23 April 2010

What is a library?

This crotchety post was inspired by a conversation this morning with an Edinburgh University librarian. As with just about every other subject I've discussed, I'm not an expert on the subject of library philosophy, but I don't let that stop me from having a firm opinion on it. I will do my best not to just rant here, but I'm hungry and therefore make no promises.

Problem #1: What belongs in a library?

Libraries all over the world, public and university, are facing the challenge of defining what, exactly, their job is. People use them for many things: meeting space, study space, reading space, book storage, free computer terminals, literacy and other classes, and more. Which of these functions should be at the heart of the library? When things get cut, which of these services should go?

At Edinburgh, the university library is confronting this as part of its redevelopment. You can't reconfigure space without deciding what to configure the space into. Choice 1 was to create a "book library" (my term), in which the chief function of the library is to contain books for on-site browsing and access. Choice 2 was to create a "study library," in which the library functions as a center for student work, with group study areas, soft seating, computer terminals, and desks.

Now, call me old-fashioned, but I'm a Choice 1 "Book Library" kind of girl. I like books, and I think of libraries as places where I can get them. I am attracted to shelf browsing. I enjoy being surrounded by books.

Unfortunately, the Edinburgh University Library is not going my way. The plan is to create a distinctly Choice 2 study-centric library, and has been ever since the project was in its formative stages. In fact, "study-centric" may be an exaggeration. Our refurbished ground floor, for instance, is (based on a map in the library) about 2/5 lobby and exhibition space, 1/5 cafe, 1/5 study space, and 1/5 books. Plans for the third floor (page 2) are to move student services, including Careers Services, Disability Services, and Counseling, into the library. (What's next, adding a bar? Oh, wait...)

Problem #2: What do you do with the books?

To make room for these non-book facilities, the library plans to move 50% of the library's collection (citation: page 4) to an annex warehouse. It will not be possible to shelf-browse the warehouse collection; the books will be accessible only by requests through the library catalogue. The library cites the example of other prominent libraries (such as Harvard) in justifying this change, and also cites studies indicating that more users are finding books via catalogue than by shelf browsing.

Let's crunch some numbers (and believe me, as a history major, I don't do this unnecessarily). Edinburgh University has approximately 3.6 million volumes (citation: page 257). This is a perfect moment for me to gripe about the dearth of holdings (in the United States, that would rank it 38th), but let's continue on the original theme. When we realize that Harvard has nearly five times as many books as Edinburgh, the excuse "We're going closed-stack because Harvard did" becomes a false comparison. Fifteen million volumes cannot be held in an accessible manner, necessitating some form of external storage. 3.6 million volumes, by contrast, can be open-shelved: Yale's open-stack Sterling Memorial Library contains four million volumes (which represents only 1/3 of Yale's holdings but exceeds the entire Edinburgh collection).

One final argument in favor of moving the books is that they will only move the books that are rarely used. The library has gone over to Library of Congress style shelfmarks with letters and numbers (say, HN 3329.) They did this gradually: new books were added in this system, and old books were relabeled upon being checked out. Books still in the Dewey Decimal area, therefore haven't been used for ten years. If they went to the annex, who'd miss them?

There is one glaring flaw in this argument, and that flaw is causality. Edinburgh Library books are segregated by usage: the HUB ("High-Use Books") on the first floor has the most-used volumes, then the Library of Congress books, then the Dewey Decimal books. Since an unscientific quizzing of my friends shows that shelf-browsing is alive and well, doesn't this suggest that shelving in a high-use section might lead to use? Perhaps after checking the HUB and the Library of Congress books, people have found enough material not to bother checking the Dewey section. A book may end up in the annex not because it is useless, but because for a few critical years around 2000, the book happened not to be checked out, and therefore nobody in subsequent years ever came across it - a fate sure to be perpetuated if that book is exiled to a warehouse in South Gyle.

Problem #3: Once you move them, how do you get books?

Why do I care so much about keeping books in the library? If a book was mistakenly sent to the annex, well, somebody will just find it in the catalogue and call it back, right?

I don't believe that a library catalogue can help you find the right book the way shelf browsing can. Today, for example, I needed a book on how the Robin Hood legend has changed in the twentieth century. (Don't ask why.) I found this catalogue entry:

Main Author: Singman, Jeffrey L.
Brief Description: Robin Hood : the shaping of the legend /

Westport, Conn. ; London : Greewood Press, 1998.
Series: Contributions to the study of world literature ; no.92

Well, "shaping" sounds good. I suppose I'd order that. But I would have been very disappointed: when I went up to the shelves, I found that this book is about the medieval (pre-1600s) Robin Hood ballads, and has nothing to do with modern Robin Hood at all. On the shelf beside it, I found a book simply titled "Robin Hood," which has a chapter called "The Later Tradition." Bingo! Just what I need.

Now, how is a catalogue supposed to replicate this experience? The librarian buzzword for it is "improving metadata," which means that they want to make it so that search results are more likely to return the book you want. Think Amazon.com search results, down to features like "People who checked out this book also checked out..."

I have three problems with this. First, the metadata isn't there yet. You're sending the books to the annex too soon, and for at least the next five years, students will be the worse for it. Second, some metadata is, in my opinion, not likely to ever be there. How would I know, unless I flipped to it, that "The Later Tradition" chapter in my book means the modern age and not some relative Victorian "later"?

