In Pursuit of Library Elegance (KLA version)

I enjoyed this session so much at Computers in Libraries when Erica gave the presentation in DC, I came back for more at KLA! (You might want to read those notes first; my notes here may not give a complete recap, as this was the second time I’ve heard the presentation).

Presentation was given by Erica Reynolds and Matt Sapp (Johnson County Library system).

The book is “In Pursuit of Elegance: Why The Best Ideas Have Something Missing” by Matthew E. May

Speaks so much to where libraries are at right now. We hope for change….

“Because without a new way of viewing the world we will most assuredly succumb to employing the same kinds of thinking that created so many of our problems in the first place….” — Matthew May

“Because by nature we tend to add when we should subtract, and act when we should stop and think.” –Matthew May

Four key points in the book:

  1. Symmetry
  2. Seduction
  3. Subtraction
  4. Sustainability

Real power in his book and ideas are how to all these ideas relate and what do they mean and how can we come up with solutions.

This presentation is one big book talk and readers’ advisory

1. Symmetry:

Simple rules create effective order:

in libraries: circ rules. Streamline guidelines. John Wooden, fewer and fewer rules and nice guidelines. Rules should be simple and concrete and work across the system. “Rule ourselves to death”

Jackson Pollack painting. Richard Taylor, physicist. Analyzed Pollack’s paintings and found they were fractals. Pollack was painting in 1955. Fractals were discovered in 1975. Somehow Pollack was able to observe nature and paint what nature is, before the pattern was even discovered. Maybe that’s why pollack’s paintings are so attractive and appealing. He is painting nature, very much like treebrances move in wind.

How can we mirror that in libraries? Equations. E=mc(squared).

Just because something is complex, doesn’t mean it’s not elegant. Simple rules.

2. Seduction: Curiosity. What makes us want to dig in and learn more?

Venus Rising from the sea–a deception painting.

Libraries strive to serve curiosity. Reader’s Advisory displays to attract curious readers, to whet appetite to make people want to read or research more.

Limiting information creates intrigue. May doesn’t just say be seductive, he talks about how to do it. Give patrons just enough information to make them come back for more. Not overload them with information, kill them with information.

3. Subtraction: restraint and removal can increase impact and value. Picture of the letter E that’s not completed.

Work of Dutch Traffic Engineer Hans Monderman: there’s no painted lines, no street signs, no signs. To make traffic flow better in a busy intersection, he took out all traffic control. 20,000 people go through intersection each day, including bicyclists, pedestrians, cars. Fatalities significantly dropped.

When you take away things that told you what to do, you have to engage your brain. Should you go? Hit someone? Have to think.

Build library spaces — what do we need to take away that magically adds value and impact? (Learning Commons, Signs, Weeding, Desks?)

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub,
It is the centre hole that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room,
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there,
Usefulness from what is not there.

-??, Chinese proverb (missed the name)

4. Sustainability. What works across multiple libraries? We can’t work all 70 hrs a week.

Limited resources spark creativity and innovation.

Mohammed Bah Abba’s Pot within a pot cooking system. Nigeria. Food quickly spoiled. Lots of waste. Trying to sell products, disease happening. Girls had no time to go to school. Unsafe to be walking to market. Financial hardship.

The answer is refrigeration. But in Nigeria, couldn’t afford refrigeration and didn’t have electricity.

Had to build solution that required no electricity and would be simple to use and used local materials.

He created pots within pots. Filled the outer pot with wet river sand and covered it with a cloth. It was so hot, the heat would pull the moisture into the inner pot and cool the food enough for it to stay safe for weeks.

Girls go to school now. Disease dropped.

Made with: Clay. Sand. Cloth. Water.

How can hard times situation make libraries even better?

The creative tension at the center of elegance: achieving the maximum effect with the minimum effort.

How do you get to an elegant solution? What is optimal.

XI + I = X (which is wrong)

X + I = XI

IX + I = X

or ???

Moving one stick makes it correct. But is this optimal?

Flip over XI + I = X and it becomes X = I + IX. Happened in Zero moves. Just had to change perspective.

Thinking outside the box. First thing after seeing a problem, is don’t act. Observe and figure out what’s optimal, not what’s doable.

So many times in libraries, we think about what’s doable, not what’s optimal.

