Library Management and Entropy: The Information as Management Text –A TTW Guest Post by Dr. Troy Swanson

Library management is a battle against entropy. Those of us who remember our physics know that entropy is most famously captured in the second law of thermodynamics, but it may be easiest to think of entropy as the measurement of the dissipation of energy in a system. So, if hot water and cold water are poured into a bucket, the energy from the hot water will spread to the cold water until all of the water is the same temperature. The state of organization (hot vs cold)  will dissipate into a state of high entropy (disorder). To reorganize the water, a magical being (see Maxwell’s Demon’s_demon) would be required to sort out cold from hot and place the water molecules back into their respective glasses. In order to pull off this magical feat or sorting, an unattainable degree of information must be possessed in order which molecules must be returned to which state. Even if we could physically sort at the molecular level, we couldn’t know which molecule went into which glass. Thus, entropy is really a sorting problem, which is essentially an information problem.


In past writings, I have described libraries as loosely coupled system that faced problems of coordination in decision making (see Tame the Web and The Journal of Library Administration The challenge is to coordinate staff members to take similar actions when faced with similar situations even though the staff members may never see each other. Coordination problems are really problems of entropy.

Let’s pretend that our staff members came in to work tomorrow and were told that they were not allowed to communicate to each other. They could do their jobs and interact with patrons, but never talk, email, Facebook, or Tweet with other staff members. What would happen? As the outside environment around the library changed, existing policies, procedures, and norms would become disconnected from that environment. Slowly (or maybe quickly) our organizations would disorganize. Individuals might change their practices as they see needs arise, but it would not be possible to communicate these practices back across the organization for coordinated action. Overall, the system would increase in entropy resulting from the lack of communication (information) between organizational members.

Most of us can probably think of real examples within our own organizations that may be less extreme but may also illustrate the same point. Anyone who has tried to keep a policy manual updated can tell you how quickly practice and written policy diverge. Nothing is set in stone, which is great, because we should be reacting to the needs of our patrons. But, to do this well, our organizations must produce and capture information to coordinate our actions. If a procedure changes but is not effectively communicated, the old procedure will continue to live on. If a librarian answers a difficult question for a patron and that knowledge is not captured, the next librarian must do the same work to answer the question and risks getting the answer wrong. Battling entropy requires feedback (information) loops that not only produce and capture information from the environment, but also act on it.

My consideration of this topic came from reading Jame Gleick’s chapter, Entropy and Its Demons (Chapter 9) in his magnificent book, The Information: A Theory, A History, a Flood. This text should be required reading for all librarians. Not only is it full of great stories and ideas but it describes the air that we librarians breath. It describes the water (information) to the fish (us). The Information is itself an act against entropy bringing order to far flung and loosely connected theories. Gleick did not intend this book to be a management text but if entropy, as an information problem, is the battle of order vs chaos, I can’t read this book any other way. To me, management problems are often information problems.

Returning to the issue of management as a battle against entropy, Gleick reminds us that “information is not free.” He notes that in order for our magical being to separate the cold water from the hot water, there would be a cost to capturing that information. Interfering in the system interjects entropy. In other words, learning is a cost. To carry the analogy further, there is a cost to management. To capture information for our feedback loops there must be a commitment of time, effort and energy of staff members.


Troy A. Swanson is Teaching &Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.