Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Browsing Now (2)

Browsing and serendipity are not limited to the book stacks. Skimming and scanning are habits of mind, and can lead to unexpected discoveries anywhere. Like millions of other people, I use Twitter to bring a mix of relevant and entertaining content to my attention. While Twitter's brief messages and links rarely include books, they do provide a loosely-shaped browsing experience that often leads to useful information I might not find otherwise.

On January 12th, 2012, a small snapshot of my Twitter feed included the following.
@lorcanD: "NYT Windows phone app is very nice, while the Guardian's is lazy."
@ChuckProphet [musician]: "Sometimes Christians are so mean."
@GreatDismal [author]: "Signed Hungarian completist's amazing collection of my work in Hungarian. Many rarities I hadn't seen before."
@GreatDismal: "Sorry I wasn't tooled up to sign tablets." (A problem later rectified--above).
@latimes: "James Joyce moves into the public domain, mostly." [link]
@lorcanD: "the future of collections and collections management. interesting pres by Caroline Brazier of BL. ppt" [link to powerpoint]
In less than a minute, I gleaned several unexpected thoughts (autographing books is changing), developments ("Joyce's unpublished work, particularly his letters, will [now] be available to scholars"), questions (there are people who use Windows phones?) and two substantive links, without actively searching for any of them. Echoing David Weinberger's characterization of the web, these were "small pieces, loosely joined."

So browsing itself continues to advance and morph, as do the formats and content found. Pictures, news blogs, opinions, observations by interesting artists, even an occasional book. But the prize of this day's group of links proved to be the slides from Caroline Brazier's presentation on "Collect/connect: the future of collections and collections management." It's a substantive exposition of the changes facing libraries, prepared to inform the British Library's 10-year strategy. But it also showcases some additional attributes of professional information and grey literature in the early 21st century. Ms. Brazier's work is:

  • Timely. Delivered on October 27, 2011 in Adelaide, Australia.
  • Authoritative. Authored by the Director of Scholarship & Collections at the British Library.
  • Linked from a trusted source. Lorcan Dempsey's tweets regularly turn up interesting targets, indicating context and format.
  • Topical. Future of tangible and digital collections, curating a discovery layer.
  • Graphical. 39 slides with minimal text. Images, tables, and graphs drive the message. (Grey literature a true misnomer here!)
  • Freely available. Like a library. Amazing how much valuable content fits this description.
  • Multi-media. A full MP3 audio is available to accompany the slides.
  • Easy to share. Links, extracts, copies.
  • Useful. A powerful new graphic for thinking about shared print.

A browsing nugget, January 12, 2012
  • Discovered serendipitously. Scrolling through dozens of unrelated entries, far from the book stacks, far from the library.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Browsing Now

Browsing in the stacks
At some point in almost any discussion of weeding, storage, or shared print, concern about browsing surfaces. If large portions of the print collection are withdrawn, moved to offsite storage, or are held only in other libraries, in-stacks browsing will be disrupted. A rich possibility for serendipitous discovery will be eliminated. If books are not co-located, opportunities and connections may be missed. Scholars in the humanities, in particular, regard the library collection as their "laboratory", and are often vocal in their opposition to any plan that requires physical relocation of books. A good example of these strong feelings comes from an article entitled "In Face of Professors' 'Fury', Syracuse U. Library Will Keep Books On Shelves," which appeared in the November 12, 2009 issue of the Chronicle for Higher Education:
"The reaction was so fierce because of the high value humanities researchers still place on hands-on browsing, Mr. Watts said. "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."

Begin here, circa 1975
Personally, I can't count the number of times I've benefited from unexpected proximity. Serendipitous discovery can be both surprising and satisfying. While a student at the University of New Hampshire in the 1970s, I would copy down the call number of a title I needed, and head to the stacks. Once in the designated area, my reverse introduction into the mysteries of LC classification and Cuttering began. More than once, I found something more interesting or relevant in the surrounding volumes than what I originally sought. This was especially helpful when my target item was not actually on the shelf. The loose and at times arbitrary-seeming aggregation of books by subject presented me with options I might not have discovered without physical browsing, especially in the days of card catalogs. 

