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.

We had another instance today of a patron searching for a title we hold that didn’t return in the search results. This time it wasn’t a student–it was the chair of the fashion design department.

She didn’t make a big deal out of it, blowing it off like it was a random typographical error, perhaps. Sometimes I wonder if it even occurs to patrons that it’s the catalog that’s broken, not them. When their catalog search doesn’t work, a lot of people walk away with the impression that they’ve done something wrong, when really it’s the fault of the catalog.

I worry about this building a cycle of poor self-esteem and confidence, especially considering that library anxiety is a documented issue. Not only might our patrons walking away without the resources they seek, but also without the belief that they are smart or skilled enough to find those resources in the first place.

Today the head librarian comes up to me. Apparently one of the staff members was looking for two books about footwear and could not find either one. The head librarian showed me the catalog records.



The head librarian is concerned (and rightfully so) that something about the call numbers may be incorrect. 658, being a number used for business management, seems an unlikely number for foot wear books. I agree that it seems odd, although it is possible that the books are about managing a footwear business, and I can’t really tell for certain from the record alone (although I have suspicions that they’re not, due to the pattern-making references). In the back of my head, I seem to recall previously using a number in the 600’s for manufacturing footwear, but it wouldn’t have been 658.

So I do a little research and I discover that there is indeed a number in the 600’s for manufacturing footwear–685. Holy dyslexia, Batman. I go the the 685 shelf and ta-da! The books are there. The spine labels were correct, but the records were not. Once again, those books were essentially lost.

Between misshelving, lack of shelf-reading, incorrect interpretations of shelf order, and mislabeling, it’s a miracle we can find anything in this library at all. Some of it I can understand–we try to encourage patrons to not reshelve materials, but it’s not very effective, and that and our jam-packed bookshelves accounts for quite a few books out of order. But something like this, what happened? And how can I even begin to puzzle out where it went wrong along the way so I can fix it? Usually in these cases, it’s a simple typographic error, but in this instance, the spine label was correct and the record was wrong. Perhaps the person who added the holdings mis-typed, but then the corresponding spine label should have had the typo as well. I’ve been wondering if it was my error, and my fingers got sloppy (hey, it’s been known to happen to the best of us), but that still doesn’t answer how the label ended up correct. The idea of multiple errors, while not impossible, seems unlikely. (See Occam’s Razor.)

Obviously I fix item I or other staff members encounter and bring to my attention. But that’s piecemeal. I know the first place to fix this should be before the materials make it out onto the floor, and believe me, that’s something I want to tackle as soon as I can. But even if that reduces the problem, there will still be a certain percentage of errors. In addition to performing a complete system analysis to discover when and where breakdowns in cataloging & processing occur, I want to know: Once the books get out of the workroom and into the stacks, is there any global way of finding and correcting errors? You can’t fix this by shelf reading or running reports–the first won’t tell you if the catalog is wrong, and the second won’t tell you if the label is wrong.  But short of giving an employee a list of every book and manually checking each item one by one, what else can be done?

I feel sure that our library must be anomalous with our high amounts of such errors, but on the off chance that anyone else out there has had a serious issue with catalog record/spine label discrepancies, what did you do? Are there any other, more efficient ways of tackling this issue besides manually auditing the entire collection?


That’s right. I found the mystery Tony Duquette book.

See, what I had failed to mention in the earlier parable was that while I found the book in the OPAC after the patron left, I couldn’t find it on the shelf, despite its checked-in status. I’m generally pretty diligent, and I’m no stranger to these sorts of situations. I looked for it not just on the shelf where it belongs, but the shelf above, the shelf below, the shelf to the right and to the left. I looked on the book carts, in the book drop, and in the workroom, and I never found it. I even requested that the colletions librarian order another copy.

Until today. Until I was randomly covering the reference desk, letting my eyes graze the room, and lo and behold, I just happened to glace upon a book with huge letters on the spine reading “TONY DUQUETTE.” Of course, I snatched it up right away and sent a note to the instructor who had been interested in it, apologising for the delay but informing her that we did in fact have a copy.

So, where was it? It was safely tucked between 749.092 D716 and 749.092 Ea62. The problem?

(For those that can’t read the blurry impromptu photo, that call number is 747.092…)

This book was essentially missing for 2 months, would have been longer if I hadn’t happened upon it. A patron wanted this book and was denied fulfillment of her information needs because it was simply in the incorrect location.

The moral of the story? Shelving properly is important. Shelfreading is important. Understanding the order of the DDC numbers is important. You know how librarians always whine that “if a book isn’t in the right place, it’s as good as lost”? Yeah, that.

Once upon a time, a woman was graduating from a master’s degree program in library and information science. As is generally traditional, she thought it might be nice to purchase a small thank-you gift for the person in her life who had inspired, enouraged and convinced her to pursue and complete such an educational endeavor. Being a graduate of library studies, she thought a book might be a nice gift. After a bit of thought and some research, she settled on a book that she thought would suit the recipient’s well-known architectural interests as well as offer some symbolism of the graduation “opening new doors” in life: The Language of Doors.

Being a graduate student completing all the final program work, as well as working full-time at a local library, she didn’t have a lot of spare time to go from bookstore to bookstore looking for the title, so she took advantage of the ability to search store inventory on the Borders website. What luck! It said that one copy was in stock at her local store, and so she placed it on hold, only to receive the conformation email a few hours later indicating that the title could not be held. Store inventory is updated every 24 hours, the email read, and so the title may have sold between the prior evening’s update and the time she placed the hold.

Not to be deterred, she went back to the website the next day to check the possibility of purchasing the book at another location. No dice. On a whim, she decided to re-check her local store, to see if the inventory had been updated to reflect the purchase. Lo and behold, the inventory still claimed that same single copy of the title was on the shelf.

Strange, she thought. Having formerly worked at a very similar bookstore, she knew that often, when the inventory reflected one copy of an item and it could not be found, it was simply misplaced. She was the one who often found these missing books when others could not.

The store was not far, so she decided to take matters into her own hands and head over to try her luck and some of the tactics she used to employ in her bookslinging days to find the missing title. The first thing she did when she got to the store was to double check the shelf where the book was supposed to be. Sometimes, when people are working quickly, it is easy to overlook a small book or skinny spine. No luck. She then tried the shelf below, scanning across all the titles, but it wasn’t there, either. She then looked at the shelf immediately above when the book should have been.

And there it was! The book was right there the whole time, just on the wrong shelf, either sheved incorrectly originally, or perhaps pulled out by a customer upon browsing and placed back in the in correct spot. The reason why it was in the wrong place didn’t really matter–what matters was that she found it. This woman found the title when the bookstore employees didn’t.

And why didn’t they find it? Because they didn’t take the time to bother to look for it aside from the one place it was stipulated to be. 5 more minutes of thought, of effort, of going that little extra difference to be helpful and make a sale, would have made all the difference in the world.

I know a bookstore is not a library, but some of the same problems illustrated here occur in both places: the mis-shelving, either by staff or by patrons, the automated holds/reserve mechanisms that eliminate the human aspect, the customer service angle of going that little extra bit to help someone fulfill their information needs, the ability to look beyond the strict rote rules and figure out a new solution to the problem, and the idea that if a book (or other material) isn’t in the right place, it is essentially lost–and so is the circulation or the sale, and–maybe not that day, but if it happens again, and again–the customer/patron.

All the correct classification in thenworld doesn’t matter if people can’t use it. Our systems are not only as good as the humans who design them, but also as the humans who use them. Let’s remember the impact of the human aspect, both for its flaws (so we can work to overcome them) and its benefits (so we can reap them).

et cetera