Planned Tsundoku

Posted by W. Caleb McDaniel on August 1, 2014

Tsundoku—the practice of “letting books pile up unread on shelves or floors or nightstands”—is an occupational hazard for academics like myself. I try to manage the problem by at least letting newly purchased books pile up in one place until I can find time to enter them into LibraryThing and place them on my shelf. But that creates a different hazard: the periodic hassle of shifting all my shelved books around to make room for the newcomers.

That wouldn’t be a hassle, of course, if I just added new books to the last shelf on my bookcase. But I try to keep my working library organized alphabetically by author’s last name, to increase the odds of my finding a particular book later. When adding new books to this scheme, I invariably discover that I haven’t left enough room for a particular section of the alphabet to expand. And that usually means moving quite a few old books around before I can even place the new ones.

Today, as I contemplated a large stack of newly acquired books during my midsummer office clean-up, I started to wonder if there was a better way. Could I strategically leave more shelf room in places where particular letters of the alphabet tended to have disproportionate numbers of books?

It’s a question that I’m sure professional librarians have pondered and answered better than I can. After all, it is a law of library science that the library is a growing organism. The method I settled on was only pseudo-scientific, however.

First I tried Googling for answers to the question of which first letters of surnames are most common in the general population. A page on alphabetical filing offered some rough percentages. But a Gist by Andrew Pendleton proved even more helpful. Pendleton used Python to ingest a CSV spreadsheet of the most common surnames in the 2000 U.S. Census and return a breakdown of the percentage of last names that begin with each letter. His results:

    "A": 0.03559596939643605, 
    "C": 0.07694824074741784, 
    "B": 0.08791477424094518, 
    "E": 0.018669123556424614, 
    "D": 0.04579860597727158, 
    "G": 0.05439868577642196, 
    "F": 0.034505834128967044, 
    "I": 0.003955862892091837, 
    "H": 0.07268753217954918, 
    "K": 0.03294327720020791, 
    "J": 0.03025983302791189, 
    "M": 0.09608053808826617, 
    "L": 0.04848650695769241, 
    "O": 0.014720280137130485, 
    "N": 0.018547007013788936, 
    "Q": 0.002206565702878153, 
    "P": 0.049319930077139015, 
    "S": 0.09580978699464698, 
    "R": 0.05763521983707609, 
    "U": 0.002210911090800405, 
    "T": 0.035309842314786705, 
    "W": 0.05861438058222256, 
    "V": 0.015875707643636012, 
    "Y": 0.006166216881876424, 
    "X": 0.00024144758019273616, 
    "Z": 0.005097919974221793

Those results alone are helpful in planning for future tsundoku, as they can help predict which letters’ shelves are likely to swell. But I also wondered if I could form a similar picture of my personal library, which is likely to have peculiar patterns of over-representation for names.

To check, I first had to export my LibraryThing data as a CSV file. I then modified Pendleton’s script so that it would work on my CSV and so that it would sort and prettify the output. The results for my library, as of this writing, looked like this:

B -  9.55%      K -  3.66%
M -  8.77%      A -  2.75%
S -  8.38%      J -  2.62%
H -  7.33%      E -  2.23%
D -  7.20%      O -  1.96%
W -  6.15%      N -  1.57%
F -  6.02%      V -  0.92%
G -  5.37%      I -  0.65%
R -  5.24%      Q -  0.65%
C -  4.97%      Z -  0.52%
P -  4.97%      U -  0.26%
L -  4.19%      Y -  0.13%
T -  3.93%

Data science, this is not. For one thing, Pendleton’s script was built for a list of unique names, whereas my spreadsheet contains multiple rows with the same name (though further scripting could correct that). Still, I got from this little exercise what I wanted: a rough approximation of which shelves in my library need the most room for growing.

For the most part, my percentages matched what Pendleton found for the general population: bookshelves authored by authors whose names begin with B, M, S, and H are probably going to groan. But I also identified some unusual spikes in my collection—like F and W—that led me to leave more room for added books in those areas. Hopefully, the next time I’m trying to mitigate the effects of tsundoku, I will save time that I would have spent shifting books around—time I can spend on other forms of structured procrastination like analyzing my LibraryThing data with Python.