The Myth of Browsing: Academic Library Space in the Age of Facebook

By Barclay, Donald A. | American Libraries, June-July 2010 | Go to article overview

The Myth of Browsing: Academic Library Space in the Age of Facebook


Barclay, Donald A., American Libraries


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."

Asecond, 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 cafe."

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 along 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.

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