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The Wolfram|Alpha Team

Checking Out Libraries with Wolfram|Alpha

October 25, 2012 —
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We’re huge library fans here at Wolfram|Alpha. We proudly count a number of former librarians and library science experts among our ranks, and we rely heavily on contacts at public and academic libraries for expert assistance in locating sources and answering difficult questions across a wide range of knowledge areas. So we hope that, like us, you’ve been celebrating National Friends of Libraries Week (October 21–27) the past few days.

What’s that? You haven’t been celebrating it? If you aren’t already rushing to your local public library to pay your respects, you might spare a moment to delve into some of the library-related statistics you can compute within Wolfram|Alpha. We’ve pulled in key statistics from two major sources: the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ Public Libraries in the United States Survey and data on academic libraries from the National Center for Education Statistics.

If you were in town visiting Wolfram HQ, you might be interested in comparing the excellent Champaign Public Library and Urbana Free Library. That query will give you a side-by-side comparison of basic facts about each library’s collection, loan activity, and finances:

Champaign Public Library and Urbana Free Library

This also suggests some interesting computations you might try. Ask Wolfram|Alpha for the population ratio of Champaign to Urbana, and you discover that Champaign is nearly twice the size of its neighbor. Divide the number of books in the Champaign Public Library by the book collection of the Urbana Free Library, however, and you get a meager 1.2.

“Oho!” you say. “Obviously those Urbana-ites are a much more bookish bunch.” But before you get too excited, consider the ratio of annual book loans in each library:

book loans in Champaign Public Library / Urbana Free Library

Or put another way, about 30 books checked out per year for each resident of Champaign versus less than 20 per person in Urbana. Champaign for the win! (Don’t take these results too seriously—I’m just making the point that are a lot of ways to mash up this data with other pieces of information in Wolfram|Alpha.)

But of course you can also do straightforward things like generate instant rankings by asking for the biggest library by number of books or number of loans (I was surprised by some of the top-ranked systems in the latter list). You can compare major university libraries. You can zero in on a larger library system like the New York Public Library and plot the distribution of individual branches:

New York Public Library System

Or you could ask Wolfram|Alpha to do some quick statistical analysis on libraries in a particular region:

scatterplot of expenditures versus number of books in Los Angeles County libraries

So why not go out and support your local library? As you’ve surely read many times, our fundamental goal at Wolfram|Alpha is the democratization of knowledge, but libraries are by all means the foundation of democratic society itself. Unfettered access to information regardless of your age, gender, ethnicity, income level, national origin, or belief structure makes libraries a key institution for ensuring that anyone can learn whatever it is that interests them most, whether it’s about scary dinosaurs or the state of the Roman economy circa 300 CE. And since most libraries are equipped with internet-capable computers, you can of course access Wolfram|Alpha to help you compute and visualize whatever you’re interested in.