The benefits of owning your own library

With the advent of the internet many would consider owning books as a thing of the past. After all, you can get the answer on almost any topic in a matter of a few seconds via your favorite search engine. While there is a lot of content on the internet, a lot of these answers are often only scratching the surface of the subject you are interested in.

Sure you can get the answer on what is the capital city of New Zealand faster than you can search for it in the nearest encyclopedia, but when it comes to more complex topics you will often yearn for a deeper explanation. When you encounter a hard problem, that you don’t know how to solve, you are basically stuck with a couple of options:

  • Scour the internet in hopes to stumble upon a useful insight.
  • Attend a lecture or training that covers the subject.
  • Ask an experienced coworker for guidance.
  • Find a book that covers the subject in depth.

Most of the content on the internet is written by people who are either trying to sell you something, or they aren’t paid at all and are educating others from the goodness of their heart. While you are not going to learn much from the first group, the more knowledgeable second group of content creators is restricted by the amount of their free time. Our time on earth is limited, hence most people would rather avoid spending theirs with writing detailed explanations for the unwashed masses of the internet. The incentives are just not there and the concept of monetizing online writing didn’t exactly come to fruition.

The internet, however, is still a relatively new invention and there are far older ways of transferring knowledge, such as attending a public lecture on the topic of your interest. Nevertheless, if you have ever attended a college lecture or a corporate training, you have probably experienced how ineffective a spoken presentation really is 1. For the attendees who already know something about the subject, the lecture will go too slowly, while the first time hearers won’t be able to keep up with the pace.

A great example of this problem would be math heavy lectures that I have attended in college. The lectures usually started slowly, but after a few lectures the pace increased tremendously and I got lost in the equations thrown at me. This led to me only copying the nonsense that appeared on the blackboard as if I was some kind of a medieval monk who is trying to prevent the holy scriptures from disappearing from the face of the earth. As a consequence of that I retained very little from attending such lectures and that time would be better spent if I was just going through the course book on my own; which I had to do anyway if I wanted to pass.

Judging by the last two rows, not much has changed after a couple of centuries. Original title: Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia, Laurentius de Voltolina (14th century)

Asking an older, more experienced coworker for opinion is another option when you are trying to solve a hard problem. What I noticed, however, is that the kind of questions I tend to ask are often about some obscure legacy software framework that rarely anyone has ever worked with. If they had worked with it in the past, most of the time they don’t want to hear about it again. Often there is a reason why a certain piece of software has faded into obscurity, with the most common usually being a bad developer experience and a lack of documentation.

The higher up the engineering ladder you are, the more likely it is that you will end up facing obscure problems with nobody in the organization to help you out 2. In such a case you can search for the books that are covering your subject matter. In general, software engineering is quite well covered on most subjects and unless you are doing something extremely novel, you will be able to find an interesting book on the topic that you are struggling with. For novel problems you might be better better off checking the scientific articles, but sadly most of programmers in the industry are not really working on these kinds of problems.

Many will pound their shoes that technical books, especially books about programming, will quickly become obsolete and for that reason buying them is a waste of money. While the field is moving quickly, the so-called fundamentals are not changing that often. Books about algorithms, networking and well established programming languages tend to have a much longer shelf life than the books about some random framework du jour.

Furthermore, it’s hard to assign the return of investment on a book, because the return is not immediately obvious. It has happened to me that I bought the book when I had no immediate need for it and that investment only became useful a few years down the road: at some point a customer had a clock skew problem and they were wondering how often they should be synchronizing their server clocks, at which point I simply grabbed the book from the shelf and read the relevant passage.

If you are lucky, you may be able to find this kind of information online, but due to the amount of garbage content that you have to sift through these days, opening the book was a better choice. Due to similar anecdotes that happened to me in the past, I am extremely skeptical when I see recruiters trying to sell you a company and bragging about the bare walled warehouse that companies today call an office. If a company does not provide you with your own space for storing books and useful articles, you are probably not going to work on any kind of interesting work beyond repetitive cookie cutter apps.

If we had the ability to search through all written books of our field of interest in the same way we search for websites, we might be able to get rid of the physical books that are necessary for our work. Nevertheless, the libraries are still stuck in the past: they only lend books during a certain operating hours, the content is not searchable online and the kind of nitty-gritty programming books that we need are usually not available because most library goers seem to read fiction.

Even if such books were available in a library, you will have a hard time justifying the time spent on driving to the library and back again every time you need to look something up. Not to mention that you can only borrow the book for a couple of weeks which altogether makes public libraries hardly usable. As you are working on a problem you won’t really know when you will have to look up for an explanation. The internal company only library is slightly more convenient since they don’t impose return deadlines, but such a library has to be large enough and without frequent borrowers to be actually usable.

Almost two decades ago Google launched a project called Google books which promised to solve the mentioned problem of searching through all dead-tree books ever written. For whatever reason, and that reason most likely being copyright issues, the project stalled and the initial promise was never delivered. Yes you can search for keywords and if you are lucky you may even see a couple of pages, but this is a far cry from having the world’s knowledge at your fingertips. For this reason I still believe there is value in having your own private library of books on a variety of topics that you may need for accomplishing your tasks. In the times of need a book in a hand is worth two in the bush.


  1. Writing scales better than talking, as already discussed in the Should I write an article or have a presentation? ↩︎

  2. How often your questions are answered also depends on the size of the company that you work for. The bigger the company, the more likely it is that someone will know something about the problem that you are facing. ↩︎