Abacus: My Mistake

Abacus coverThe Abacus: A Pocket Computer

As I was weeding my new collection, the 500s, I came across this book.  I instantly thought, “why on earth do we have a book about the abacus?” and put it directly in the weed pile.  Then I talked to another staff member about it, and she informed me that some people actually like to teach their children simple math with an abacus. My mistake!  People still use, and companies still sell, abaci.  There’s even a cool interactive online abacus.

(Side note, just because it’s interesting: I looked up the plural form of abacus.  Wikipedia used “abaci.”  Other sites used “abacuses.”  One who uses an abacus is an “abacist.”)

This book is a history of the abacus.  As a history, it’s not so bad to keep in a library collection.  At first glance, patrons may have the same reaction I did because it looks outdated.  It is, after all, 43 years old.  If people still use abaci, there must be newer books about how to use them.  Even better if those new books include a history.

I did weed this book.  The history of the abacus is information I can find elsewhere.  A 43-year-old book with yellowed pages and a bit of an odor wafting from within just isn’t cutting it.  The way this is presented as a “pocket computer” is confusing to people who think of their smart phones and PDAs as pocket computers.  However, this episode was a reminder to me that you have to look further into some topics and not judge a book based on what you think you know about the subject.  I honestly had no idea that the abacus was something anyone even thought about any more.

Read my original decision about this book here.

Abacus inside flap


  1. We have one for teaching our children early math skills, as you mentioned. I bought it for my son last year because I have fond memories of playing with an abacus at my cousins’ house when I was his age. I found it at Toys R Us for less than $10, and I saw one at Ikea just the other day for about the same. It never once has occurred to me to seek out a manual for it, but maybe that’s not such a bad idea…

  2. I never learned to use one, but I’ve been informed that it’s still used in Japan for calculating checkout totals, etc. Anyway, if you get a replacement, but it on display and see what happens 😉 🙂

  3. Sure, THIS one needs to go, but every well-stocked library should have a title on using an abacus.
    There is one by Paul Green, How to Use a Chinese Abacus: subtraction, multiplication, division, roots and more. It was published in 2007, and offers clear instructions abacus use.
    As for the abacus itself, just search on Amazon alone for “abacus” and see what you find! The are not an out of date “toy” or obsolete tool. Some math curriculum use an abacus. I would dare to guess that most public schools, trying to fit one size fits all into the classrooms, don’t have time to use an abacus, something that would make math “click” for some students. But, many homeschoolers use them. Check out their catalogs. Timberdoodle.com and Christianbook.com are two of the biggest and both carry several abacus.
    My own two youngest children had abacus when they were younger. I will admit they were for fun, not education. But, they got them from the school district home study program. This was not long ago either.

  4. This book actually seems really awesome if it includes a history, but I understand weeding it if you just don’t have the space an no one local has interest.

    It looks like you can buy a new copy from 2007, but it appears to be just a reprint – unfortunately one review says the information on the Chinese method is wrong, and hasn’t been updated.

    There doesn’t seem to be any good children’s books on abaci, which is a shame.

  5. “Abacuses”?! For all I know that may be “correct,” either traditionally or in the vernacular, but I doubt it…”Abaci” sounds correct. What’s the plural of focus? Foci(i). I believe it follows.the same construction. Now go tackle the plural for “octopus” but be ready for some rather aggressive defense of spellings!

  6. I have an abacus and I love it for doing math. It feels good in the hand. I have a manual, because there are tricks to using it that make the math go faster. I’ve had young kids ask me to teach them how to use it because they thought it was cool watching me do it.

    I have the modern version of Jesse Dilson’s book. I think if you toss this one, at least replace it with the modern version. If anything, at least it will smell nicer when it’s checked out.

  7. People who are good with an abacus can do as well or better as someone using a calculator, or so I’ve been told.

  8. I work in a special ed classroom. One of our students is blind and he uses an abacus for simple math problems.

  9. Deb is right. I work for an advocacy organization whose leadership and membership is primarily made up of blind people. I never thought about it before I started working in their research library, but apparently it is still pretty common for blind kids to be taught math using an abacus. Also, one of my blind colleagues uses an abacus to keep track of her counting while knitting. I say get that 2007 book and if they have something in an audio, even better. You never know who is going to want to use something.

  10. @Fraser–Well, my calculator can make graphs and charts, calculate percentages of distribution, find definite integrals, and do trig functions, logarithms, and square (or higher) roots. Can anyone do that with an abacus?

    What I’ve never understood about an abacus is, it’s so LIMITED. You can really only use it for basic math functions with a limited array of numbers (well, I think there’s some fancy abacus-magic that makes it apply more broadly, but it’s nothing straightforward and obvious). Anything an abacus can do, most of us learned how to do on paper or in our heads in elementary school. I never really saw the point. It’s not like I’m dragging out a calculator (or an abacus) to add 5 and 4. If I need a calculator, it’s because i want to know something like (1750-1232)/149.

  11. Holly, you mentioned something that I have noticed before in libraries that I often thought was never addressed – books that smell. As a regular patron, I know that I can say that the topic of an older book would really have to be something else for me to overlook an odor. I can remember finding interesting-looking older books in my library that did indeed “waft” an unpleasant odor out at me, and I always immediately put it back as soon as possible. Please, if a book smells like a stinky old person – weed it.

  12. Or there’s other ways to deal with smelly books. You can put some fabric softener sheets between the pages then seal for awhile in a ziplock. Some libraries put them in an air tight container with that odor absorbing kitty litter. One librarian blogged about how they shelled out the money for that stuff morgues put on dead bodies that are rotting when found. Apparently it works the best. Put some in the bottom of a bag, put book or books in, seal up tight, leave for a week.

  13. @leigha, you can indeed do a calculation like (1750-1232)/149 on an abacus as quickly as on a calculator (I’ve seen it demonstrated). The difference is that a person skilled in the abacus can visualize it and literally move the beads in their mind’s eye to do the calculation! Doesn’t quite work as well with a calculator.
    I never got to that level of mastery, but I did learn to use one in Japan (at first my motivation was just to give my ESL students something they could teach to me) and I agree that for some students, it would definitely make math work for them.

    I was very amused while living in Japan to see checkout clerks total up an order on the abacus and then punch the total into the register, but they were crazy fast and really accurate.

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