Saturday, June 29, 2013

Virtual browsing of remote storage

Between 50 & 100 years ago, there was a different kind of Open Access movement in libraries...this one more of the physical kind.  I'm referring, of course, to the opening of the stacks.  In a quick search Library Literature Retrospective (1905-1983), there were articles about opening the stacks as late as 1982.  Here's an article from CR&L, 1954: Open or Closed Stacks?  Even when open, the access to the stacks was often highly regulated.  I recall an episode of The Bob Newhart Show (circa 1974) when Emily, in her pursuit of a master's degree, is excited to learn that she and her study partner have a "stacks pass".  The biggest concerns of librarians and administrators were, of course, the security of the collection.  Losses due to theft, as well as misshelving, were the most common concerns.  But, as the article linked above indicates, most libraries had minimal losses (<2%), and increased circulation (upwards of 50-100% or more).

But as the relative funding of libraries shrinks to below 2% of universities' budgets and service priorities shift away from physical books, many academic libraries are moving their books into remote storage, effectively closing the stacks once again.  Access is limited to effectively a paging service for known items.  Because of the loss of serendipity from browsing the shelves, this increases the importance of the metadata for searching, finding, and identifying the right books.  The primary source of metadata, of course, is the catalog, particularly for the kind of books that are being relocated.  Even when incorporated into discovery systems, the primary source is the bibliographic record.

But, as we all know, library catalogs leave a lot to be desired...OK, they suck (see here, here, and here).  They have evolved very little from their beginnings of lists of titles on pages (literal pages and metaphorical pages).

The addition of enhanced content of bibliographic records helps in the selection process.  But against the old adage, we judge much about a book from its cover.  That is why Aaron Tay's look at "virtual shelves" was intriguing to me.  At a time when our library is moving a big chunk of its collection to a remote (albeit local) storage, I've been wondering how we were going to replicate the experience of serendipity.  Interestingly, most of the eight virtual shelves he reviews show covers from the front, even though physical books are shelved showing the spines.  This is because that is what is available - small images of book covers.  Also, most show the books using a horizontal scroll.  Harvard's StackLife shows "spines" of results in a vertical stack, with width and length based on the physical size of the book.  One additional feature is to visually represent popularity of a title by the darkness of the color, based on total circulation.

One problem with all of the systems that use book jacket images is that, for many of the titles being moved into remote storage, there are no covers available.  These are often older, less popular titles - that's why they are being moved.  So the results use a "faux" cover, with the title layered on top. This defeats the purpose of "virtual shelves". It is no better than a list of titles.

I just don't think our catalog systems have the capability to effectively replace the efficiency of locating a section of the shelves and browsing.  Perhaps with some combination of Amazon's LookInside, Harvard's StackLife, and the library's rich metadata, we can get a little closer.

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