Read books are far less valuable than unread ones.

Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan

Companies have offices to decorate attractively and employees to challenge intellectually. Why not create a bookshelf with great books to borrow and solve both tasks simultaneously? Despite being an avid reader, I must confess that I am not thrilled by such an idea.

We are surrounded by an ocean of knowledge, and books are ships that carry us between destinations. You can use books to go to any place. Reading is starting a long journey that will never end for the passionate reader.

The Diversity Problem

If the global knowledge in literature is an ocean, a bookshelf is just an aquarium. It can be a peaceful and relaxing experience, but you will not become a better diver simply by looking at those fishes. You have to immerse yourself in the ocean.

To be honest, I have never practiced diving—putting my head under the water at the pool is a considerable challenge to me—but I am sure that ignoring what the ocean has to offer contributes a lot to the joy of going underwater. Reading is a similar experience. Not knowing what a book has in store for us is what I like the most. It explains why I recommend not to follow book recommendations. (This does not apply to my reviews, of course.) You must choose your own books, most of the time.

Companies often welcome suggestions to complete the bookshelf, but if every employee is free to explore the ocean in any direction, we will be running out of physical space to store the books or out of cash to buy them. In addition, a bookshelf is profoundly personal. “A bookshelf is as particular to its owner as are his or her clothes,” said Alan Bennette, “a personality is stamped on a library just as a shoe is shaped by the foot.” Companies probably don’t need a library but simply a space for employees to share their books informally, as we observe more and more in cities worldwide.

In addition, if you allow employees to bring their books, make sure to impose some restrictions. Employees must share the books that they really want their colleagues to read. Your library must not become a cemetery for old books or a recycle bin. Most books are far from being timeless. Imagine the face of a candidate seeing these dead fishes in your aquarium during his interview.

The Availability Problem

My previous argumentation omits a critical point. Every job has a list of strongly recommended books that we imagine buying first to initiate the library. For example, the SRE book by Google rethinks the standard approach to keep systems running reliably in production. Similarly, Turn the Ship Around inspires many leaders to reconsider the leadership role completely. Books like these must be on the reading list of every software engineer and manager respectively. Period.

But these reference books deserve the larger possible audience, and a single copy on a bookshelf cannot help. Reading a book takes time. You want all your employees interested in reading such important books to do it when they need it or are curious about it. A physical library is subject to physical limitations and can be a bottleneck. Online libraries like O’Reilly Safari remove this barrier but partially solve the diversity problem. These platforms provide just bigger aquariums, still not the ocean we are looking for.

A solution?

There are no easy answers when it comes to fostering learning among employees. Everyone learns differently, and there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution.

I love books. But putting them on a bookshelf is like putting fishes in an aquarium. We need greater diversity. We don’t want everyone to think alike. We don’t want everyone to read the same books. And even when we want, a library is a poor solution.

Having said that, nobody has ever been hurt by a bookshelf (except maybe during its installation). It can be a place to start discussions, and why not, talk about all the great books that are missing from the library. Just make sure to find inspiration elsewhere too.

You need to be a diver. You need to explore the ocean and observe the shore from many viewpoints. The best explorers with whom I was lucky to work rely on their judgment to find their next adventure. You must do the same and not wait for a book to pop up on a bookshelf.

About the author

Julien Sobczak works as a software developer for Scaleway, a French cloud provider. He is a passionate reader who likes to see the world differently to measure the extent of his ignorance. His main areas of interest are productivity (doing less and better), human potential, and everything that contributes in being a better person (including a better dad and a better developer).

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