Saturday, September 26, 2009

Inside Higher Ed: Libraries of the Future

Speaking of old television programs, there was one called The Honeymooners that has been playing on an infinite repeating loop on one station or another for years. In one of the episodes, the main character, Ralph Kramden, decides to sell an apple peeler or something, and to do this he decides to have his friend Ed Norton help him make a TV commercial in which he plays "Chef of the Future." When I saw the "Libraries of the Future," guess what went through my mind.

These libraries of the future will--surprise!--have no books:
The university library of the future will be sparsely staffed, highly decentralized, and have a physical plant consisting of little more than special collections and study areas. . . . “We're already starting to see a move on the part of university libraries... to outsource virtually all the services [they have] developed and maintained over the years,” Greenstein said.
What's worrisome about this is that the article talks not about managing collections but about "outsourcing" the "storing and managing of books." This sounds like off-site storage, which is okay, maybe, for an obscure book of criticism from the 1930s, but I'm wondering if all books would be stored in this way.

I'm surprised that no one has made the efficiency argument yet about off-site storage. Quick quiz: which of these is more efficient?

1. Faculty member (or student) looks up a book, goes into the stacks, leafs through the book and others in the area, carries books to circulation desk, checks them out, and carries them home.

2. Faculty member looks up a book and sends a request for a book in closed off-site stacks. Library person receives the request and prints it out. Another library person (probably a work-study student) takes the call slip and hunts down the book in the stacks. Two days pass. Circulation desk emails the faculty member. Faculty member goes to the library to pick up the book, decides that she needs another one, and repeats the process.

Oh, and the Chef of the Future? His gadget completely fails.

3 comments:

unentdeckt said...

Have you ever worked in a closed stack library? There are serious advantages, including someone else doing all the carrying, and the fact that things get misplaced less because you don't have clueless or malicious people moving them around or not putting them back. Lots of European libraries are closed stack or mixed open/closed, and there is really no difference in utility. The only snag is that you can't get a book at the last second.

undine said...

Only in special collections, unentdeck, and at some research libraries. Those are real advantages that you mention to closed-stack collections. It's still not clear from the article, though, how going to closed stacks or off-site storage for most books would save costs in terms of library personnel; I'd think the opposite would be the case, unless they started to limit the number of books you could request.

I think my objections are more about the admittedly romantic vision of being able to go to the stacks and see for myself what's there. I've found useful things that way, books that didn't turn up in any other way despite catalog searches, and I'm loath to give that up, I guess. There's also the factor of being able to look at a book on the shelf that seemed promising from its description and knowing immediately that you do (or don't) need it. It just seems more labor-intensive to order the book and have a number of people have to transport it rather than looking at it myself.

unentdeckt said...

I think the savings in a closed stack library come in terms of not having a cataloger. Every closed stack library I have used (there are many in Europe), while it may have had some subject indexing for older (18th c., e.g.) items, just has its books assigned a number in the order they were received. So there is no real point in going into the stacks because you are not more likely to discover anything you wouldn't discover otherwise.

It drove me crazy at first, but I've grown to appreciate that I am now not responsible for the carrying and the putting back on the shelves.