Beyond the shelves

When I first started this thing I thought it was the lack of books being on the shelves, in order, that was causing me consternation.

I like the lucky dip of these trolleys. The newly returned books could hold ANYTHING. I always check the trolley at the end of rows I am visiting.

We have a history of understanding library collections with our bodies, as well as our minds. A library whose collection is physically accessible provides us with an embodied understanding of the collection. Finding and then retrieving a book from such a library provides us with ways of knowing the collection that go beyond what the catalogue can tell us. Upon entering a library, even if you can not see all the books in the collection at the same time, you can glean a sense of the size of the collection from the number of shelves or the number of floors in the library.

Once you select a subject area to visit you develop of sense of its size and possible scale by standing amongst it. You may feel overwhelmed at its scope, or disappointed at its paucity. The colours, typefaces and condition of book spines give you clues as to their age. In an academic library, short loan books may be marked with a sticker, or corralled into a separate area from the main collection, indicating their status as in demand. The Special Reserve section can be a place of satisfaction, where you find the hot ticket item you want or a place of disappointment when you realise you won’t be able to take the book home for as long as you need.

If you’re trying to find something special, something unexpected, Special Reserve is not the place to go. You need to subvert the library’s formal order by looking in places beyond the shelves. The sorting trolleys offer their own seduction. Knowing to look for them requires some knowledge of how books move around the library, not only their place in the overall system. The prospect of finding a gem amongst the yet-to-be-shelved returns provides some patrons (like me) with a frisson of excitement. You become the sleuth, the detective in a semi-competitive game of browsing. Stumbling across something valuable in these semi-structured, temporary repositories can make you feel like a gambler who has won the jackpot.

We take part in the movement of the collection. Conscious or unconscious of this movement, we learn about the collection by participating in it. We borrow, move items around, observe where others have removed books and left gaps on the shelves or abandoned books on desks. We see traces left by other patrons: notes in the margins, stickers arranged to mark pages, a book obviously in the wrong section, hidden from other borrowers.

The particular materiality of this experience is a way of knowing the collection. It is this – of moving amongst the collection, of pushing and pulling, dodging and hiding – that I will miss. It’s also this way of knowing which offers so much to explore. It is once we have access to only the interface that we understand what is stripped away and what we have lost. I don’t think I’m nostalgic about this, I think we need to recognize an opportunity. How do we replace all that the experience of an accessible library collection tells us? Do we need to? How do we create as rich an experience through mediums like interfaces that prioritise other types of sensorial engagement?



  1. I love this post! I agree with everything you say. I once worked as a cataloguer organising a small specialist library that was completely unorganised. I had to argue with my superiors for the virtue of physically organising the collection, they just wanted me to electronically catalogue it an item at a time – I won the arguement despite not stating my case as eloquently as you have!


    1. Glad you liked it Zoe. It is something that is discounted, you’re right. Eventually we’ll have to do without the shelves, but we need to understand why we like them so much first to have any hope of creating things that give us as much joy.

  2. Most library users enjoy searching trolleys of returned books awaiting re-shelving. I have worked in public libraries where there was a standing order to leave several trolleys of books unshelved, to avoid the wrath of disappointed patrons.

    Why is this? Are the returned items a silent recommendation, someone else borrowed these items, so they must be good reading? Is it a way to filter a large collection and make book selection easier?

    Can we go some way to replicating the experience (if book trolleys disappear) by having a list of recently returned items available as one of the facets of the catalogue search results?

    1. Yes, I think there is something about using other patrons as recommendation engines. It’s also the lucky dip element – you could get something you really didn’t know you wanted or didn’t expect (in a positive sense). Who doesn’t like that? I’d like to see the recent returns broadcast constantly across a wall so you could ‘see’ the books travelling back into the library.

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