any other mistakes?
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