Some interesting questions for librarians like me

We had a discussion at work about the open shelving in the library yesterday. These are my slightly incoherent thoughts on that afterwards.

“In the olden days” (academic) libraries had collections which were complete. Single entities that told the story of a certain subject. “Now” libraries acquire books in support of research and education. However there are still those who see the library in the traditional way, as complete collections of information in book shelves. And amongst them there still are university administrators.

But I don’t want to bash on anyone here, and for some subjects the choice to buy or to keep some items on open shelves in a collection is not an easy one. Humanities for example and Law too still rely heavily on new publications that appear only on paper. That’s what started an interesting discussion in the office yesterday about why libraries even have books in open shelving in the first place when they could be kept in depots and requested.

The fundamental question here is how do you want our information delivered? Do you want to browse the shelves? and if so which books and journals do you expect to find there?

What happens now is that librarians make decisions about which items are taken out of the overflowing collections to create breathing space for new items.

When really we should be asking: Which books do we want in the stacks in the first place for patrons to browse? That brings us back to the olden days of building a subject collection but without the wish for it to be complete, just something that can be happily browsed.

And if you pare down the collection in open shelving to a just-the-basics-collection then what do you do with the extra space? Our patrons will give you the answer to that in a flash: extra tables and chairs to study at. The number of students who have voiced their wish for additional furniture is so large that it in turn begs the question: How many people in the library still actually browse the shelves? and if that is a small number then what is stopping the rest? Is it because they couldn’t find the books they were looking for the first time, or don’t they read paper books anymore?

This is where the questions get really big.

Because you can’t ‘collect’ ebooks and loan them properly either, browsing is as easy as a Google query if you know how. You’re getting into DRM (digital rights management) problems and the power of large publishers.

And that also where the questions about which books to have in open shelves, if any, spirals away. I Had never asked myself these questions so I was happy to have this discussion.


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