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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Is A Book In The Library
Worth Two in the Offsite Storage Facility?

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon looks at modern libraries.

I spend a good deal of time wandering around in libraries. Some of this time is distinctly productive – I’m looking for something specific. But much of my time is spent simply browsing; engaged in the occasionally vain hopes that I’ll find something of interest, and content in the knowledge that I’ll enjoy myself whether I do or do not.

The inexorable progress of library science, however, seems to not take browsing into consideration much when planning how to improve libraries, and there is an increasing rush to move holdings into ‘offsite storage’, a term that I feel has a decidedly euphemistic ring to it. I’m not particularly interested in having a debate with a horde of tetchy librarians about what is the best way for them to perform an admittedly difficult job, but I had an experience last week that made me think of offsite storage in a new(ish) light.

I pay for a visiting library membership at an Ivy League institution near where I live, and while it is not terribly cheap I certainly consider it money very well spent. Their libraries are beautiful and august things, impeccably maintained, filled with gorgeous books and a staff that is well-informed and helpful. But although they have enormous holdings, they are increasingly moving them to a warehouse in New Jersey. It is not an onerous process to look at something that has been moved offsite – you just fill out a form, and the requested item arrives in a day or two. This is an efficient system for many things, but not for browsing. Browsing does not work in two day intervals. It feels like playing chess by mail, a game that has never appealed to me.

Until recently I’ve not been so upset about this system. But then I found that they didn’t have a periodical I was looking for, and so went up to the library one of the local public colleges to find it, and found that my feelings on offsite storage took a distinct turn towards umbrage.

This library was housed in a huge and unlovely building. My immediate impression upon entering was not good – should an academic institution absolutely have to play music loudly over loudspeakers just outside the library, Iron Man, by Ozzy Osborne and Black Sabbath is an odd choice. My following impressions were in a similar vein – it was filled with students talking loudly on cell phones, there was a blinking fluorescent light in one corridor and a broken fan duct in the next that whined persistently. And there were other delightfully antagonistic touches sprinkled about, such as the two metal triangular shapes protruding from a wall near a water fountain, just high enough to function as seats, which had metal spikes welded onto them, in case anyone had the idea of sitting there.

But all of this was immediately forgotten as soon as I walked down to the basement, where the things I was looking for were kept. The basement stretched on and on, a giant room full of journals, magazines, and periodicals, most of which appeared to have not been looked at for decades. Hundreds of bookshelves covered in dust and groaning under the weight of ignored knowledge. I was suddenly in heaven, albeit a heaven with bad lighting and largely populated with college students talking loudly.

The chances are very great that I will never really need to look through all the issues of The Journal of Calendar Reform or The Transactions of the American Foundrymen’s Association, but I find an indefinable pleasure in coming across them. The run of Crelle’s Journal from the 1820’s to the present is doubly incomprehensible to me, as it is about math and written in German, but it is nonetheless beautiful to look at, with its variegated and marbled covers, and I’m sure that sooner or later someone for whom it is not incomprehensible will come across it there, and be surprised and pleased to find it.

I found the periodical I’d come for, and made copies of it. And I came back to that library the next day and wandered for hours. The volumes are all arranged alphabetically, and I started at A and walked slowly through, looking at every title without taking anything down from the shelves. After an hour of this I had just reached B, so I allowed myself to aimlessly stroll through the stacks, pulling down things whenever they sparked interest. I found lovely illustrations in Aero Magazine from 1937, strange and horrific ways of making recipes with war-time rations in the Journal of Home Economics from 1943, and dozens of other things I’d never thought to look for. I left four hours later, inexplicably happy, covered in dust and bits of knowledge I’ll never understand.

I cannot help but to find it strange that making a physical object inaccessible is now seen as a sign of progress.

Recent Comments

  1. John Jackson


    You’re right. There is something lost when moving materials off campus, but I disagree (and I think other librarians may feel the same) that this is seen as a sign of progress. In our case, it’s a necessity.

    I work at USC in Los Angeles, a university campus bound by an urban environment with little room for expansion. If one of our libraries accumulates too many materials, the books have to be sent to another library or (as is most likely) to the offsite location. This happens frequently as we’re always trying to keep our collections up to date. The increasing availability of e-resources does help, especially with periodicals.
    But the reality of our situation (I can’t speak for other institutions) is that there is only so much room and the research needs of the students outweigh other pleasures.

    That said, our off-site location is open to the public. You can come to browse its over 1 million materials to you heart’s content. Just the other day I came across a late 19th century bio of Hayden. Absolutely divine.

    I enjoyed reading your article and I hope my response doesn’t come across as too reactive. But I wanted to make sure at least one librarian spoke up to say “We miss browsing too!”


  2. Book Calendar

    Libraries are plagued by endless expansion. The more academic it is the worse the expansion. This leads to the creation of offsite storage spaces which take days to reach. This also applies to law libraries where everything is based on precedent and many of the older legal volumes have never been converted to digital formats.

    I think offsite storage is terrible. Even adding an extra wing or an extra floor is better than having to send for something offsite.

    People can wait patiently for fifteen minutes to half an hour while someone searches in the dusty stacks for an old book. They become impatient if it takes longer than that.

    I work in a public library in a central branch. A lot of our funding comes from circulation of materials and use of material. The longer you have to wait to get something the less likely they are to use it.

    Browsing and immediate use partially drives our funding for material.

    We have a mezzanine where we keep all the last copies of books in the county. Luckily we have two floors for storage inside the building. I don’t know what we would do if we had to move material offsite. I think we would lose a lot of it because the storage would become too expensive during times of budget crunches.

  3. […] week I wrote about some of the frustrations I have with libraries and the burgeoning practice of moving items to […]

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