Libraries and the art of browsing

Those of you over a certain age may remember when searching for math resources meant going to the library and perusing the subject catalog, spending time in shelving sections devoted to a topic, or leafing through heavy volumes of math reviews. Along the way, you found things you did not expect, leading to further trails and discoveries. You might remember musty smells, occasional hushed sounds, dark lighting, and the heft and texture of the volumes. There was a feeling of timelessness and escape from the real world in a library.

Today libraries seem quite different. Science and math libraries have well-lit, large spaces filled with tables and power outlets, conducive to sitting with a laptop and connecting to web-based resources with hardly a book in sight. Many hard copy books are available only by special order, and browsing is now almost completely digital.

What do you feel are the pros and cons of new library designs? How do today’s libraries affect the way you browse for books?

Your comments are welcome!

Featured Book of the Day

A Mathematical Gallery  by Lisl Gaal

This book started as a picture book by mathematician and artist Lisl Gaal for her children and grandchildren. The illustrations depict whimsical creatures and settings juxtaposed with simple yet far-reaching mathematical ideas that appeal to every age group. Readers are encouraged to explore and understand at their own level and pace. A child of any age could read and re-read this book for years, picking up new insights each time.

(Supplementary text is included for educators and advanced readers.)


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4 Responses to Libraries and the art of browsing

  1. Avatar Evelyn says:

    It’s funny you write this right now. A few days ago I went to the library hoping to browse through several issues of a journal only to find that they only had it electronically. Generally, that would be fantastic: I would get exactly the article I wanted and downloaded it from home. But in this case I specifically wanted more of an overview of the journal so I could understand better the range of topics they cover, what their intended audience is, and so on. The electronic version makes this kind of browsing impossible. I have to look at each article as a separate webpage or pdf. Overall, having journals online is much, much more convenient, but on this particular day, having physical copies to hold and read would have been easier.

    Now that I’ve complained, I feel the need to say how much I love libraries and appreciate that they are adapting to new ways people get information and media. Whenever I go to either the university or public library, I’m cheered by how many people there are using the many resources available: using public computers or their own laptops on the free wifi, reading books and magazines, checking out course reserves (I happened to walk by while someone requested the reserved book for a course I had taught a few years ago!), having meetings or study sessions in private rooms. My public library has lots of downloadable resources, so I sometimes listen to music from Freegal through my library account while I’m working at home or read ebooks I check out from the library while I’m on a trip halfway around the world. It does make that browsing serendipity less likely, but it also makes getting just the thing you want more convenient.

  2. Avatar Eriko Hironaka says:

    Thanks for the comment Evelyn. The popularity of libraries is a sign that good things are happening. People still need and use books, they just look for them in different ways.

  3. Avatar Marty Weissman says:

    This is a timely issue, especially here at UC Santa Cruz, where a large portion of our math library was “deduplicated” (i.e., pulped) to make room for study spaces. Here it raises issues of faculty governance, institutional priorities, and student overcrowding.

    I think that concerns about new library spaces are often dismissed as nostalgia for “musty smells, occasional hushed sounds, dark lighting, and the heft and texture of the volumes.” But one shouldn’t dismiss loss of an institutional space where a human search for knowledge is matched by the scale of the towers of books and the thickness of the shelves and walking through the maze. An architect could probably express this better — the space we walk in matters.

    But I have two other complaints. One is that a library of books really *does* offer some permanence, and not just a “feeling of timelessness”. For example, if our library gets rid of all the physical copies of Lecture Notes in Mathematics, because they are accessible via SpringerLink online, what has happened? The library is no longer a permanent source of knowledge. It must pay Springer a regular fee in order to access the eBooks. And Springer now has considerable leverage over the library, to raise rates in the future and effectively hold this knowledge hostage. While libraries always exist within a network and depend on each other, I think that our institutions of knowledge should have permanent ownership of their collection. It’s not a feeling, it’s the real difference (an economic one) between permanent ownership of a good and a renewable lease with few controls over cost increases.

    My second complaint is with the argument that libraries should become shiny study spaces — I guess that the decision is made because this is what students are perceived to want, because it looks better in brochures, because more people will use these spaces. My hope would be to slow down such a change of a fundamental institution. One might compare it to the change in TV news over the last 30 years. Once upon a time, the TV news was… well… boring. It attempted to be factual and authoritative. I guess competition wasn’t so fierce, so the TV news didn’t worry about competing with Duck Dynasty for ratings — it was not part of the expectation that news programs should have as many viewers as other programs. And there weren’t so many news programs anyways. Similarly, 30 years ago, I don’t think people worried so much if the library didn’t serve espresso and have a full-wall touch-screen. Now there seems to be a sense that TV news programs and libraries are actors just like cartoons and rec centers. The ones with the largest high-res screens win, or the ones with the flashiest colors and deluxe food wins… because they are most popular. I worry that just as TV news is almost entirely unrecognizable… an industry with a completely different mission at its core, so too will libraries lose their mission in the next decade or two.

    Now I’m done ranting, I’m going to make a fresh French press of coffee, and I will enjoy using MathSciNet to browse and fetch articles from the comfort of my couch.

  4. Avatar Eriko Hironaka says:

    Thank you for your comments. Great points.

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