And third, okay. Assume every book I might possibly be interested in appears in this perfect metadata search. Assume, even, that the library can deliver them to me in a reasonable amount of time. So what am I going to do, page thirty books? Justin ran into this at the National Library, when he requested a huge pile of manuscripts so he could go through them and find the one that was relevant. It is not more efficient to bring an entire bookshelf to Justin than to have Justin take himself to the bookshelf.

Problem #4: The Intangibles of a Library

I'm a material cultures historian, and Justin is even specifically a book historian. As a little girl, I didn't want to be Belle so I could marry the Beast; I wanted to be Belle so I could get my hands on his library. You can therefore expect the part of this post dealing with the emotional effects of books to be even less objective than my previous rampant opinion-mongering, and potentially woefully cheesy as well.

As I mentioned above, I like books. I like the way they look - different colors showing ages and sets, different textures showing binding methods and wear and tear. I like how lining or filling a room with bookshelves creates special acoustics. I like the smell of binding materials and old paper, and the feel of worn leather or plasticized fabric under my fingertips as I walk down the shelves. If there were a way to experience books through my sense of taste, I'm sure I'd like that, too.

But the experience of standing in a library is even more intangible than that. It is the feeling of being wrapped up by the hundred million thoughts of a hundred million thinkers. The weight of this information is comforting. Uncertainty is a cold place, and entering a roomful of books is like wrapping yourself in a blanket. The books don't even have to relate to a question I'm asking at the moment. It's a comfort just to know that the answers will be there if I ever want to ask.

Problem #5: This post is too long

To be completely clear, I'm not challenging the idea that students need study space, or cafes, or career placement centers. I just don't understand why they have to be at the expense of library books. Students also need gym equipment, but I don't suggest replacing the English literature section with Bowflex machines.

One of the great joys of an open-stack library is knowing you can, for absolutely no money, walk away with any book you choose. By contrast, paged books are exclusive, organized by surname as a brusque "hands-off" to the rest of us. It's all about knowledge you can't have, instead of knowledge that's just dying for you to acquire it.

Money is finite, I know, and so is space. But I'm of the American liberal arts university opinion that the library is the heart of the university, and as cheesily metaphorical as this is, I would cut just about anything else a university has to offer before I'd cut the heart.


  1. Very interesting. My own university library (ULB Innsbruck) actually went the other way recently. It used to be that the main library was all in the annex and only very few reference books in open stacks (and when I say very few, that means I never used them at all. And I am currently finishing my doctorate in literature). Some of the books were also in individual small libraries assigned to the departments, usually with open stacks but it totally depended on the department and their situation.... anyway, they did a major rebuild recently and now all the books are in the main library, which has study and reading space (but no career center or cafe) and open stacks. But the majority of books is still in the annex. People seem to love the new library although I miss my own German department library where all books were readily accessible. And yes I loved the finds on the shelves! Now I can still find some books on the shelves but they put the majority of books dealing with German studies into the annex.... on the other hand, at least there are some books readily available and most people never knew that. And they use a pretty good catalogue so people usually do find what they need...
    But I do feel your pain. And your post was interesting to read and not at all too long!

  2. Liz - thanks for the interesting reply. I'm encouraged by the idea that your library is moving towards encouraging students to be in the presence of books. It encourages my hope that in twenty-five years people will realize this was all some horrible misunderstanding and will revert to the old ways, like how we're trying to reintroduced mixed-use zoning.

    I just went to the library today to pick up a book for my paper, only to find the library had sold it because it wasn't considered useful. It's a critical analysis of Arthur Conan Doyle - who's a freaking alumnus. Yikes.

  3. Wow, that was a lot of encouragement in that post. Maybe my subconscious is trying to tell me something.

  4. I really do not get why libraries are so keen to get rid of books that are not considered useful.Isn't that the nature of a lot of research, that documents lie (ly? I always mix them up, darn!) dormant for years or even centuries, only to be discovered by someone who is thinking outside the box??? I can see why a public library might sort otu books, because the main focus is to provide reading matrerial. But University/Research Libraries?? It's just wrong.
    I must admit that I am not fan of opening things into areas that are not their core competence (like libaries and career centres. Study space, yes. Career centre? no). German has a saying for hybrid things like that: They are neither fish nor meat (ie they do not fulfill any function fully) and I think it is right....
    Now I will go to bed and dream of a lovely library with lots of books I can just walk into. Good night!

  5. I have to admit, I never had that kind of experience with my university library, as it was only a very small one. However, they managed to provide most of the books the profs recommended in adequate numbers.
    The fact that I get a library card for the public library in every city I move to immediately probably tells you more about my relation to books! ;-) I´m really in love with shelf-browsing and discovered several fantastic books that way... Anyway, I really enjoy sitting in a library - if it´s quiet at least - and skim through the first pages of a book to decide if I want to read it or not. I spent lots of rainy days waiting for a bus in a library! ;-)
    It´s just that no computer, audio book or whatever can replace this feeling of turning the pages, eager to find out what´s on the next one. Also books have this very special "paper smell" on them and I catch myself just sitting in my bed sniffing at the pages... :-)
    And that´s exactly where I´ll go now! Good night and thanks for this - again - fantastic post!