If you haven’t already, read Ann E. Michael’s defense of libraries with real, physical, honest-to-goodness books on real, physical, honest-to-goodness shelves that you can actually browse. Seems odd that this is a concept in need of defending, but that’s this century for you.
Here’s an excerpt:
During a recent meeting at my college, a high-level administrator suggested that our campus library — a relatively new and spacious building — was too full of windows and good views to be devoted merely to storing books. Essentially, he was promoting the idea of off-site text storage, with an eye to moving student-resource departments — tutoring, the writing center, retention — into the library. Study centers instead of book stacks.
I have a stake in that proposal, as I am the writing-center coordinator. If I’m honest, I’ll admit how much I would love to get my peer tutors out of our classroom-building basement and into the library. It is a terrific space.
I don’t think it’s the right move for the college, however. Downsizing the stacks and increasing student and faculty reliance on virtual sources limits the silent conversation between people and books, arrests the opportunity for surprising encounters with unexpected materials, and thus dampens synthesis — the very stuff of new ideas.
That’s very true; the simple act of looking over the shelves, of getting a sense of what information is available on a given topic simply by taking a few steps down an aisle, is a very useful step the research process. I think every historian has had those moments where they’ve been looking for one book and accidentally stumbled across another that opened up a new and profitable line of investigation. Sure, some libraries’ online catalogs allow you to “browse” the titles shelved near a particular book electronically, but there’s no substitute for putting in a shoe leather.
I get why libraries want to minimize the amount of space devoted to stacks. Those coffee shops, art displays, and Zen mindfulness seminars have to go somewhere. But, if you’ll indulge a rant, my problem with doing away with open stacks is twofold.
First, libraries are just about the only institutions set aside for providing access to books. If I’m hard pressed for coffee, I can hit Dunkin Donuts or 7-Eleven; if I need a copy of One Vast Winter Count, by contrast, I don’t have many options besides the library. I don’t have a problem with a coffee shop in the library, just as I don’t have a problem with an ATM inside a Burger King. But when they start dismantling the broilers to fit in more ATM machines, somebody needs to stop and remember what Burger Kings are for.
Second, the measures libraries use to minimize shelf space—off-site storage, closed storage, and e-books—are a major pain in the tuchus. Who wants to have to notify a library ahead of time so they can send a guy to a warehouse to pick up a book that you could’ve walked in and grabbed for yourself?
And e-books…do not get me started on e-books. I’m not at all opposed to electronic texts. Yesterday, in fact, I sent an e-mail to a reference librarian telling her how much I love one of the new databases that UT’s library is trying out. I freaking love being able to sit in my apartment and download primary source material. It’s saved me countless hours and a great deal of money in the past few years.
But when it comes to reading academic titles, though, I have never—and I mean never—had a good experience with using electronic books provided through a library subscription. Pages invariably fail to load. The images don’t configure on my device properly. And forget checking references. With a physical book, all you have to do to check out an endnote is riffle through the pages with your thumb and forefinger. Good luck trying that with an e-book. Ever tried to read a military history book online, moving back and forth between text, maps, orders of battle, and references?
I’ve had proponents of e-books remind me that multiple patrons can check out the same electronic book simultaneously, something that’s impossible with physical books unless a library has more than one copy. And I’ll admit that it’s a great feature of electronic books…on those occasions when you can actually use them that way. In practice, however, a lot of the libraries I’ve used only permit one simultaneous user per e-book. This doesn’t just eliminate the biggest advantage e-books have over hard copies; it can also make it impossible for even one reader to use a book for any substantial length of time. I’ve often been trying to read an e-book only to have something go haywire with my connection, my device, or the library’s website. When I attempt to access the book again, I’m unable to do so, because the website informs me that someone is already using it. That someone, of course, is me, since getting booted off the site prevents me from logging out, so as far as the website is concerned, I’m still reading the book.
Electronic texts and off-site storage might save your library some space. But the people who need to get at information, who need the library for those things that only libraries can do, will foot the bill. And they’ll be paying up with a whole lot of frustration.