Don’t ask: What should we do?

Ask: What’s possible? What’s optimal? [Library eBooks???]

The really brilliant solution looks obvious in retrospect, but to get to it is difficult.

Key is getting out and enjoying your lives. We’re not going to come up with great ideas if we constantly work and never take breaks (comment: I saw a friend comment last night on Facebook about having writer’s block, going to the gym, and having two major breakthroughs in her research!)

Ideas come when working in gardens or on a walk.

The path to elegance:

  • resist the urge to act or add.
  • Observe
  • Ensure a diversity of opinions and expertise are heard when you are considering what’s possible and how to get there.
  • Carve out time to think and time to not think.
  • Get away from your devices.
  • Get some sleep
  • Get outside

Path isn’t to add more signs to a library….

If you’re always on a device, not giving brain time to relax and rest.


  • Archimedes’ discovered volume displacement during a bath
  • Einstein’s theory of special relativity came to him while daydreaming
  • Philo Farnsworth: first television while plowing
  • Richard Feynman – throwing a plate, theory of quantum electrodynamics.
  • JK Rowling was traveling on a train when the character Harry potter flashed in her mind.

We have to do the research, we have to read and do the work, but we should also rest.

Sit and not do anything. Watch a waterfall. Jump in mud puddles.

Specific elegant examples from Matt now about what JoCo Library is doing.

Public Computers

Want the Public computers to just work. All the time. Locking down worked, but when new technology and software came out, computers didn’t work anymore. Tax season. Silverlight. Flash. Pushing out updates, weren’t working. So they asked, why lock them down then?

So they stopped locking down the computers. (LOVE THIS — our approach at NEKLS already to library computers; DeepFreeze ’em, but not many other security settings!)

Service Desks at the branches

Information Services, youth desks, Circulation desks were separate.

Now, consolidating desks together. information services staff now roam. Patrons happier having needs met, and less staff needed. Roaming reference with iPads. Staff interacting more with patrons, learning more. Are able to do more with less staff due to funding cuts.

Self-check rename

Self-check stations vs. checkout names rename. Patrons don’t want to do it themselves, just by changing the name they now do it themselves. Hide the circ clerk games. Ha!

IT help desk

Help desk tickets weren’t standardized. Now, everything has to be emailed. One path, so people don’t lose tickets or go on vacation. Emergencies can still be called (how do you enforce this? If someone calls, it’s not important, do you say politely, please email that to the help desk?)

Communication improvements

New phone system installed. Do we just replace the phones? Or make major improvements to everything. Single phone number for whole system now. Upset patrons at first, because they couldn’t call their local library. By centralizing everything, phone calls were better dealt with and branches could better deal with in-person patrons, not answering the phones. Still struggling with this situation — too many phone calls.

Backroom circulation efficiences

Every branch is currently different. Consolidating processes and finding symmetry in the processes. This is in process.

Kids PCs area

some adults/teens still use that space. make it obvious that it’s a children’s section (different types of chairs, colors, etc.)

Other Ideas/Comments from the audience

Darien Library: does have a brand-new building and lots of money.

  • Bought a Surface. No rules set. No instructions. Kids just figured it out.
  • Concierge Desk, not circulation desk.
  • Reference desk is a table with a computer. Both at the table together at same level.

informal RA on badges.

Signs get a due date for community postings.

iPhone came with no manual. People still used it.

Bookdrop was blank and library had weird hours. Library hours were sprayed onto the bookdrop.

Libraries undercut easy solutions.

Library Swaps like Trading Spaces or House Swap — maybe this needs to happen!

No meeting room available in one library. So the kids room had shelving on wheels, and it would be moved out of the room while the programming would go on.

Weeding makes shelves useable. No one wants to read old moldy books. You now know your collection.

Graphic novel collection wasn’t circulating at a college library. Swung couch around so the books could be seen at a different angle and the books were suddenly seen and flew off the shelves.

Library spaces. Right design for spaces not always seen. What people see and what they don’t see.

Better utilize space just by adding windows, and adding shelves. Home locations vs. floating collections

End comment: I’m starting to read the book this week. I highly recommend it already! Erica did a pretty good job of convincing both audiences in Topeka and DC to read the book. Anyone else read it, starting to read it, or going to read it? And Erica, you should do more booktalks 🙂