Almost before I pushed “publish” last week, the Library Loon responded to my gushy love letter to the stacks with an essay of his or her pseudonymous own, titled “On Hating the Stacks.” It’s a bracing reminder of why stacks can be anything but inspiring. She (or he) notes the following common frustrations:
- Figuring out which floor a book is on.
- Endless elevator trips.
- Not finding the book where it is supposed to be. Ever.
- Wondering why on earth those call numbers are so long and confusing.
- Ugly metal shelving, the color of putty or that green that the military seemed to have an endless supply of in the 1940s.
- Fluorescent lights that flicker and go out just over the aisle where you’re examining spine labels. Or, in more modern libraries, lights with motion detectors that go out the minute you think you may have found the bit you are looking for.
- Finding that, not only did the book you were looking for turn out to be useless, so are all the other ones shelved nearby.
The loon reminds me that, while I often enjoy being in the stacks, not all stacks are inspiring. They can be depressing when the floor isn’t clean, the shelves haven’t been straightened in a decade or so, and you can’t stop sneezing. They can be discouraging none of the books on your topic appears to have a publication date newer than 1958. They can seem threatening when stacks recede, row after row, in darkness except for a small pool of illumination where you’ve switched on a dim and buzzing set of lights, you haven’t seen another soul for the past hour, and there are signs all over the place advising you to not leave your belongings unattended. Whoa, what was that sound?
All that is apart from the fact that call numbers can be infuriatingly counter-intuitive. When I look for books in the physics section, the first letter of the author’s name shows up in the call number. Feynman on Physics is under QC 23 F47. Okay, that sort of makes sense. QC is physics, 23 is something-or-other in physics, and the F is for Feynman. But when I’m looking for literature, the author’s names have nothing to do with it: I have to seek out PS 3551 L35774 R74 for a Sherman Alexie novel. Where did that L come from? Browsing by author is devilishly hard in exactly the part of the library where one is most likely going to want to browse by author, and that just seems cruel and unusual.
I won’t even mention how baffling it is when you explain to a student “the letters don’t actually stand for anything” and the student stares hard at the part of the stacks where the music books are shelved. All with call numbers starting with M.
Looking over surveys from students in recent years, it seems finding books on the shelves always tops the list of “things that are confusing about the library.” (Back in the day when we used printed indexes and abstracts, finding articles took the prize for complexity, but now that articles are mostly a click away, it’s books that baffle.) And browsing just seems inefficient. For students in a hurry, tracking down a book that looks promising in the catalog is enough of a time suck. They have papers to write, homework problems to solve, and various student activities to attend to before bed. Who has time for inspiration?
That said, I think inspiration is valuable in libraries, and I don’t mean soaring atriums or grand staircases that make a library look like an upscale hotel or fancy shopping mall. What I want for our students is the feeling of mastery and belonging that I felt as I got to know the nooks and crannies of my university library, one that had been added on to a few times and has floors that didn’t match and elevators that moved in mysterious ways, where I had discovered an arched window with wrinkly old glass and a big wooden table tucked in an odd corner, just past shelves where I might get distracted by engravings in an old copy of Hakluyt’s Voyages on my way to whatever it was I was looking for.
Call me romantic, but I want to share just a little of that aimless, pointless nerditry with our busy, driven students.