August 21, 2011
Drowning By Numbers, Part II
In 1993, I had a great opportunity to write an article in Pittsburgh History, the journal of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania where I worked at the time. The article was called
“Drowning by Numbers: The State of Baseball History (full text)” and it bemoaned the fixation (as I saw it) with numbers in baseball history. My goal in writing the piece was to encourage baseball historians to see the social significance of sports – rather than just “recounting and re-recording the numbers baseball players assembled over time.”
While the numbers-driven approach can remove the context of sport in American Culture, the appeal of this approach does make sense. Every action and reaction in baseball produces a number. Almost like a business has a balance-sheet recording revenue and expenses, a baseball team has numbers for everything – making this type of historical approach logical.
In the 18 years since I wrote that piece, I am not sure baseball history changed all that much, but I certainly have. As the director and librarian of the Kresge Business Administration Library of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, I am working with numbers all the time. I want to revisit this concept and see where I can apply it in two of my key areas in librarianship. As a director, I am focused on ensuring that we share our work with the school via annual reports. These are driven by numbers, some with more value than others. I am working on a Charleston Conference session on using Annual Reports for marketing purposes. So I will talk more about that later.
But I want to write today about my other world at Kresge Library. Even though I am the director of the library, I still have an active role in helping the Ross Community with library reference. I think this is a critically important part of my job to help faculty and students with reference. I believe this for a few reasons. First, it is a tremendously grounding part of my job. It allows me to know what the other librarians and staff are going through. If I am working on reference as well as the other librarians, I have a better sense of the ebbs and flows of the work.
So thinking about the baseball world when every action and reaction has a number associated with it, many see business the same way. At Kresge, we get questions from faculty, students and community members that ask for numbers that seem like they are tracked – but are hard to find. This represents one of our biggest challenges at the library – being asked a question about numbers that seem like they should be kept – but are nowhere to be seen. Or possibly the data is not kept in the fashion that the person wants. We have been asked all sorts of questions, like “how many shrimp are served by Red Lobster in a year?” Some have answers and others do not.
From a librarian point of view, we work hard on trying to figure out what they are hoping to do with the data, so many we can find proxy information. Maybe you do not get the exact count of how many shrimp are served at Red Lobster, but you get information (maybe anecdotal) on much money people spend on shrimp there. That is also a tough number to get, but sometimes it is available.
So where I am going with this is a question I got on Friday. What is the size of the “total retail product selection in the United States.” It is a cool question, and a tricky one. Basically, if I wanted to buy one of everything available in the retail marketplace in the US, how many things would I have…. What I was able to provide to this patron is some industry reports on the US retail sector, information from the BLS, and (later that weekend) , information about UPC barcodes. According to the UPC Database, there are 1,387,455 unique numbers. While that does not include everything sold, it is a pretty good start.
But in thinking about this question, I was wondering if Barry Schwartz’ Paradox of Choice” had any number. The examples in the excellent book all focused on products – like 85 different jams – rather than all the products available to consumers. But I did find this in searching via Google.
Now that is ironic…the "Paradox of Choice" is one of almost 1 million books you can get for your Kindle...talk about having a hard time making a decision...
I will be playing with this some more – but I wanted to get the conversation started.
Posted by cseeman at August 21, 2011 10:16 PM