From the catalogs of babes

{May 20, 2010}   SOS: save our stacks

Man, I had a great segue of posts lined up for this week, with ideas that flowed into and built on one another, and then Donald A. Barclay had to go and write this.

It’s an article from American Libraries magazine (the online edition–I didn’t see it in the print issue) called “The Myth of Browsing,” and it purports that browsing the physical stacks  should not be a priority in the contemporary academic library. And with all due respect, I say “bull sh*t.”

Barclay offers a number of reasons why browsing need not be supported. First off, he claims that the physical stack browsing that current scholars feel is a historical precedent is actually false–public access to physically browse stacks is a relatively recent (20th century) concept. To this I say: so what? So what if it’s a new idea? Should we always do things the way they were done in the past? Should we take away OPACs and return to card catalogs–OPACs have even less historical precedence than shelf browsing. Oh, and let’s do away with full-text access in scholarly databases, too–that’s only been around, what, maybe 20 years? Just because something wasn’t done throughout the entirely of library history does not mean it’s incorrect or wrong–in fact, it’s quite possibly a positive innovation, and, in the case of public browsing, I think it’s been wildly successful.

Barclay also tries to shoot holes in the ‘serendipitous discovery’ valued by some researchers (especially in the humanities, and, near and dear to my heart, the arts). He tries to claim that because every resource in existence in the entire world cannot physically be on a shelf in a library to browse, that patrons are missing out, like “hitting the sale tables on day three of a three day sale.” Again, I must disagree. Of course we cannot offer every existing resource on a shelf at any given time, and yes, this will reduce some discovery possibilities. But aren’t our collections tailored to best serve our patron groups? Do not arts libraries acquire what they feel to be the best selection of books and resources for their clientele, while law libraries choose the best resources for their patrons, and so on? Yes, we must make choices, and yes, that mean perhaps choosing one resource over another and only offering selected books on the shelf. But isn’t that our job as librarians? Isn’t that what we are supposed to do, and what people rely on us for? Collection development and management are key components of professional librarianship, and to offer a collection of every resource in the known universe rather than a carefully tailored collection targeting user group needs, would be unsuccessful, and in my opinion, unprofessional. And at least with some resources on the shelves, something can be found, even if it’s only selected from a few dozen titles rather than every book in the world.  If resources are removed completely (say, to off-site storage as mentioned in the article) then nothing can be selected by browsing, and I personally think something is better than nothing at all. He also tries to claim that browsing is counterproductive due to issues with classification schema, but to me that reflects more on the appropriateness of the schema to the particular library. Regular readers of my blog know that I may be biased in this area, but I think such issues should motivate research into the library’s classification success (or lack thereof), even the success of the furniture design (as Barclay notes, books are more likely to be browsed at eye-level than on the top or bottom shelves out of view).

But what about digital access and browsing? Surely if we remove all those books off-site, people will be able to search and browse the library catalog digitally and find materials that way, right? This is Barclay’s claim–except he doesn’t mention libraries. He’s certainly keen to cite‘s “rich browsing experience” and how “so many of today’s academic library users routinely start by looking up books via bookstore websites.” He himself is saying it right here–library catalogs currently cannot and do not support the browsing needs of library users. Until we can offer the same sort of browsing and findability experiences digitally that library users can get from browsing the stacks, we are in no position to be removing stacks browsing access from our libraries. Now, I may be delusional, but I have optimistic hopes that the day will come when library catalogs are more robust and user-friendly than commercial book websites. But until that happens, we should not be putting our eggs in the basket of Amazon and other external sites and vendors over whose fate we have no control.

Finally, Barclay claims that large physical book collections have become an “unsustainable luxury.” I don’t inherently disagree with this. But why are the unsustainable? Because we’ve made them so. Perhaps better management and strategic planning, with a focus on sustaining physical collections, would alleviate this issue. As for luxuries–indeed, large book collections are luxuries. That’s what attracts people to them–it’s a luxury that most people cannot afford on their own. Libraries are luxury, that’s part of what they’re designed for. They are a luxury of civilized, educated societies, which we need to offer if that’s what we purport to be. And again, from the way I see it from behind my rose-colored glasses, if it’s a luxury people want, they will say so. Which is exactly what they did at Syracuse, and what prompted Barclay’s article. Which brings me to my final (and biggest) beef with Barclay’s piece: here are library users stepping up and saying what they want and value about the library–in this case, physical stacks to browse and a hallowed environment in which to study–and yet Barclay throws everything in his arsenal against it. He sees library users saying in no uncertain terms what they want, and yet he argues against it. No wonder librarians get a bad rap; no wonder people sometimes see us as snooty, uptight traditionalists who push our ways on people because we assume that we know better. Now, I understand that users may not always know what they want, or even what might work best for them, but we’re certainly not doing anyone any favors by shoving that down their throats and blatantly arguing against supporting their needs and wants.

