Thursday, June 24, 2010

Browsing the library shelves

There's been some considerable debate recently about keeping books in libraries. Considering the rate at which libraries acquire materials, housing all those books can become an issue. For academic libraries--in particular comprehensive collections that seek to get and keep everything that is written on subjects of scholarly interest--the trend in recent years has been to build state-of-the-art off-site library storage facilities. Here at IU, we've got the ALF, which houses books the library wants to keep, but doesn't deem it necessary to keep them within the library proper.

The debate about this issue generally has two parties: proponents of off-site storage, and proponents of having all the materials in one immediately accessible location. One of the biggest issues that's come up in this debate has to do with browsing.

The argument goes that, when you're doing research, oftentimes you'll have a general idea of the types of materials you want to use. You look up said materials and write down a few titles, a few call numbers. With this list of possible useful resources in hand, you head into the library stacks to locate said resources. Then, once you're in the general vicinity of what you want, you pull what you want from the shelves. Then, you look on the surrounding shelves to see what other items might be of relevance to your research. In other words, you browse. It's somewhat selective browsing, sure, because you're only looking in a particular area; but it's browsing nonetheless.

Now, many professors, students, and alumni are putting up quite a stink over the fact that, by moving books from the library building in order to make room for computers or *gasp* coffee shops, the library is essentially limiting the scholarly process. Browsing, they say, is key to scholarly work. And, they argue, without the ability to browse, research may become much less rounded, much less inclusive of a variety of perspectives. If you can't browse, you'll only use information that you think you need/want, and you'll never really include information that you just happen upon. Because it's hard to happen upon something that is stored at a secured facility x miles from the actual library.

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this debate. I've heard some good arguments from both sides. For example, some people are saying that browsing itself is overrated and selective. The main argument on that point is that browsing is like shopping at a sale: while in theory you may have lots of things to choose from, in reality you're only choosing from what is still left. If the purpose of a library is to allow patrons access to materials, then patrons are probably checking things out. Thus, when a person goes to browse a shelf, they're browsing only what isn't currently checked out. Here's how Donald A. Barclay put it in the June/July 2010 issue of American Libraries:

"Because the books in highest demand are likely to be in use and, thus, off the shelf, browsing academic library shelves is the equivalent of hitting the sale tables on day three of a three-day sale" (p. 53).

Basically, there's no guarantee that you'll get what you actually want/need when you go a-browsin'.

Another interesting argument is that, because a book can only be shelved in one place despite the possibility that it's subject matter covers a variety of topics, when you're browsing you won't always be looking in the right place to find that perfect tome. Barclay's example again:

"Take the book What Are the Animals to Us?: Approaches from Science, Religion, Folklore, Literature, and Art by David Aftandilian. Virtually all U.S. academic libraries shelve this book in the zoology (QL) call numbers. Good luck to the person browsing the call numbers for religion (BL-BX), folklore (GR), literature (P-PZ), or art (N-NX), especially in a very large academic library where tens of thousands of books are shelved in each of these broad call number categories..." (p. 53).

Basically, I can see why browsing isn't generally an effective method of conducting research.

I do wonder, though, how much browsing should have to do with moving materials off-site. I'm interested to know the statistics about what percentage of library materials housed off-site are actually requested by library patrons. Research shows that the visible items are the ones that get chosen and used most frequently; what if an item is not only not visible, but not accessible until tomorrow's book delivery? Sure, off-site materials still show up in library catalogs; but do patrons find the whole off-site thing a turn-off and neglect to use these items? Disuse, to me, would be the real tell of whether or not off-site storage is a good thing.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Some library links

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Facebook and high school

Just a short post today, because even though I'm all moved into my new place, I'm exhausted from moving everything and setting it all up.

I was thinking today: what would it have been like had we (as in, people my age) had Facebook while we were in high school? You know, what with all the status updates and "likes" and relationship statuses. I seem to recall high school being a pretty drama-filled time (or was that just band??). How much more dramatic must it be with Facebook thrown into the mix, making sure that everyone knows everything about everyone else, up-to-the-minute updates? Sounds like a social horror to me.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Reading in a Digital Age

While taking a train recently, I read "Reading in a Digital Age" by Sven Birkerts in the Spring 2010 issue of The American Scholar. I started reading it anticipating some sort of discussion about reading in a world of e-readers, which turns out to not be the topic at hand. More close to the actual topic, however, is the idea of reading in a world with the option of reading online. The overarching question at hand: how does traditional, paper-based reading fit into this new age of digital reading?

Below you'll find some passages from the article that I found particularly thought-provoking (in bold), followed by my own reflections and questions.

"Our brains have become particularly adapted to creating coherent, gap-free stories.... This propensity for narrative creation is part of what predisposes us humans to religious thought" (Gary Greensberg).

You know how there are generally two camps of people, those who can accept some degree of the unknown and those who cannot? Seems our brains like to fill in the gaps in what we can see and understand in our world. Which, as Greensberg points out, can describe aspects of religious thought in which humans create ways of making sense of a some-details-left-out story. This disposition can also give some bearing upon why we find books, movies, stories, &c. that aren't self-consistent to be very frustrating. Also might explain fan fiction--we want to fill the gap between what was written and what we think should be an ultimate event.