But I sometimes found myself impeded and mystified by the same cataloging practices that rewarded my browsing. Why were Thomas Merton's 'Raids on the Unspeakable' and 'My Argument with the Gestapo' lodged on the 5th floor in PS 3525 while his 'New Seeds of Contemplation' and 'Asian Journal' resided on the 4th floor in BX 2350? I put it down to the perils of being a monk and a poet simultaneously. I did occasionally wonder about his accidental shelf neighbors in both realms, like Robert Merton or Henri Nouwen. This system certainly fostered serendipity and even curiosity, but not entirely as the result of , ah, intelligent design.

The insistence on maintaining browsable physical collections in open stacks overstates the value of what has always been a partial and complementary research strategy. The largest and best libraries do not hold every work on a subject; access to other collections is needed, and that access relies on bibliographic data rather than direct examination. Even in a single library, books and journals on the same topic are typically separated, with unified discovery supported through bibliographies, indexes, and databases. And physical browsing is actually a very recent phenomenon. Closed stacks were a mainstay of academic libraries until the middle of the 20th century. As Donald A. Barclay, Deputy University Librarian at the University of California, Merced, noted in an American Libraries blog entry, entitled "The Myth of Browsing:" 
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.
And of course browsing and unexpected discovery are not limited to the book stacks. In double-checking my memories from the 1970s, today's UNH online catalog provided search results sortable by call number,  enabling an instant virtual scan of the the shelves around my Thomas Merton titles. Those shelves are 50 miles from where I sit. In many respects, the ability to browse online is superior to in-stacks browsing. I could follow author and subject links, range beyond the UNH catalog to consult the combined collections of the Boston Library Consortium orWorldCat, scan tables of contents, and in general follow trails that would not have been open to me while walking the aisles. This sort of browsing in the cloud is not the same as browsing in the stacks, but does offer many of the same advantages, some new ones, and a good deal more convenience. (They don't call Firefox a browser for nothing.)

Browsing in the cloud
The current tools for online browsing are far from perfect. Online browsing is only one component of a research strategy. But it may be (or may be developed as) a reasonable stand-in for in-stacks browsing, especially as libraries add more and more eBook titles. As economic pressures and user preference for electronic content grow, libraries must reconsider the value of onsite print collections. In most cases, this will mean smaller collections in central stacks, and remote access to lesser-used materials. While this may limit physical browsing, it does not preclude serendipity or scanning for connections. These result from the openness and imagination of users, and will persist regardless of how information is stored. Rather than insisting on all books remaining in situ, we may be better served by adapting our browsing proclivities to new tools.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Meet the Press

The act of removing books from library shelves carries a shocking load of emotional and cultural baggage. Academic libraries are seen as guardians of the published record, and more specifically the printed record. To most library users (and to a good share of librarians), books are the DNA of a beloved institution--the core of its identity. At some fundamental level, deselection appears to betray that identity and its corresponding cultural commitment.

Image and article  from

But while the printed book remains a vital part of scholarly and cultural communication, it is painfully obvious that its primacy has been eclipsed by electronic resources. Use of books is far lower than most people realize. Millions of redundant volumes are sitting untouched in open stacks and storage facilities. They occupy space and time that could be used for other purposes. As a professional community, we have a responsibility to address this, even in the face of misunderstanding and resistance.

But we also need to explain our thinking and our actions. We need to educate faculty, students, administrators, and even library staff about deselection. As with any difficult topic, effective communication about weeding, storage, and shared print decisions requires not only mastery of the relevant data, but direct engagement with concerns and objections. We need to manage the message as actively as we manage the decision-making and logistics. We need to provide context. And we need to take the initiative.

The temptation to hide or downplay deselection projects can be quite strong, since this activity is often perceived so negatively. Deselection can attract close scrutiny, inflammatory language, television cameras, and protests. Stories and misunderstandings abound, but let's start with a big one that occurred 15 years ago.

