It's Not Too Late to Save the Stacks

Why we still need to keep books in our campus libraries

October 19, 2016

Illustrations by Tim Foley for The Chronicle Review
I grew up, physically and intellectually, in churches and libraries. Different in purpose, they were nonetheless both built to impress upon the visitor admiration for the possible. Their architecture varied from grand to bland, but their missions as I grew up remained intact, as did certain expectations of what you would find inside.

In the church, there would be a pulpit, candlesticks, bibles, hymnals. The sanctuary’s role was to provide a shared contemplative space for congregants and their God. In the library, there were likewise tables or desks for quiet study and contemplation, a reference area, and — most important — shelves and shelves of books where you could lose yourself while seeking information, inspiration, or entertainment.

Contemporary libraries, like contemporary churches, find their audience changed by contemporary culture. Ask any librarian about technology and you’ll get an earful of responses that range from enthusiastic to frustrated. The university library in particular finds itself emerging as a locus of campus attention, as the admissions officers have come to understand how information tech acts as a great promotional draw for prospective students. Students, meanwhile, are increasingly less familiar with the concept of a physical library — and with those unexpected "Aha!" moments that browsing the stacks provides. We are in the era of immediate-results information.

So goes the prevailing conversation about early 21st-century undergraduates, and as a result many campus libraries and librarians find themselves under pressure to conform to the times with updated approaches to information literacy and to storing and retrieving all that material.

I have no argument with those new approaches. But I would like to make a plea for the value of keeping libraries as physical spaces — as actual, rather than virtual, edifices — and as buildings for housing books and encouraging the conversations between human beings and physical textual materials.

During a recent meeting at my college, a high-level administrator suggested that our campus library — a relatively new and spacious building — was too full of windows and good views to be devoted merely to storing books. Essentially, he was promoting the idea of off-site text storage, with an eye to moving student-resource departments — tutoring, the writing center, retention — into the library. Study centers instead of book stacks.

I have a stake in that proposal, as I am the writing-center coordinator. If I’m honest, I’ll admit how much I would love to get my peer tutors out of our classroom-building basement and into the library. It is a terrific space.

I don’t think it’s the right move for the college, however. Downsizing the stacks and increasing student and faculty reliance on virtual sources limits the silent conversation between people and books, arrests the opportunity for surprising encounters with unexpected materials, and thus dampens synthesis — the very stuff of new ideas.

Books offer more chances for surprise and delight than we credit, probably because physical texts are a tool that we have learned to take for granted.
 Off-site stacks gained considerable momentum when Britain’s renowned Bodleian Library moved to such a system, in which staff members use forklifts to manually store and retrieve books. Another off-site alternative is automated storage and retrieval systems, which have been around for a while (here’s a video of one such system at North Carolina State University’s Hunt Library). The first institution to install such a system was California State University at Northridge, in its Oviatt Library, in 1991. The process sounds exciting and, in the long run, can save money. But few campus libraries are large enough (or rich enough) to merit expending so much cash on high-tech cataloguing and retrieval. Likewise, warehousing books at an off-site location also costs a bundle even when the retrieval system relies on less sophisticated systems. An example: In my region, warehouse space starts at around $3 a square foot for space that is neither climate-controlled nor has the requisite ceiling height recommended for very-narrow-aisle-racking systems.

If ours were a university with a large graduate-student population and an extensive catalog of significant, primary, specialist, and scholarly texts, I can see how investing in an off-site retrieval system could provide benefits in terms of information housing and recovery. Undergraduates, however, have much less specific research goals. They are only just learning how to access, read, consider, and apply the texts. They seldom understand synthesis until it occurs naturally — as it should — while they think they are looking for something else.

Like many avid readers, I’ve been engaging with texts since I teethed on my first book of nursery rhymes. So I admit to a strong bias toward the presence of real books in real library buildings. My students, however, seldom enter their freshman year having spent hours browsing the stacks and need the physical experience of libraries and bookshelves.

New college students have grown up with forms of information gathering that provide quick and unreflective answers, which is what the high-school system urges them to do. They have no coaching in how to research the less-than-obvious, the open-ended. No one has yet demonstrated to them how to branch beyond one text, to synthesize, to object, or to change perspective. Some of them have never stood, befuddled and overwhelmed, in a library aisle.

Students benefit when instructors force them into the stacks. The tall rows of silent spines may be intimidating, but they also open up possibilities and discoveries. The curious, inquisitive, emotional human mind — which is not an algorithm seeking one specific text or trained upon one set of parameters only — can find on those shelves a physical object that provides something unavailable through virtual technologies. It can lead a person astray. It can challenge what we think we know and then it can suggest another book, another author, a further shift in point of view. It can be a beautiful object in and of itself, with visual and tactile aspects unavailable in virtual form.

Moving into a library that has outsourced its retrieval system so that there are no stacks in the building would be counterproductive for much of the work I do with juniors and seniors. When I tutor a student in writing, I want the texts in front of us so as to model how a close reader interacts with words on the page. When I assist students with documentation of a text, they learn about the organization and the logic of textual material from front matter to index and footnotes.

For in-depth assignments, nothing replaces the chance to introduce students face-to-face to a nonvirtual librarian who can help them navigate the research process. One invaluable lesson of standing next to a real person undertaking real-time information browsing: Students learn that good information takes time to locate. Even the experts have to problem-solve through some deadends and overgeneralized hits before finding a good source. And when something suitable turns up, students can share that eureka moment or the relief of genuine gratitude with another person. All of this takes place in the physical space of the library and its community of books and people.

Books offer more chances for surprise and delight than we credit, probably because physical texts are a tool that we have learned to take for granted.

My favorite example of the surprise encounter the stacks can provide is from a conference talk that the poet Stanley Kunitz gave some years ago. He said he was wandering the aisles of the college library and feeling totally lost as to what his thesis topic should be when he picked a book at random off the shelf. It was a collection of poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the page he opened to was "God’s Grandeur." Kunitz told his listeners: "And there it was, before me!" adding, "It changed my life."

Books are so common as to have become — in the view of some college administrators — optional residents of the library. But without the opportunity for a secular communing with books in the quiet hum of reflection, study, concentration, and silent conversation would be lost, the edifice spiritless.

The stacks absorb sound but also attract thoughts. The titles on the spines offer differing views and deepening perceptions. And surprise, too. A student gazing out at the attractive view from the library window may see a hawk, feel inquisitive, and discover Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk, or T. H. White’s The Goshawk, and — who knows? — that might just change her life.

Correction (10/26/2016, 3:33 p.m.): This article originally stated that the Bodleian Library employs a robotic retrieval system to manage its off-site stacks. In fact, workers use forklifts to manually store and retrieve books at the Bodleian's off-site facility.

Ann E. Michael is writing coordinator at DeSales University, and a poet. She blogs on poetry, nature, philosophy — and sometimes libraries — at