"This idea of the novel is gaining on me: that it is now, except superficially, only a thing to be studied in English classes--that it is a field for thinking, a condensed time-world that is parallel (or adjacent) to ours. That its purpose is less to communicate themes or major recognitions and more to engage the mind, the sensibility, in a process that in its full realization bears upon our living as an ignition to inwardness, which has no larger end, which is the end itself."

I once had a terrific teacher who tried to illustrate to his students that good literature--truly good literature--fulfills two criteria: 1) it is entertaining, and b) it has a universal theme. In other words, truly good literature should be timeless because it always has something to say about the world in which we live; readers can always respond to something in the work, regardless of when or where they may live. Extrapolating this argument one degree further, good literature must be relatable: we must see ourselves and those around us in a work. Good literature promotes self-reflection. That seems right. Right?

We are seeing right now "the rapid erosion of certain ways of thinking--their demotion, as it were. I mean reflection, a contextual understanding of information, imaginative projection. I mean, in my shorthand, intransitive thinking. Contemplation. Thinking for it's own sake."

Here's some actual consideration about how the meaning and physical act of reading has changed in this digital arena. When we have a physical book, a novel, &c., we have a piece of sustained writing. That is to say that a physical book tends to have its own sustained little world, its abstract space in which the reader interacts with the ideas on the page. Reading digitally, e.g. on the internet, seems to lack that sustained world. After all, isn't full text searching and linkability one of the "benefits" of digital reading? The result of jumping from smaller text to smaller text to dictionary to related topic, although useful in its own ways, is the lack of a sustained place for thinking about the actual piece of writing. We go straight to what we want to read, to know, and don't so much consider the rest. In looking for the specific lighthouse on the horizon, as it were, we miss the landscape as a whole. Also, it would seem that the more we interact with the platform of reading, the less we actually interact with what is written. With no sustained world to consider, we're basically idea nomads.

"The question comes up for me insistently: Where am I when I am reading a novel? I am 'in' the novel, of course, to the degree that it involves me. I may be absorbed, but I am never without some awareness of the world around me."

I just thought that this passage asks an interesting question of all readers. Where are you when you read? Where is your mind? Does the space you occupy while reading change depending upon what you are reading?

"Still, [a character in a book] can only get so close [or do so much]--he is constrained by the limits of technology, and, necessarily, by visual exteriority. The novelist can complete the action, moving right through the dormer window, and then, if he has set it up thus, into the minds of any of the characters he has found/created there."

Another interesting idea to consider about reading: characters are limited, but authors are omnipotent. A character is restrained to the world in which his author has placed him, while the author has fully license to mess with the parameters at any time and in any way. My question: do these limits, or lack thereof, hold up in digital reading? Because, arguably, in traditional reading, the reader is even more limited than the characters: the reader must go exactly where the author dictates, can have absolutely no other insights than those explicitly written. Is this so with digital reading? Or does the reader somehow become the one with the power?

"The reader adjusts to the author, not vice versa, and sometimes that adjustment feels too difficult. The triple-decker [three-volume novel] was, I'm theorizing, synchronous with the basic heart rate of its readers, and is now no longer so."

I mostly just like this passage because it speaks to the general changeability of writing. Those triple-deckers or three-volume novels were once so popular, but now we don't read them quite so much (although we still read Austen!). The attention span, or the reality, or something of the reader has changed over time, allowing us to better relate to certain styles than others. What does this mean for books in general when readers may be less and less willing to adjust themselves?

"Reading in a Digital Age" really was a fantastic article in terms of provoking interesting considerations. If you found any of these ideas stimulating, you should definitely check it out. Also, feel free to sound off in the comments.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A hyperbolic generation?

I was thinking today about how we used to have to jog in gym class all through elementary, middle, and high school. Jogging was so universal. Every gym teacher I ever had made students jog. Even some college fitness professors asked students to jog.

But then I got to thinking about all of the people I know who jog. Except, I realized, no one my age calls it jogging anymore. People don't jog to work out, they run. Everyone's a runner now. No one I know jogs anymore.

Now, in my mind, running is a degree above jogging. Jogging is perhaps more leisurely, or at any rate less purposely strenuous than running. I may just be uninformed of the actual nuanced differences between jogging and running, but the seeming preference of young people to saying "run" over "jog" got me wondering if perhaps young people tend to overstate things these days.

Consider the following examples as well. When young people drink a lot and fall asleep, they say they passed out. Isn't "passed out" meant to mean "unconscious"? Surely many of the young people who proclaim to have passed out actual just fell asleep.

Along the same line, when young people get physical with one another, they call it "hooking up." Maybe this particular term is less degreed than a catch-all: hooking up can mean pretty much any sort of sexual activity. But, again, surely not all of the young people who have hooked up have all engaged in the same sexual act. The terminology suggests everything, when everything very well may not be the reality.

Any thoughts on whether we're a generation of serial exaggerators? I'd love to hear thoughts and other possible examples.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Gaga Librarians

Yep, you read that right. Check out this pretty awesome video of librarians doing Gaga. The lyrics are amazing.