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.

20 April 2010

Volcano Madness Follow-Up: Adieu, Athens . . .

Well, just minutes after our previous post, Nana and I learned that we'd been bumped from our Friday flights (or our flights had been rescheduled for next week . . . or something . . . not quite sure, it's been complete chaos over here), so the Greece trip is off. Thankfully, we were able to give up our seats and apply the cost of the ticket towards a future flight--in this case, from Edinburgh to Fukuoka in August.

Since we get reimbursed for that one by our new employers, we've basically gotten out of this whole mess for the cost of about three hours on the phone. (And, of course, the cost of a much-anticipated visit with a good friend.) Considering that there are folks out there who've lost thousands of dollars and nearly a week (and counting) of travel time, I think we've done pretty well.

Greece Slips Away? And Other Volcano Craziness

Thanks to the eruption of a volcano in Iceland, Nana and I have been in travel limbo for almost a week now, and have resigned ourselves to not knowing before Friday morning whether or not we'll be headed off to Athens that afternoon. But compared to a lot of other travelers, we have it easy: we're at home, and since we're planning on staying with a friend in Athens, we have nothing to lose if our flight is canceled (in the EU, if your flight's canceled, you're entitled to a refund).

Anyway, Nana and I weren't sure if our friends and family across the pond were following the story, so I thought I'd round up a few links on the biggest aviation shutdown in European history.

-Latest from the BBC (with a bunch of further links in the sidebar)
-British Navy plans to repatriate stranded Brits.
-Slate.com on the long-term geopolitical effects.

Long story short, this thing is a huge deal, and there's the chance that continued eruptions in Iceland could make air travel within Europe touch-and-go for months (though intercontinental flights, especially transatlantic flights, should be less of a problem).

Of course, as Nana notes, there is a bright side in the potential for a zeppelin renaissance! (Complete with steampunk styling, we can only hope.)