I don’t know much, but I do know this: people want physical spaces to browse print materials and immerse themselves in the traditional atmosphere that occurs only when in the presence of a large number of books. I believe they want it so much, that someday, when all these libraries have taken it away from them in favor of digital access and offsite bunker storage, I will open a space for them where they can come and browse and smell and take in the atmosphere. Maybe if I’m nice I won’t even charge them for it. On certain holidays and every fifth Tuesday of the month.

ps> Way to go, American Libraries, for not allowing comments on the article.

Bryan says:

I am surprised that this issue still comes up so often. I would have thought it was pretty much settled by now. It’s clear that some libraries favor moving huge parts of their collections to off-site storage. That’s their decision, they are planning for it, and I hope it works for them. Chicago is an interesting case in that it is building “off-site” storage within close proximity to the main library (e.g. Chicago|, which allows for a designed-in hybrid situation whereby it uses high density storage to permit serendipitous shelf browsing of what’s left.

The University of Chicago’s multimillion volume installation will free shelves in the Joseph Regenstein, John Crerar, and D’Angelo Law libraries for materials that faculty, visiting scholars, and students want to discover by serendipitous browsing.

It’s does not have to be all off-site storage or all on-site storage. The middle way is probably best. Variety is key, IMO. We have to reiterate again and again that there are many ways to discover information and that we should not insist that it must always be through a computer…unless we decide to offer no other choice. But that’s a decision we are making not some condition of the Universe.

And as for the lack of rich browsing experiences a la Amazon in our systems, hasn’t the library world been obsessed this idea for the past few years (read anything in NGC4LIB), and haven’t some libraries already put up systems that offer a similar experience? I am thinking of all those so-called “discovery layers” that are now commonplace at many libraries:

UVA’s Blacklight(aka Virgo Beta)|

Libraries get the point. Yeah, more like Amazon, and each of the systems listed above (some better than others) are more like Amazon. What else is there to say? UNC stands out and is really rocking it with their livesearch name and subject auto-suggest as you type (like Amazon) and class number browsing. I also like that there’s a facet for checked out, which is another way of discovering things. Is Barclay aware them, and has he used them?


Ivy says:


I do agree that balance and compromise are probably going to be the best solutions for most libraries. Each and every library needs to take the approach that will work best for them. And by “them” I don’t just mean the physical library and the staff, but the patrons. That’s what bugged me the most about Barclay’s article–not that he was necessarily arguing one way or the other, but that he was so fervently arguing against something which that particular library’s patrons had already stood up and said they wanted.

As for the lack of rich browsing experiences, I think you and I may have to agree to disagree… While yes, some of those softwares and interfaces you listed are *trying* to improve (and yes, props for that), none (imo) have yet come close to the Amazon experience. Maybe Endeca–I’d put them at the top of my list for sure. Certainly not WorldCat–half the time for me it’s not even functional, much less “user-friendly/”

I actually think it’s quite telling that we’ve “been obsessed [with] this idea for the past few years” (more like 20, actually, if you look at the literature–Amazon has done much more in less time, although I cede that they have a much better budget for R&D) and yet we still have so little and so few successful systems and interfaces to show for it. Issues arise in that it’s not just about interface design–it ties into metadata and subject indexing and all the other things we need to improve to make the retrieval in our catalogs just as successful as the shiny interfaces. You can’t browse a collection hierarchically by subject if the MARC fields linking the LCSH broader terms were never put into use (something I was aghast to read about just the other day).

>Is Barclay aware them, and has he used them?

I don’t know. I had similar thoughts myself, and probably would have asked, had there been a way to leave comments on the article.

booker says:

I notice no mention of area search, where someone looks up a representative number for a topic of interest, then heads to that shelf location to scan adjacent resources to see what range is available on the topic. That’s a pretty time-honored strategy, especially early in a search. Too bad if libraries ignore that function made possible by user-centered physical collocation.

> It’s does not have to be all off-site storage or all on-site storage.
> The middle way is probably best.

Second time today, in wildly different contexts, I’ve been tempted to post the quote I keep at the top of my whiteboard at work: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Tom says:

For a very encouraging example of an in-house system for browsing collections by subject heading or classification, see John Mark Ockerbloom’s “Online Books Page” at the University of Pennsylvania (; For a blog post by him on the system see


Hi, found your blog while searching for examples of photo-based library catalogs that allow for the kind of serendipitous discovery you described. The only example I’ve found online is the Judd Library ( Are you aware of any others like this?

Ivy says:

Hi Jon!

I can’t remember too many examples just off the top of my head besides the Netflix-esque shelf-browsing-by-cover that’s been added to some library catalogs/discovery layers. (Just saw one on a large touch screen at the Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam a few weeks ago, although it doesn’t seem to be replicated in their web-accessible catalog.) One that I remember was actually brought up by a commenter on another post here; it was an HTML-based access to books by color:

I haven’t seen too many specifically photo-based catalogs, the Judd one is a new one on me. Thanks for sharing it! It’s intriguing, though must confess that I wonder ultimately how sustainable it would be: what happens when books need to be shifted, or weeded, or new books are added? The photos appear to be a single, stagnant image map on first glace, although perhaps they’re running something in the background that lets the images function dynamically?

I would definitely be interested to hear more, either about Judd or any others you encounter, and if I think of or learn about any others myself, I’ll let you know!

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