The Myth of Browsing

Academic library space in the age of Facebook

May 19, 2010


A headline in the November 12, 2009, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education tells what is becoming a familiar story: “In Face of Professors’ ‘Fury,’ Syracuse U. Library Will Keep Books on Shelves.” Pressed by economic realities, hurting for space, and seeing the opportunities offered by existing and emerging information technologies, the director of an academic library announces plans to move some percentage of the library collection–specifically low-use books and bound journals–offsite. The space gained from the move will be used to create areas in which students can study and collaborate. The reaction from faculty and, in some cases, alumni and students? Fury!

Such highly charged resistance to moving books out of the academic library springs from two assumptions. The first of these is clearly stated by James W. Watts, chair of the Syracuse University Religion Department. “The big issue in the letters and among humanists generally is the importance of being able to browse collections and not have them in a remote location.” A second, more subtle assumption holds that the presence of large numbers of printed books creates something–a vibe, an ambiance, a holiness–that engenders scholarly behavior among the student body.

This latter notion is reflected in the words of a professor quoted in a September 30, 2005, Chronicle article touching on faculty insistence that no library books be stored offsite: “The faculty is united in thinking that this building is supposed to be the research center of one entire wing of intellectual life at the campus, and we can’t afford to let it turn into an internet café.” While most scholars (the author of this article included) can swap true anecdotes of great scholarly moments that took place in the library stacks, the assumptions that, first, a huge number of browsable books is a necessary component of research and, second, that this voluminous presence is all that prevents an academic library from deteriorating into a Starbucks do not stand up on close examination.

When dealing with an issue that invokes strong emotional reactions, a little historical context is always helpful.

Although today’s academic library users may feel that browsing is an ancient scholarly right, the practice is in fact no older than the baby-boomer faculty who so often lead the charge to keep books on campus. Prior to the Second World War, the typical academic library was neither designed nor managed to support the browsing of collections. At best, faculty might be allowed to browse, but it was the rare academic library that allowed undergraduates into the stacks. To this day academic-library special collections–real treasure troves for scholars in the letters and humanities–remain entirely closed to browsing.

Like hitting the sale tables

If browsing does not have a long academic history, one could argue that it is still a desirable thing because it leads to serendipitous discoveries. The problem is that such serendipity depends on whatever happens to be on the shelf at the time of browsing. Because the books in highest demand are most likely to be in use and, thus, off the shelf, browsing academic library shelves is the equivalent of hitting the sale tables on day three of a three-day sale.

A related dirty little secret of academic libraries is that significant portions of their collections are not browsable because they are, in the jargon of the profession, “missing but unaccounted for.” In plain English, “lost, stolen, or strayed.”

One book, one place

Even if every book in the library catalog is, by some miracle, sitting exactly where it is supposed to be, the fact remains that a single book can sit in only one place in the library regardless of how many subjects it may encompass.

Where a book sits is a function of its call number. Take the book What Are the Animals to Us? Approaches from Science, Religion, Folklore, Literature, and Art by David Aftandilian.

Virtually all U.S. academic libraries shelve this book in the zoology (QL) call numbers. Good luck to the person browsing the call numbers for religion (BL–BX), folklore (GR), literature (P–PZ), or art (N–NX), especially in a very large academic library where tens of thousands of books are shelved in each of these broad call number categories and where various call numbers may be scattered among multiple library buildings that are themselves subdivided by numerous special locations.

Even if an entire collection is housed in a single building, the very physicality of browsing hinders success. Just as products positioned on the middle shelves of grocery stores sell better than those on higher or lower shelves, books that come to rest on the middle shelves of library stacks circulate more than books above or below. If, by (bad) luck of the draw, the perfect book for your research happens to land on a top or bottom shelf, chances are you are not likely to find it by browsing, especially if you are short in stature (the top shelf of a standard library stack is seven feet above the floor) or if you are unwilling or physically unable to get low enough to read the spines of the books at shoe-top level. Other physical hindrances to browsing include overcrowded shelves and books that lack spine titles or book jackets.

The ineffectiveness of browsing aside, the argument that large, browsable collections are necessary for scholarly work is countered by the fact that when an academic library book is sent offsite the book does not become forever unavailable or undiscoverable. Thanks to existing and emerging online search tools, books that go offsite in the digital age are actually more discoverable than they were sitting on the shelf in the predigital world. Using the advanced search tools incorporated into the websites of major online bookstores, you can not only use keyword searching to overcome the limits of classification, you can also read abstracts and reviews on the spot and, in some cases, sample sections of a book. Because and its competitors offer such a rich browsing experience, it is no surprise that so many of today’s academic library users routinely start by looking up books via bookstore websites and employ the campus library catalog only for determining how to get access to the physical book or, increasingly, the book’s contents in digital form.

Once discovered via an online searching tool, books not sitting in the campus libraries are available in physical format from such sources as locally managed storage facilities, consortial repositories, regional shared repositories, and ordinary interlibrary loan. Increasingly, the contents of books, as opposed to the physical objects themselves, are or will be available online thanks to such emerging resources as Google Books and HathiTrust.

When having a paper copy in hand is a must, print-on-demand services will provide inexpensive copies of online books with little or no delay.

If making better use of space means smaller onsite book collections, it does not mean the academic library is doomed to “turn into an internet café.” While the presence of books may help to send the message that one has entered a place of scholarship and thoughtfulness rather than a place to gawk at YouTube until you lose all feeling in your backside, there is no evidence to suggest that the presence of 2 million mostly unused books sends such a message any better than the presence of 200,000 heavily used books. Or that 200,000 books does the job better than 20,000. The notion that there is a relationship between the proximity of large numbers of books and the generation of scholarly thought is a close cousin to the ancient notion that piles of old rags cause the spontaneous generation of mice.

Even if it seems that the proponents of awe-inspiring onsite library collections are winning all the battles, they will eventually lose the war due to a single, unavoidable fact: Huge onsite collections have become an unsustainable luxury. Over the last 30 years, the creation of new printed matter has outpaced the creation of new academic library space in which to house all that paper. And just as the world cannot drill its way out of an energy crisis, colleges and universities cannot build their way out of the academic-library space crisis. Doing so would require a level of investment in new academic library space that no institution is willing, and very few are able, to assume.

The word

Fury would not begin to describe the faculty reaction to any campus construction plan giving the creation of vast amounts of new space to house printed books priority over new space for classrooms, offices, and laboratories.

The challenge for academic librarians is how to reduce the size of onsite collections without either destroying the soul of their libraries or sending their faculty to the barricades.

This challenge–and it is a serious one–will require academic librarians to effectively communicate to skeptical faculty and, in many cases, students and alumni, a vision in which the academic library of the future remains a place where people come to think and learn.

Though all such visions certainly include a prime spot for the printed book, there is no patented formula for just what mix of printed books, technology, and space will best meet the needs of faculty, students, and scholarship. Each academic library, each campus, will need to find the right mixture and adjust it as technology and scholarship evolve.

The one certainty is that the continued over-my-dead-body insistence that no books be removed from campus libraries is an unsustainable position that, sooner or later, must give way to new ways of managing and using academic libraries.

Donald A. Barclay is deputy university librarian at the University of California, Merced.