November 29, 2020

Few Sci/Tech Books in OCLC Top 1000

Recently OCLC, a large library consortium, compiled a list of the top 1000 books, measured by the number of copies held by member libraries. In light of the earlier discussion here about must-read books on science and technology, I decided to see which sci/tech books made the OCLC top 1000.

As with the previous college presidents’ list, the results are disappointing. Here are the science/technology books in the OCLC top 1000, leaving out periodicals, general encyclopedias, and medical reference books:

Rank Author Title
115 Darwin Origin of Species
406 Levine Internet for Dummies
422 Darwin Voyage of the Beagle
445 Hawking Brief History of Time
575 Newton Principia
777 Mueller Upgrading and Repairing PCs
966 Krol Whole Internet Guide

Origin of Species is a reasonable pick for the top of the science list, but it ranks surprisingly low, behind three cartoon books. (Garfield ranks 18th, tops among books by living authors. The other two are Doonesbury and Peanuts.) The ideas from Newton’s Principia pervade modern physics, but the book itself is mainly of historical interest. Voyage of the Beagle and Brief History of Time are worthy enough.

It’s the technology books that really disappoint. These books are useful, to be sure, and it’s not surprising that libraries have them. What’s really sad is that no book about the intellectual content or impact of engineering or computer technology made the list.

This stuff is important! Are we as technologists failing to write engaging books about it? Are librarians or the public failing to recognize the value of the books that are written? Probably all of these things are true.

Comments

  1. I think there are some very good science authors out there. Two of my favorite science/tech/math books are The Code Book and Fermat’s Enigma both by Simon Singh. Both are easy to understand (except for the last few chapters in the Code Book) and very engaging.

  2. What Sci/Tech books are worthwhile?

    Ed Felten writes about a library survey in which few tech books, and none worthwhile, made the top-1000 list. He concludes: It’s the technology books that really disappoint. These books are useful, to be sure, and it’s not surprising…

  3. Tito Villalobos says:

    I’m not all that concerned about the relative lack of tech books in libraries.

    It has to do with what tech books are, and the way they are written. All of the information in them is very “throwaway”. Not in the sense that it’s not good, but that it is meant to be used and discarded with in a year or two (at absolute most).

    As a library, why bother with a copy of VB 6 for dummies, when VB.NET for dummies will be out in 12 months and almost no one will go back to the VB 6 book. My Fortran77 text from HS isn’t all that useful anymore.

    There aren’t many tech books that will be relevant in 10 months, much less 10 years. A few definately are (McConnell’s Code Complete springing to mind first) but for the most part they just cover the latest technology fad, and when the fad goes, the books go.

  4. Possibly this isn’t as bad as it sounds.

    The nature of math and science allows many different books to provide the same information, e.g. thousands of different college physics and calculus textbooks. Contrast with literature, in which a library must have specific works.

    So, if every library has a decent science section and a decent literature section, copies of _1984_ will vastly outnumber copies of any particular physics book.

    Scott

  5. Could it be that there are simply just more copies of these books in libraries and that the number of copies of books doesn’t correlate well with the importance of the book? That is, like with Google PageRank or any measure of popularity that doesn’t have some sort of filter, what is actually being checked out from libraries is very different from what is bought outright or borrowed from friends.

    A better measure would probably be an inventory of professor’s shelves or some sort of qualitative interview or diary study that measured usage… by discipline. I know in astrophysics, we all tend to have a few keystone books (the CRC math and physics volumes, numerical recipes, numerical methods, etc.) as well as books we keep for pleasure or sentimental value. I didn’t know anyone in astrophysics (did in physics) who had a copy of principia… although many books on quantum mechanics, mechanics, radiative transfer, etc.

    That would be interesting.

  6. Science and technology become dated so quickly, it really isn’t all that surprising that not many books crack the top 1000. What is more troubling is the lack of basic understanding of the scientific method or philosophy of science. Even a cursory look at popular and political discourse reveals a fundamental ignorance of what science is, and that is scary and troubling.

  7. Sean Ellis says:

    Is this really a problem? I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t too many books about plumbing in the top 1000 either. And plumbing is a real essential!

    For many people, I think, technology is like plumbing – it’s something they don’t think about very much, and even when they do, they don’t think “Ooh, must pop down to the library and get a book out about that.”

  8. When librarians go through the process of collection development, they most often have to look at what books are in demand by their patrons. While, unfortunately, that may be _The Internet for Dummies_, I do not think it is necessarily the case that librarians are failing to recognize intellectually stimulating and valuable technology books. As more technologically savvy librarians enter the workforce and as patrons become better versed in technology, I hope that the science and technology sections of libraries will also begin to reflect this knowledge.

  9. I would think that this is more reflective of the average library user rather than our society as a whole. I tend to buy most of the books that I read, and yes being a Software Engineer with a major interest in Biology/Evolution/Ornithology I read loads of Science/Tech books. Also tech books tend to date very quickly and libraries might choose not to acquire many of them due at least in part to their short shelf life.

    So in summary I think that this list is biased towards a certain type of reader and is not at all representative of “us”.

  10. The communist manifesto ranks higher than the Constitution on that survey…