Small is always better? What is true for marshmallows on pancakes, is equally true for libraries? At least that’s the opinion stated by Levitin in his book ‘The Organized Mind’ (he is not talking about marshmallows, though):
“Faster is not always desirable, and going straight to what you want is not always better. […]
“Small libraries are far more useful than large ones. The Library of Congress may have one copy of every book ever published, but it is very unlikely that you will serendipitously find a book you did not know about and that will delight you. There is just too much there. A small library, carefully curated and tended by a librarian, will have made some deliberate choices about what books to include. When you reach for a copy of one book, you’ll see books adjacent on the shelf that may spark your interest, or you may find your eye caught by a title in a completely separate, unrelated section of the library and start browsing there. […]
“Exploring the crowded stacks of musty libraries has its own rewards.” (Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind)
There are quite a few aspects in this quote which are worth reflecting. Even more so, since they are uttered not by a librarian but by a (professional) library user.
I don’t want to focus on the trend to larger and larger, allegedly breathtaking libraries (and it’s devastating effects on communities and neighborhoods), nor on the demise of intentionally curated collections (with standing orders, PDA, big deals, and bundled eBooks, etc.). It’s the puzzle of how to come across new ideas and inspiration that caught my attention while reading the quoted lines.
Much has been said about the serendipity effect of browsing the stacks and how to emulate or mimic the experience after the digital shift.
Discovery systems replacing traditional OPACs sometimes attempt to do so, sometimes distinct applications are used to implement some kind of recommendation service like Amazon’s. However, those (would have to) rely on exhaustive data — about the specific title, about the broader topic/research field, and about the researcher’s individual interests and browsing histories on multiple platforms (remember the “title in a completely separate, unrelated section of the library“) — to be useful at all.
I’m not absolutely convinced that libraries will ever succeed in recreating the serendipity effect of browsing “crowded stacks of musty libraries“.
Maybe one attempt could be to create a kind of VR combination of StackLife (from Harvard’s Library Innovation Lab) with navigation systems based on floor maps? This would not just recreate the real life experience of browsing the stacks but in this environment digital resources could be integrated, too. E-books and research papers, audio and video files shelved next to print monographs. (I’m thinking of something like an instantiation of Sherlock’s and Magnussen’s Mind Palace.)
To be a viable solution to the dilemma posed by big libraries and the digital shift, however, the very first step would be to do some serious research: to look closely at those research habits, both in the physical and the digital world, evaluate their effects on the research process, and compare their assets and shortcomings. Otherwise we are in danger of creating a solution for a nonexistent problem (or at least a problem, our patrons don’t have).
There is a lot of work ahead of us. But I suspect a simple “Patrons who have borrowed this book were also interested in these,” cute as it might be, is not enough to be equally satisfying.