The Joy of Stacks

While some universities boast about bookless libraries, Chicago prepares to spend $42 million in defense of browsing and scholarly serendipity.
June 9, 2005

To understand why professors need great libraries, says Andrew Abbott, "you need to think about an ape swinging through the trees."

Abbott is not an evolutionary biologist, but a sociologist at the University of Chicago. And to Abbott, a scholar in a library is just like a swinging primate. "You've got your current source, which is the branch you are on, and then you see the next source, on the next branch, so you swing over. And on that new hanging vine, you see the next source, which you didn't see before, and you swing again."

When books aren't browsable or instantly available, Abbott says, a scholar becomes the ape "with no branch to grab, and you are stopped, hanging on a branch with no place to go."

At far too many libraries, he says, that is becoming the norm. Many universities are boasting about how they are digitizing collections or building vast, off-site facilities to store millions of books. Even when those books are available within hours, Abbott says, that destroys the way scholars need to think -- moving from source to source, not knowing which source they will stumble on.

Abbott heads a faculty committee at Chicago in charge of guiding a mammoth expansion of the Joseph Regenstein Library there. Chicago recently embarked on a plan that will end up with Regenstein housing more volumes -- 8 million -- under a single roof than any other university library in the United States (the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign currently has the honor, with 7.5 million volumes in its main library). What's more, none of the library's collections will be moved off site, most monographs will be browsable, and miles of new stacks will be added in the expansion of 38,000 square feet.

Duane Webster, executive director of the Association of Research Libraries, says that many university libraries would love to keep their books in a single central facility, but lack either the funds to do so or the space on central campus. "Books remain central to the mission of the research library," he says. "The Chicago expansion is very significant nationally in showing the commitment to the printed book."

To understand how unusual the Chicago expansion is (Regenstein currently has only 4.5 million volumes), Harvard University offers an illustrative comparison. Harvard has more volumes in total -- 15 million -- than any American university. But Harvard has more volumes stored off-site (5.5 million) than in its single largest library, Widener Library, which has 3.5 million volumes.

The non-bibliophile might ask, isn't 3.5 million plenty?

Judith Nadler, director of the library at Chicago, answers with an emphatic No, which isn't surprising given that she supervises the purchase of 150,000 new volumes a year. "Collections within quick reach matter," Nadler says. "Our research today is interdisciplinary. You don't just go in one subject area. So the more you have under one roof, under one classification system, the easier it is, the better it is for scholars."

Nadler is quick to point out that Chicago is not Luddite with regard to the role of technology in helping libraries. Regenstein's users, for example, have access online to full text of more than 40,000 journals. But she says that the hype about digitization ignores the limits technology offers, especially for research facilities with global subject matter.

"I think the significance of what we are doing is enormous," she says. "We have a very, very large and rich collection, and it is rich in area studies, in languages, rich in materials from all parts of the world -- including many parts of the world where digitization will not come for a very long time in the future." Chicago intends to step up its purchasing in such areas in the years ahead, Nadler says, creating a repository of materials that the best search engine couldn't find.

Some materials -- primarily searchable journals -- will not be in open stacks, Nadler says. But Chicago is creating a high-density, rapid retrieval system that will allow professors to receive such materials within five minutes. A few other universities -- such as Sonoma State and Valparaiso Universities -- already use this system, but Chicago will by far be the largest to use it. Nadler says that the system could have been used for books, too, but the university wants to do everything possible to promote browsing in the stacks.

"Our faculty believe very much in the need to use materials by finding them in a serendipitous way," Nadler says. "You walk through the stacks and find what you want."

Richard P. Saller, Chicago's provost, says he thinks the university's plans provide it with more flexibility than a move in favor of digitization. The university will continue, of course, to add to its online materials, he says. "But for all the talk about digitization, our flow of printed material into the library hasn't diminished at all," he says. If at some point in the future, more digitization makes sense, he says, Chicago could move in that direction.

"But what if there is a dramatic move away from digitization?" he asks. In such a scenario, a place like Chicago that has placed a premium on acquiring printed materials will have collections others can't match. "Our aim here was to be absolutely the top-notch university library."

Saller, a historian of the Roman empire, also says that he relates to the frustrations of faculty members elsewhere who have to wait for books. "The off-site facilities that other libraries are building take 24 or even 72 hours to deliver materials," he says. "If that's a one-time need, that's not insurmountable," he says. "But for faculty who are intensive users of the library, and I count myself as one of those, at least in my past life, it can substantially slow you down."

And Saller, too, speaks with passion about serendipity. "Everyone here is emphatic about the value of browsing, and the possibility of coming across unexpected materials."

In fact, the library plans are expected to be so popular with researchers that the university sees the library as a recruiting tool for people who will want to work at Chicago or just do research here.

Abbott, the sociologist, says that he spends three weeks a year at the University of Oxford, home to one of the greatest libraries in the world, the Bodleian. But as great as its collections are, Abbott says, all of his Oxford friends are so frustrated with their inability to quickly use its materials that they go to Cambridge or London for research, where they can get at the books.

Back in the United States, he says, "everyone else in the country is going to these off-site facilities because they are cheaper and they don't have room to build. We are going to be the place where those faculty come. We are creating a facility that will attract lots and lots of people from everywhere."


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