|Browsing in the stacks|
"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|
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|