In the October 14, 1996 issue of The New Yorker, author Nicholson Baker confronted San Francisco Public Library about books removed after retrospective conversion of the library's catalog. The article, entitled "The Author Vs. The Library" [abstract], set an adversarial tone and engendered suspicion around motives and practices for removing library material--suspicion that persists to this day. Some of that suspicion is warranted. We need watchdogs. We also need to be clear about why some books must be withdrawn. We need to assure that criteria for weeding are well-founded, and that the process is sufficiently transparent. We need to articulate the problem, the solution, and the benefits.

Baker attacked when he learned that 200,000 books had been sent to landfills. There were unusual aspects to this case, and clearly some questionable decisions made in haste. But even Baker's informants from the library agreed that "maybe a quarter of them, fifty thousand, should have been thrown out." And while the article teems with examples of potentially valuable discarded titles, those lists provide no context. No consideration is given to circulation rates, to how many other libraries hold these works, to a title's relevance to the Library's mission, or to the cost of retention. (Digital versions were not a significant factor in 1996.) In short, the picture as sketched by Baker was incomplete.

It is our task as responsible librarians to fill in the background and to complete that picture. In some cases, even good books (or rather, surplus copies of good books) may warrant weeding and discard. We need to get better at making the case and showing that no content will be lost. We need to welcome the press and make our decisions/criteria transparent. In subsequent posts, we will look at some libraries that have handled these aspects of deselection especially well. But for today, let's recall some good practical advice from an academic library that pursued a major weeding and storage project between 1995 and 2002. Virginia Tech must have been all too aware of Nicholson Baker's piece as they removed 100,000 volumes each year between 1996 and 1998.

In the May 2005 issue of The Journal of Academic Librarianship, Paul Metz and Caryl Gray looked back on that experience, and offered their "Perspectives on... Public Relations and Library Weeding" [WorldCat record]. This article is an excellent short synthesis of what the Library learned about communicating with its community before, during, and after its massive deselection project. Metz and Gray's advice focuses on six key topics:
  • Advance Publicity: Consulting faculty 'early and often' is critical. For example, "An article published in the Spectrum, a faculty/staff newsletter, presented an overview of the shelf-load problem, outlined the strategies that would be employed, and invited academic departments to participate in the process."
  • Clear Criteria: "The criteria and guidelines for the project were shared with interested faculty members and an opportunity to review items selected for discard was offered."
  • Flexibility: "The Libraries expressed its willingness to transfer storage items back to campus" [...] "A library's willingness to allow visitors to come to the Storage building and examine items on site is another important and beneficial element in flexibility."
  • Good Deeds: "...[the English bibliographer] listed discards she thought would be of interest and offered them for transfer to the department. By the end of the project 4016 books had been sent to several members of the department."
  • Quick Response from the Top: "The [Director of Collection Development] answered all questions immediately. [...] With many critics it helped to give tangible examples..." [...] "Who would want a book on personal finance that predates the personal computer and spreadsheets?"
  • Low Visibility: " was the Library's commitment to recycling that invited its greatest public relations challenge. Rather than send our discards to a landfill, we held them in a dumpster behind the library. The unfortunate result was that "dumpster divers" would periodically remove items and express their disapproval of the Library's decisions." [...] "After several months, the dean of Libraries decided that the 'dumpster situation' was untenable and directed that all library discards be included in the university's periodic surplus property sale." [Related post]
As is clear from these brief statements, even the best communications plans require extensive groundwork and vigilance. Despite all the preparation, a letter entitled "Tech Is Treating Unwanted Books Like Garbage" appeared in the Roanoke Times and World News. But because they were prepared, the Director of Collection Management responded within 4 days, providing corrections and context, and advancing the Library's rationale. In the end, Virginia Tech considers their project "a success. The Libraries still benefit from the enormous gains in shelf space. [...] The project is very rarely mentioned by faculty or other members of the university and seems almost to have been forgotten."