Libraries are for Use

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Library Stacks – The love-hate relationship we have


“Library stacks” – this phrase, or more simply, “the stacks”, is intimately tied with libraries and librarianship, particularly academic libraries.  I grew up in my mother’s elementary school library, and spent many hours at the local public library.  My military service included a stint as base librarian and my first post-service civilian job was at a small public library.  However, I had always references (and had heard referenced) the particular furniture that holds up the books as “shelves” or “shelving”.  I did not encounter the word “stacks” until I started library school (my undergraduate education was mostly independent of any one institution).  I recall entering the Texas Woman’s University library looking for a particular journal article and told to “look in the stacks”.  Not being particularly dense, I realized “stacks” = “shelves”.  I was thrilled to start using my first professional lexicon as an embryonic librarian: “stacks”.  It sounded both ancient and mystical, so much more magical than the mundane, “shelves”.  I have shelves in my home – only the library has “stacks”.

“Stacks” is often associated with the academic experience, at least of the more studious, er, well, students.  In an episode of the “Bob Newhart Show”, as Emily is struggling to finish her master’s in education, she rushes out when she learns that she has a “stacks pass” for that evening.  To “go into the stacks” intimates an image of entering a labyrinth of narrow aisles and wondrous treasures.  Scholars in the Stacks is a tribute to the Widener Library at Harvard, with short eulogies by humanities scholars describing their experiences navigating these labyrinths.

The the word is most deeply embedded in our sense of librarianship.  Being a prototypical librarian, I did a quick search of LISTA, limiting my results to trade publications and magazine articles in order to get a sense of the phrase in the professional culture.  Several article titles jumped out at me, confirming my suspicion of just how deep the term is to us: “A walk in the stacks”, “Behind the book stacks: tales of a new librarian”, “Caught between the stacks and a hard place: Dealing with librarian stereotypes”, and “Lost in the Stacks”.  Thus, it is no surprise when I searched for “library stacks blog” in Google and found a wealth of cultural expression:  Closed Stacks, From the Stacks, An Anthropologist in the Stacks, and several “In the Stacks” blogs from academic libraries.  It was also no surprise to find a wealth of books on librarianship referencing this word, including In the Stacks by Michael Cart, Sacred Stacks by Nancy K. Maxwell, Straight from the Stacks by Laura T. Kane, and of course, Vandals in the stacks? : a response to Nicholson Baker’s assault on libraries by Richard J. Cox.  Using the Google Ngram Viewer, I got this graph of lexical usage of the phrase, “library stacks”:

Ngram of “library stacks”

This corresponds to the WorldCat search, limited to books, where the earliest entries found were in the late nineteenth century.   “In the stacks” appears to be of much later origins, with both WorldCat and Google Ngram showing the earliest references in librarianship to be around the 1920s.

Now, all of my thoughts about this phrase did not, of course, come out of the blue.  You are probably already aware of Barbara Fister’s recent post to her blog, Library Babel Fish, Stacks and Awe, in which she, herself, references yet another blogger’s post regarding “the stacks” by Bohyun Kim.  Kim questions the romantic association of scholarly research with solitude and serendipitous discovery of the stacks.  Indeed, she poses a very intriguing question (emphasis on the question added):

The fast and convenient e-resources in library websites and the digital library collections seem to deprive us of something significant and important, that is, the secluded and sacred space for thought and contemplation and the experience of serendipitous discovery from browsing physical library collections. However, how much of this is our romantic illusion and how much of it is it a real fact?

Kim then references qualitative research by Bess Sadler presented at the 2012 ACCESS Conference that  shows the association of emotional terms to the physical stacks (“joyous”, “immersive” and “beautiful”), and more concrete terms to digital collections (e.g. “efficient” and “fast”).  Sadler commented how the online research environment had not yet captured the same allure and emotional experience of simply “browsing the shelves”.  In her blog post, Kim pointed out the obstacles to “flow” that the physical stacks and the online research tools each presented.  When needing “rare scholarly books”, she described her frustration at the sheer distances she had to navigate, both between libraries and within, especially when the books were not where they should have been.  Conversely, she describes the annoyances of pop-up reminders and the multiple layers of authentication that can disrupt “being in the zone” of online research.

Barbara responds with a question of her own, which she answers:

Why is abundance so exhausting when it’s on the screen, so inspiring when it’s on the shelves? There’s a sense of patience in the stacks, an impression that time slows down. With your call number in hand (or sent as a text message to your phone), it’s tempting to check out what else is there.

The Web, being what it is, enables quick dissemination of these expositions and inevitable responses, including from the Library Loon.  In On Hating the Stacks, the Library Loon “confesses” that she “hates academic-library stacks”.  Indeed, there is much of the stacks to disdain – dark, “yawing caverns”, dust that can tear up the eyes making reading nearly impossible, stairs and steps (I, too, wonder how our members in wheelchairs would navigate these aisles barely wide enough for a super-model to walk down), and of course, incredibly long call numbers.

So, it is clear to me that librarians have a love-hate relationship with “the stacks” that will likely not cease even if (when?) the last set of shelves are removed (see Kane’s latest book, Working in the virtual stacks : the new library & information science).

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This entry was posted on November 21, 2012 by in Collections, LIS Profession.
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