Libraries of Obsolescence

Wandering the Stacks of Future Reading

Posted by David N. Wright on June 8, 2018

For the last few weeks, I have been doing some work at the University of British Columbia (UBC) library. Specifically, the Kroerner Library. They are renovating here, moving the books downstairs into stacks that are on wheels. These new stacks are on rollers so that you have to turn a handle and crank them open to the isle with your call number on it. It’s a good system in that it takes up way less room to tightly pack all the books, but a bad one in that it pretty much eliminates browsing or what I like to call, like others, wandering the stacks.

Image of empty bookshelves and a pencil sharpener on the wall
Bookshelves as compression chambers

Looking at the images in this post, you get a sense of how many books have been moved into new storage, either off campus or into those new rolling stacks (in the basement floors no less). I can’t help but ask who will need that pencil sharpener? But then, I become consumed with anxiety wondering whether one might survive the renovation–I’m pretty sure the withdrawal slip request holders one used to need to take out a book will not survive.

Image of empty bookshelves and a pencil sharpener on the wall
What will happen to these spaces and their sundries (who will need that pencil sharpener in the header image; those withdrawal slip tables)?

I come to thinking about this because I recently stumbled across this article about one of my alma maters, Concordia University, and the recent renovation of its library. It occurred to me that despite having spent an inordinate amount of time at this library when I was in school, I would probably not recognize the space now. It’ll be hard for me to recognize this UBC library space after they have done the renovations. And, I suspect they will be dumping–or moving–a lot of the shelving, study kiosks, and other sundries that currently populate the library spaces.

Image of empty bookshelves and a pencil sharpener on the wall
The announcement for a renovation.

All of which gets me to thinking about library spaces and what seems like real momentum lately to change their physical layout. A quick search query on the internets yields a number of renovations in College and University libraries, along with any number of reimaginings for public libraries.

For sure, the move to update libraries is a good one. That said, part of me wonders whether the new designs encourage discovery in the way that wandering the stacks encourages discovery. In other words, I wonder if libraries are becoming too oriented toward a production model rather than a discovery model (and yes, I have always had issues with the term “knowledge production”–I’m looking at you SSHRC). The renovation at UBC is rationalized through the need for more “study spaces” and “research space.” But, without books to consult, one has to think about how they are imagining research, or even studying.

I’m no luddite. Print books are dead–or dying–as a commodity and as a portal for the most up-to-date knowledge. There can be no doubt that research and studying at the undergraduate level particularly is moving online and students increasingly need innovative spaces where they have access to alternate and emerging modes of academic production–I’m thinking here of 3D printing, prototyping, circuitry, recording facilities with a variety of media, etc. And, the updates conducted in libraries twenty years ago, when ethernet was needed at every desk and not everyone had a laptop or device hinged to their belt buckle, have become obsolete at this point.

I’m also not implying the serendipity doesn’t happen in the digital space; it does. I have “gone surfing” many times and come out with a similar experience to that of walking the stacks. I’ve even used digital tools to reveal interesting serendipities about the materials I study. Hell, that’s why tools such as Zotero, DevonThink, and Voyant Tools are great.

Image of empty bookshelves and a pencil sharpener on the wall
Open spaces without many stacks are now common in libraries.

All that noted, what about the ability to wander the stacks? Libraries are often a point of first access for individuals–particularly to knowledge. Whether one is connected to a large academic institution or not, libraries are often accessed in two ways: 1) with a goal in mind; 2) without a goal in mind. The first mode is pretty straightforward. One goes to the library for a service one desires: check out a book, access a computer with internet, check a database, read the paper, find a quiet space to think / read / write / make. The second point of access is a bit less straightforward though. It often occurs in the liminal moment(s) where you are traversing boundaries in the physical library space. In other words, while you are looking for that book, checking the database, waiting to access the computer, searching for a quiet place.

I wonder if these liminal spaces between boundaries are not being lost at the expense of specialization. More than once, I have found myself diverted by some title adjacent to the one I was looking for in the stacks; pulling on some obsolete media dangling off a shelf that I had no idea existed before.

I’m not that paranoid about the loss of discovery, but it seems like a worthwhile endeavour to think about how physical spaces and how their configuration actually drives us in certain directions. Libraries are both archival and emerging spaces now–how they traverse these boundaries (if they are indeed boundaries) will be interesting; as will how those if us who access libraries will walk these liminal spaces within the library walls.

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