I volunteer at a charity bookshop one afternoon a week, and this has given me opportunity to consider how physical medium affects the efficiency of sorting algorithms.
Sorting and sorting
I should clarify that in the bookshop we often use sorting to mean the process of winnowing the bags of books donated to the shop, separating the saleable books from the ones that instead go to an internet book warehouse. In this post I will instead be using the word sorting as programmers do, to mean the process of taking a disorganized set of items and arranging them in order by some property. For the fiction section of the bookshop this means alphabetizing them by author’s name (rearranged with surname first).
Sorting algorithms can be nicely illustrated through alphabetizing books. Here’s a video on the subject (via John Kottke). The approaches shown here work for books floating weightlessly in infinite space, but in a real bookshop the physicality of the books makes a difference. I have speculated a bit as to how one might differently measure algorithms’ efficiency. For example, swapping two books is a fairly clumsy operation, so it might be more important to minimize swaps than minimize comparisons, perhaps? Finding the author’s name is the timeconsuming part of comparing two books, so it follows that comparing N pairs is slower than comparing one book against N others.
Another difference is that a large number of entirely disorganized books is the rare case—mostly we work with the shelves of books that are already alphabetized (even if slightly disorganized by distracted customers), and small numbers (a few dozen) of book we have just priced and need to put out for sale.
Shelving (insertion sort with binary chop)
The most common sorting operation we do is shelving: merging a few dozen unsorted books in to a much larger, alreadysorted set of books spread over several shelves. For this, insertion sort works pretty well, especially combined with using binary chop to locate the position of the new book.
This is actually quite a nice illustration of binary chop. Find the correct shelf. Now we use two fingers to keep track of the part the shelf. Start with your left finger pointing before at the first book and your right finger pointing after the last one (imagine you’re pointing at the gaps between books). Look at the book midway between your fingers. If it belongs before the book you are sorting, move your left finger to point after it, otherwise your right to point before it. Repeat this a few times until both fingers point at the same gap (or stop earlier if the position is obvious). Each iteration chops the portion of shelf you are looking in by half, making it quick to find the correct gap (O(log n)). Shelving k books this way takes O(k × log n) comparisons.
We can further optimize shelving by first sorting the pile of books we are shelving. This way the search for where to insert a book only has to consider the books between the previously shelved book and the other end of the shelves. With a long row of shelves this means you gradually move from one end to the other rather than having to continually go back and forth to a different random position.
Sorting at the table (Quick Sort)
So we want to sort the few dozen books we have priced before shelving them. This is a situation that better matches the abstract sorting problem: there is a table on which we can create stacks of books as the algorithm requires.
In recent weeks I have in fact been experimenting with adapting Quick Sort to this situation. Given a pile of unsorted books, one can partition them as follows:

Take three books at random from the unsorted set and lay them out as the base of three piles, ordered from left to right.

The book in the middle is the pivot. Go through the unsorted books, adding each to the left or right pile according to whether they go before or after the pivot book. If the author matches the book can go on the middle pile.
This creates two unsorted piles and a small pile containing just the pivot book. The unsorted piles can be partitioned in turn, taking care to keep the piles organized from left to right. When the piles are small enough they can be trivially sorted in ones hands. Now stack the sorted piles on each other and all the books are in order.
Partitioning is quick because the pivot book and the books you are comparing it to are face up rather than spine out, which makes reading the author’s name easier.
Children’s section (insertion sort again)
The children’s section gets disorganized as customers pull books out and return them only approximately where they found them. The constraint that makes Quick Sort unsuitable is we have nowhere to put the books apart from the shelf they are already on. A computer program can sort an array of items in place, by keeping track of which sections of the array belong to which partition, but for a person with a real shelf of books, keeping track of one split is quite enough.
That’s the way to use insertion sort on the children’s section. You start by splitting the first shelf into a sorted and an unsorted section. The sorted section starts out with just the book that happened to be leftmost. Now take books one by one from the unsorted part, and insert them in to the correct place in the sorted section. (We say ‘insert’ even when we are adding to the start or end.) The sorted section grows and the unsorted section shrinks, until all is neatly organized once more.
This is takes O(n log n) comparisons in the worst case. With partially sorted shelves, it will normally go faster than that: we can often transfer good chunk of books to the end of the sorted section in one go, skipping the onebyone comparisons.
Lack of analysis
I have not done any serious analysis in to how one might model the tradeoffs involved in organizing books. But binary chop, and the sorting methods based on it seems like the best balance between being faster and still being simple enough for a person to do in their head.