Stacks and Awe

From Library Babel Fish, November 15, 2012

There was a terrific post a little while ago on ACRLog (cross posted at Library Hat) by Bohyun Kim about what it is that appeals to us about being in the stacks of a library. She suspects that the reasons we give when we yearn for the stacks isn’t actually the ability to serendipitously discover things through browsing. Any number of those who say they must browse for their research rarely set foot in their campus libraries, yet somehow manage to be productive scholars. Kim thinks that real value is ambience that is inspiring and conducive to promoting a sense of “flow” for researchers. Being in the stacks inspires awe because we sense the physicality of knowledge. She writes:

It is magical and magnificent. It is amazing and beautiful. This is where all those emotional adjectives originate. In the library stacks, we get to ‘see’ the knowledge that is much bigger than us, taller than us, and wider than us. (Think of ‘the sublime’ in Kantian aesthetics.) When our sensory organs are engaged this way, we do not experience the boredom and tediousness that we usually feel when we scroll up and down a very long list of databases and journals on a library web page. We pause, we admire, and we look up and down. We are engrossed by the physicality of the stacks and the books on them. And suddenly all our attention is present and focused on that physicality. So much so that we even forget that we were there to find a certain book or to work on a certain research topic.

She goes on to discuss how library spaces should strive to foster the sense of wonder and space for contemplation as well as address the trickier challenge of enabling serendipity in electronic collections. What she envisions would be awesome: technological platforms that let us scan lot of texts and zoom in and out at will from the aerial landscape of the subject down to the level of the article, the photo, the page.

These experiences and emotions are very close to what I want our students to get out of their experience with an academic library: a sense of the sheer vastness and majesty of the universe of knowledge as well as reassurance that they can explore it safely, that it isn’t just an inchoate and hostile terrain full of confusion but a place that, after a semester or two, feels like home.

There is no library website that can produce that feeling of being at home in the world, to combine the experience of awe while also feeling a sense of familiarity and comfort. Our students, like undergraduates everywhere, would like to replace all those choices they find on our website with a simple search box that sorts through everything – but doesn’t provide one of those tiresome lists of possibilities that has to be winnowed. They don’t pine for that discovery layer that libraries are installing at great expense and endless amounts of tweaking that searches all the library’s databases and catalog at once. No, they want a search box that sorts the options and retrieves just one item: the perfect source.

Instead, a list of results (perhaps the first twenty citations of the 1,084 articles found) is allegedly sorted by relevance, but looks fairly random. (To be blunt, Google has a much better relevance algorithm than any subscription database I’ve ever met.) It’s also much easier for an experienced searcher to zero in on the titles that have some potential. We can quickly exclude the article that is too old, the one that’s published in the Journal of Incredibly Arcane Uselessness, or the one with its title in Turkish. For the novice, each choice takes effort, and the clock is ticking. You can even see time passing down in the corner of the computer screen. Your paper is due in three days! Hurry, hurry, hurry!

Why is abundance so exhausting when it’s on the screen, so inspiring when it’s on the shelves? There’s a sense of patience in the stacks, an impression that time slows down. With your call number in hand (or sent as a text message to your phone), it’s tempting to check out what else is there. No time? No problem; the books will be there next time, exactly where you left them.