What is exchanged through a neighborhood book exchange? – Part I: Method in the madness

How do you determine how frequently a neighborhood book exchange is used? Or what items are exchanged? Our method: we took weekly inventories for six different book exchanges over a twelve week period. In this series, we’ll discuss our results. But, first, we take a look at the pros and cons of our approach.     

A large stack of books.

Photo via Justin Brier

“It won’t be that bad. I mean, really, how many books could be exchanged in one week?!”  I had no idea. A few weeks later, we began taking inventories of each Neighborhood Book Exchange (NooX) in our study, and I quickly realized how much I had underestimated how many items were exchanged.

Every Tuesday morning for several months, we biked to each NooX, and spent hours and hours in the rain recording inventories. Here, we’ll explain our research rationale—what we did and why we did it that way.

For our exploratory study of NooX, we wanted to include aspects that would describe how and how frequently the exchanges were used. In particular, we were interested in:

  • How frequently is each NooX visited?
  • How often are items taken or contributed?
  • What types of items are exchanged?
  • What genres of books are exchanged?
  • What is the physical condition of the items exchanged?

These are very difficult questions to address, especially while respecting the privacy and anonymity of the neighbors and the NooX visitors. We wanted to tackle these questions without using a method that would indicate who did what. Not only is it important from an ethics standpoint, but, significantly, it would go against what seems to be an integral element and appeal of the exchanges—that participation is, typically, anonymous.

So, we proposed weekly visits to each NooX, during which we would record each item in the exchange. This would provide knowledge of what items were in the NooX at the time of recording, and what items had been recorded before but were no longer present. And, in turn, this would suggest how many items (and what items) were contributed and taken.

One neighborhood book exchange photographed on four consecutive weeks. The pictures demonstrate how books change--books come, books go--over one week's time.

One neighborhood book exchange photographed on four consecutive weeks.

But there are caveats. For instance, this approach does not account for items curated or pruned by the stewards. We have some idea of when and how the stewards influenced their NooX inventory; after the inventories were completed, we interviewed each steward again, and we asked them specifically about whether they had curated or pruned the collection, and, if so, when and how. But the inventory records do not reflect these details. But it is worth noting that all exchanges in our study relied on participation for curation, predominately.

Similarly, this approach does not account for items that were contributed and taken between the dates that we took inventories. This is especially significant for one of the exchanges in our study. This exchange had a 100% turnover rate almost every week; that is, all books recorded the previous week were gone, and all books in the exchange had not been recorded the previous week. It is very possible that more books were exchanged than our data reflects. And the same is true—though, perhaps not as drastic—for all the exchanges in our study.

For all the caveats, this approach was the best approach available to us at the time.  And, while this approach is limited in its accuracy, it does provide us with some interesting information. In future posts, we’ll share some of our findings on the number, frequency, types, and conditions of items exchanged—as well as other interesting findings.


2 thoughts on “What is exchanged through a neighborhood book exchange? – Part I: Method in the madness

  1. I’m so glad you’re publishing this info. I’ve been looking forward to this part of your study. I’ve been fascinated with what comes through our NooX in Vancouver (LFL #6034) – I’m keen to see what goes through everyone elses!! Thanks! Kate


    • Hi Kate!

      I’ve been looking forward to this part of our study too. We’ve got a great deal of data to sift through, so it will take us a little time to analyze and share. But we are very determined to see what we can learn from the inventories we collected because we think there are some interesting results buried in there, and because we we spent so many soggy hours collecting this data.

      Post #2 in this series will look at the amount of book traffic we observed at each exchange. We are currently conducting an analysis of the genres of books that circulated; hopefully, we’ll be able to share those findings in a blog post later this spring.




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