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.

I encountered this great post by Cliff Landis through this Wednesday’s workroom read-aloud rendition of American Libraries Direct. I agree with much of what he says about education, and especially about the symbiotic relationship between reference and cataloging. I did think his outright dismissal of folksonomy was a little too black-or-white, especially consider one of the things I found most interesting about the post was that one of the tags at the bottom was “user-centric service,” which is, after all, the whole point.

{December 24, 2008}   Why such a storm against Storms?

As some of my co-workers know, I’m an avid reader of American Libraries Direct, delivered straight to my inbox every Wednesday (or maybe Thursday, or sometimes not at all, depending on whether or not Verizon is on the fritz). Mainly I read it for the sheer laughable entertainment value–much of the information is trite and nearly useless, and of the links that are actually functional and accessible, most are touting how great librarians  are so we can all feel good about ourselves. Each issue is generally good for a few laughs, but this week’s had a real gem: a link to a Tampa Tribune article about a state Senator who suggested eliminating the Dewey Decimal System. The comments on the newspaper site alone went on for 11 pages, and the paper has also posted several editorial responses, all in disagreement with Sen. Storms’ ideas.

And I agree that there is much there to disagree with. For instance: “Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who oversees state support of libraries, told the committee that Dewey Decimal is the national standard, set by the Library of Congress.” Secretary Browning might benefit from a tiny bit of research before telling lies to the committee–the DDC is owned by OCLC, not the Library of Congress, and with OCLC’s history, I’m a little surprised that they didn’t sue Secretary Browning for attributing DDC to the LOC (which, by the way, has its own classification scheme, quite appropriated entitled “Library of Congress Classification,” or LCC for short). It’s scary to think that such an ignorant individual is responsible for overseeing the state’s libraries.

However, the one thing I most definitely do not disagree with is Storms’ call to cease using DDC in the state’s public libraries. Her reasons? The system is costly, anachronistic, and frustrating for patrons to use. She admires the simplicity of bookstores like Barnes & Noble and wonders why libraries do not follow suit. Opponents against her suggestion are mainly motivated by cost–they say it would cost too much money and time to convert to something else. They also say that the focus and purpose of libraries is not the same as retail and so need a different system.

A lot of responders are calling Storms ignorant and incompetent, but I’m with her on this one. I’ve gone on record in the past as loving the DDC, and I still do. I think it is a brilliant classification system, though not without it’s flaws–you can read about prejudice in the DDC in plenty of other blogs and articles, so I don’t feel the need to go into detail here. It’s certainly not the best classification system ever invented, but it’s good points, I think, are really good–the mnemonic use of the number system is one of my favorite things about it. No matter what section you are in “92” will always mean personal treatment, whether it’s 920 (collected biography), 746.92092 (fashion designers), or 779.2 (photographs of people). The United States is always represented by 973, where books on history of the US are classified, or 747.0973 (interior design of the United States). The manipulation of subdivisions for geography, time periods, and other special topics are outstanding, allowing catalogers to build numbers rather than fit each material into a pre-established narrow box which may not actually be appropriate for the work. DDC has a lot of good things going for it, and its design revolutionized libraries and opened up stacks for patron browseability. I love the DDC and probably always will.

So why am I railing so hard to have it removed from public libraries? Someone who touts the merits of the DDC surely should encourage its use, no? Because it doesn’t serve our users.  Gone are the days of elementary library education–while I can remember weekly trips in second grade to the public school library, where we were taught the Dewey Decimal System and how to properly remove books from the shelf by placing a paper bookmark in between the books on either side so we would return the book to its proper place, most patrons these day did not have the luxury. I mean, I can also remember being instructed in how to use the card catalog (yes, the actual paper one) and the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature(the old bound print editions). These things don’t even exist anymore, having been replaced by the OPAC and subscription service databases. We would no longer think to include card catalog searches and print Reader’s Guide instruction in our bibliographic instruction classes of today. These things have changed with the times, and so too should our libraries’ classification systems.

A part of me struggles with this, I confess. By eliminating instruction on the Dewey Decimal System, is it just one more nail in the coffin of library instruction? I sometimes think so, and worry that not trying to push for further DDC instruction as opposed to elimination, only contributes to what I see as a downward spiral of ignorance and ineducation in our American society. But then another part of me feels stubbornly that if we’re not getting through anyway, we shouldn’t be trying whatever it takes. Why would we purposefully continue to make libraries more difficult to use, rather than easier? Restricting access though classification is not doing anyone’s education any good. Shouldn’t we be trying any means necessary to connect our patrons with the information they seek? And if that means migrating from the DDC to something more simple, so be it.

BISAC (the word-based classification system used by most major retail bookstores) was designed to be easy to use. Why? Because the easier it is for a bookstore customer to find something, the more likely they are to buy it. People can’t buy what they can’t find. (I worked for Barnes & Noble for 5 years, so believe me, I know.) The same goes for libraries: people can’t access what they can’t find. The bookstore and the library are not so different as some people like to think. Am I advocating for the use of BISAC in libraries? Not particularly. BISAC, like all classification schemes, has its flaws, too. I know Maricopa County Library (AZ)’s Perry brach switched to BISAC, and I’ve been anxiously awaiting word on its results before I start tooting the BISAC flag.  I’m also anxious to see what comes of the Open Shelves Classification, but I’m not necessarily pushing for that either (disclaimer: I originally intended to contribute to the OSC, but both my lack of public library cataloging background as well as some other personal issues made me back out). The thing is, I’m not advocating for any particular classification scheme at all. What I am advocating for is for libraries to find a classification scheme that best serves its user base, whatever it may be. Maybe it uses numbers, maybe it uses words. Maybe it’s by subject, or maybe it uses some sort of color-and-shape system (something I always wanted to experiment with for our collection, since our patrons are so visually inclined). Whatever it turns out to be is fine, as long as it’s what works best for your patrons.

But all that money it will cost and time it will takes to change! That’s pretty much the argument against changing any already-established classification system. And I can see that–to a point. I doubt the Library of Congress would have much success reclassifying its 32 million books and print materials, even with all of its staff. However, most public libraries don’t even come near that total: the tour guide from my recent visit to Seattle’s infamous new main public library branch quoted their holdings at 1 million books.* Yes, it’s a lot, and it sounds daunting. Heck, I’m daunted by the prospect of reclassifying our ~27,000 books. But what’s more important: our lack of desire to do reclassification work, or the patrons’ abilities to find the materials they seek? Sounds like we’re being pretty selfish and lazy when we put it that way. Yes, reclassification would be a lot of work. But aren’t our patrons worth it? And if we’re not taking on such tasks, then what are we being paid for? As a service profession, our first duty is to our library users. We’re paid to make otherwise inaccessible materials accessible to all. This is not just our job, but our professional duty. It can be done.


*I’m not sure if that included branches as well; I think not, but still.

et cetera