By Michael Levine-Clark
I’m sitting in a dorm room — complete with the uncontrollable blast heat I remember from college — the space that has been my office since June, when the library shut down for a major renovation. Besides having to get used to a somewhat uncomfortable and isolated space, my colleagues and I have had to learn to be librarians without a library building, and our students and faculty have had to learn to use physical collections that are entirely offsite. And the campus community has had to think about the question of what a library is and should be, particularly the question of how to find and use our physical monographs.
Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, this arrangement is working out well. My office is uncomfortable, and I miss the daily contact with students that I had in the library, but it hasn’t been particularly disruptive to be working in a dormitory. The ballroom-library is always busy, and is probably too loud, but comments from faculty and students have been generally positive. There was a great deal of concern about the collections before the move (mostly about the fact that the university originally planned to bring only 25% of the monographs back to campus — now up to 50%), but every comment I’ve heard from faculty and students about the temporary dislocation has been positive. We are delivering books within two hours of their request, which makes it much easier not to have them available for instant access. In fact, I suspect that some of our students and faculty find the request and delivery of books to be easier than a visit to the stacks, and will continue to find it that way once we move into our renovated building. The only issue with which we have heard real concern since the move is the difficulty in finding study space.
Despite the fact that we are getting books to their users very quickly, I find it interesting that the most disruptive part of our temporary setup has not been the loss of onsite collections. This is surprising given the outcry we heard last spring about the damage a move to closed stacks offsite would do to the possibility of serendipitous discovery, a concern that is hardly unique to the University of Denver. But browsing the stacks has never been an ideal method for finding books—even books that you might only find if you happen to stumble upon them. Browsing library shelves requires books to be on those shelves, but for multiple reasons, not all books on a topic are on the shelf at the point that someone is conducting research:
(1) Many books are checked out to other users at any given time, so aren’t discoverable by browsing.
(2) Books can receive only one call number — and live on only one section of shelving — so catalogers have to decide where to place a book that covers multiple subjects.
(3) Libraries are increasingly purchasing or subscribing to e-books, which are not ever going to be found on the shelf.
(4) Libraries often work together to distribute collecting responsibilities across a state or region, so not all books are in the library.
Browsing, then, is not an ideal method for finding books. We should be able to build online tools that allow for serendipitous discovery across all of these categories of information, that allow users to browse for e-books and print books at the same time, and that allow multiple sets of call numbers to serve as subject markers within an online discovery tool rather than as a single shelf location. In the meantime, our students and faculty are getting used to requesting books through the catalog.
All of which raises the question of what exactly a library is — the study space? The services? The collections? All of the above, of course, but perhaps when we think about the library as a place, we need to put more emphasis on the first two than on the latter, while figuring out how best to provide access to print materials in the context of ever-growing digital collections.
Michael Levine-Clark is the Collections Librarian and Professor at the University of Denver’s Penrose Library. He is co-editor of the journal Collaborative Librarianship, co-editor of The ALA Glossary of Library and Information Science, 4th edition, and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, 4th edition. He has been a member or chair of many committees within library organizations, and has served on a variety of national and international publisher and vendor library advisory boards. He writes and speaks regularly on strategies for improving academic library collection development practices, including the use of e-books in academic libraries and the development of demand-driven acquisition (DDA) models.
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