Posted by: Steven Harris | March 6, 2010

The Gravity of a Library

Seattle Public Library: Photo by Kees de Vos (Flickr)

Seattle Public Library

A library is like a celestial body: it exerts gravitational pull on the objects around it. Sometimes that pull is great because the library is extremely large. Although even small libraries have their attractive features. Some libraries are solid and average like the earth. Some are huge and turbid like Jupiter. Many are as small as the rock called Pluto. Others are as bright and hot as the sun.  Very few have the density and mass of a black hole.

The gravity of a library can be calculated thus:

Formula to calculate library gravitywhere G (gravity) is equal to the sum of C (collections) and S (services) multiplied by P (personnel) divided by F (facilities), which, in this case, is an expression of facilities inadequacy (higher inadequacy results in lower gravity).

Typically, a library organization will seek to balance these factors in order to maximize gravity, but many are willing to sacrifice several factors (facilities, service, and investment in quality personnel, for example) in order to invest in one (collections, let’s say). It is clear that all of the quality accrued through collections, services, and personnel can be undone by shabby furniture, dirty restrooms, antiquated computers, and poorly shelved materials.

DOK Delft Library. Photo from bieblein (Flickr)

DOK Delft Library

What is it that library gravitational pull will attract? Customers, obviously. Users. Patrons. For a public library, this might be residents of the surrounding community or region. A research library like the Huntington or the New York Public might pull from further away. In the case of academic libraries, as noted by Ross Atkinson,* the gravitational pull could attract faculty of high standing to teach and work at that college or university (and thus attract graduate students as well). Students, in general, can’t resist an attractive library with comfortable study space. It is also true that libraries with widely recognized collections or very stunning facilities will attract high-quality personnel.

Money is also drawn to libraries of high gravity. This can come in the form of support from the parent organization. University presidents and city managers will tend to fund libraries with demonstrated standing in the community, attractive facilities, widely recognized collections, or outgoing and engaging staff. Fund-granting organizations will also reward these features, as will private donors. A public library with good “foot traffic” will probably encourage commercial and retail ventures to spring up in the neighborhood around it.

Regarding a specific feature, collections tend to attract collections. A library with large holdings of Americana will get offers of more from collectors and publishers of similar materials. On a smaller scale, all libraries have some gravity for people hoping to dispose of their unwanted books, magazines, and reel-to-reel tapes. The library will exert much greater force than the garbage can in back, causing the donors to drop the material on the library loading dock late at night even after being told that it was not needed by the library.

USU Merrill-Cazier Library

USU Merrill-Cazier Library

Libraries of great gravity tend to attract innovation as well. Although it is known that physically large libraries, like battleships, may take a long time to turn. Projects requiring large technological infrastructure always gravitate towards larger collections. Google Books, for example is not making use of the long tail of smaller libraries; it’s going right for the massive head of the curve. The same is true for the Open Content Alliance. In a previous job, I worked at Utah State University, in an academic library of medium stature (not an ARL). I called and emailed OCA several times to express interest in participating in digitization projects. To no avail. Not enough gravity.

It begins to look like a chicken and egg situation. What comes first, funding, collections, and personnel, or gravity? How can one get gravity with all the world allied against you? It is unlikely, in this day and age, that a library with small collections will be able to invest enough to create a large collection. On the other hand, collecting the kinds of things that the user community is attracted to will increase the gravity. Investing in a strong public service ethic will always raise the pull of  the library. Hiring good people and letting them do good things always pays off. Maybe you can’t build a new building or buy new furniture, but you can keep what you have well-maintained and in good condition. You can keep the stacks in good order. You can weed the worn out and out-of-date material. Step-by-step, slowly you turn from small, insignificant asteroid in the Kuiper belt to a major planet in your region of the universe. A celestial body with real pull.

UNM Zimmerman Library

UNM Zimmerman Library

*Atkinson, Ross. “Six Key Challenges for the Future of Collection Development.” Library Resources & Technical Services 50.4 (2006): 244-251. OA version.



  1. I really enjoyed this post. It’s a fun way (with an equation, even!) to think about what we’re doing. It also was personally helpful for me to think about why I’m more interested in working in one of those Kuiper belt asteroids 🙂

  2. […] March 9, 2010 at 12:30 am · Filed under Reading […]

  3. Like the analogy – well done.

  4. Really clever and well thought out. I hope this piece experiences some gravitational pull of its own!

  5. […] to other good uses of his ideas. Over on Collections 2.0, Steve Harris has a wonderful post on “the gravity of libraries” that I think Atkinson might have loved (especially the equation.) It’s serious, easy to read, […]

  6. Commenters: Thanks for all your wonderful comments!

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