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 If large portions of the print collection are withdrawn, moved to offsite storage, or are held only in other libraries, in-stacks browsing will be disrupted.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.

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