To Sort or Not To Sort the DVDs, is the question

As the public is well aware, the DVDs on the 1st floor are only grouped by first letter of the title and are not sorted. This is certainly a nuisance, especially seeing several copies of the same title scattered throughout a specific section, asking the obvious question “can’t this be better sorted?”

In fairness, a library staffer told me that the public disarrays the sorting very rapidly, making keeping the DVD section sorted a thankless, time-consuming (time-wasting?) task.

Let’s examine the “public puts it out of order quickly” issue. When I remove a DVD from a stack to read the cover to see if I’m interested in the title, I do something to keep my place, the place the DVD came from, to be able to put it back where it came from (even though as things now stand, it doesn’t matter as long as I put M-something back in the M section.) Enough people are in a hurry or otherwise have sloppy habits so that at best they put the DVD back near where it belongs (if that.) We don’t want the slovens to do that. What would be better is to have an “I give up” pile, so the public does not refile a DVD in the wrong order.

Here is an instance where the public should be told to mind its behavior, and I endorse that the library can be firm with the public in this regard: put up signs in this area saying Please put it back exactly where it came from, or put it in the ‘refile’ bin. The subtext is If you can’t refile it correctly then don’t pretend to try. “Refile bins” should be put at the end of each shelf for this purpose. Once an hour a library staffer can refile all the DVDs, which should not take too long; and in the meantime not having found title M-something in order in the M section, the patron only has one other place to look, the M-refile bin.

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t:

As someone hostile to having my time wasted having to search a section end-to-end to see if a title is or is not in the section, there is the nasty guerilla tactic of putting a hold on a title, which makes a library staffer have to find it for me. That is unfriendly, but what else can I do at wit’s end close to closing time? The problem arises when many other people figure this out and do it as well. Now the time savings of not having to refile DVDs exactly is sucked away by staffers having to find titles (just as the public does) in a linear exhaustive search since the sections are unsorted.

As an IT professional (kissing cousins of librarians) I can tell you that sortedness is next to Godliness. Imagine that it is not 150 M-something DVDs in random order, but the phone book, and someone asks you to find the telephone number of John Smith who lives on Shattuck Avenue (as opposed to John Smith who lives on Hearst.) You immediately see this is a nearly futile task to perform (in any reasonable time.) Because you have to look through the entire phone book until you find the correct John Smith; and what if the person asking the question made a mistake, and the Smith they want actually lives on Allston Way, and not Shattuck? You have to read every entry in the phone book to know that the John Smith being sought is not listed. Back to reality: perhaps there are only 150 M-something DVDs, but I (as just one patron) face the “exhaustive search” problem to determine that a given DVD is not present. Multiply me by as many patrons who are trying to find things and see how much human time is being wasted because the DVD sections are not sorted.

Back to what the staffer said, then: the public’s bad habit of putting these sections out of order ends up costing everyone a lot of time and headache. From the IT problem-solving perspective (or Operations Research, or Economics, if you like), we have to determine what is “cheapest”: having the library staff put the DVDs back in order, or leaving things as they are and forcing everyone to do “bucket searches” for every DVD they want to find. Intuition suggests that the sorting is mandatory and that what must be done, then, is to eliminate the disarray. Thus my suggestion above: if you pull a DVD to look at it, either put it back where it belonged, or if there is any doubt where it goes, then don’t even try to refile it: put it in the “refile” bin and leave the refiling to the staffers. The public must try to eliminate “scutwork” on the part of the staffers to compensate for public laziness, inattention and sheer error.

Operations Research – what I suspect has not been done is for the library to assess how quickly the DVD section is in fact put out of order by the public given the public’s current habits. This would be nice to know within close bounds, so that the expense of reordering sections can be determined. Starting with the M-section completely ordered as of Monday morning, how soon is the M-section no longer reasonably ordered? By noon? By end of day Monday? By the end of the week? How quickly a given section is disarrayed tells us how often the expense of resorting must be undertaken. Every hour on the hour is obviously infeasible for the staffers. So if we say that having the sections totally sorted is paramount, then the means must be found to stop the public from screwing things up so royally so quickly. My suggestion above is one suggestion. Other people might think of other ways to finesse this issue.

And finally, if despite the suggestion above, the public insists on refiling things and puts the sections out of order regardless, then we see that we have to leave things unsorted because the public refuses to behave itself properly, and if that is the case – then so be it, and I and others are condemned to linear exhaustive searches by the unremitting slobs amongst us. Argh.

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