January 4, 2017
Chuck Finley would be one of the most well-read men in Florida… if he were real
by Ryan Harrington
Chuck Finley is not a real man. He’s not even two small men stacked on each others’ shoulders in a trench coat. He simply doesn’t exist. So how did he check out so many books from a Florida library last year? 2,361 of them to be exact.
It turns out to be a classic case of librarians behaving badly — well, depending on your definition, and the orientation of your moral compass.
What happened is a pair of librarians from the East Lake County Library in Sorrento, Florida attributed 2,361 check outs to the fake patron Chuck Finley (made the slightest bit realer with a residential address and driver’s license number) in order to keep those titles from falling out of circulation, which happens to the library’s less popular books. Saving some overlooked classics is certainly an admirable mission, but the snag seems to be that Chuck Finley became too good a library patron.
According to Eric Grundhauser for Atlas Obscura, “While this all sounds like low-stakes noir, the fake Finley’s check-out rate actually altered the library’s circulation rate by 3.9 percent, which could have fraudulently buffed the branch’s funding. The culprits have been reprimanded, but no one has yet been fired.”
Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing has found the tech story here: it’s about humans trying to beat the automated software that identifies low-circulation books to be pulled from shelves. He writes, “This is datification at its worst: as Cennydd Bowles writes, the pretense that the data can tell you what to optimize as well as how to optimize it makes systems incoherent — it’s the big data version of “teaching to the test.” The library wants to be efficient at stocking books its patrons will enjoy, so it deploys software to measure popularity, and raises the outcomes of those measurements over the judgment of the skilled professionals who acquire and recommend books, who work with patrons every day.”
In this sense, the librarians didn’t do anything wrong — they were trying to improve the system by using their daily experience on the library floor to overcome some of the algorithm’s inherent constraints. Damn, we love a wily librarian.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.