I run a closed stacks library*, where people fill out a little slip of paper with the title and call number of the books they want, and one of our pages gets the books from the stacks. This can be frustrating to a student who can’t quite articulate what they need. Students and scholars encounter this more and more as collections have moved almost exclusively online, and are essentially “closed.” It is difficult for people to envision what is available to them, which, in turn, affects the questions they ask and lines of inquiry they pursue.
My staff and I of course do our best to remedy this, by training our student employees to help students sort out their thoughts and make suggestions. Our pages also do a bit of browsing for the person they are helping, scanning for relevant books nearby, and looking for books with color reproductions, etc. This once-removed browsing can be helpful in making the collection more visible, and is somewhat, though not completely, comparable to virtual shelf-browsing, neither of which are sufficient in satisfying the full felt inquiry/information need.
This closed stack environment is a physical manifestation of the blank search box. Or, since closed stacks have been around much longer than the search box, it may be more accurate to say that the closed stack foreshadowed the blank search box. This situation has forced me to reconsider what faculty and students need from me as a librarian. It’s been a lot of fun to develop a variety of curated browsing experiences for them, which I’ll describe in greater detail in a series of posts.
*Historically the Frick Fine Arts collection was non-circulating. It was designed to be closed storage area, not a public space. We have large numbers of oversized, rare and delicate materials integrated throughout the stacks, which require a closed stacks environment.