Haystacks vs. Algorithms: Is Scanning the Stacks for [Pretty] Books Really the Best Research Strategy?

June 25, 2013, 2:56 pm

One of my favorite courses during undergrad was Shakespeare. My professor had a performance-oriented approach but I recall writing a few essays and being amazed by the range of material in my library. Shelf after shelf held books about Shakespeare and other Elizabethan playwrights.

It was fun to flip through the pages and see what was contained. This was the mid-1990’s — the web was still emerging.

When I see faculty write about serendipity and the value of wandering the stacks I think back with nostalgia to that period in my life. It’s a very romantic idea—being surrounded by immense physical collections of knowledge.

Little did I know the university up the road had an even larger Shakespeare collection. Or that Folger even existed. My library contained just a thimble of information on this topic. If all I used were the materials in my library I could get a good grade but it would not be comprehensive.

And that’s the core problem I have with the “wander the stacks” argument: there is so much you’re missing. While a pretty book cover or a witty title might grab your attention, the stacks represent only a fraction of what is possible. Do we want to promote that? It seems a bit irresponsible actually, especially when other tools provide a more holistic view.

Here are a few other issues:

  • What about books located in branch libraries? You might be scanning the main collection but missing a whole division of literature?
  • What about the [good] books that are checked out? It is hard to stumble across seminal works when they are in someone’s bag.
  • What about related books on another floor? Take the Shakespeare example—I could be looking in the lit section, but what if the info I really need is in the economics section or the history section? Those are three different call number ranges and would likely be on three different floors. It’s hard to wander the stacks of a research library containing millions of volumes.

Anti-Social Sentiments

Another theme that often comes up in these arguments is the bemoaning of social spaces in libraries. You’ll see the argument that we are catering to student preferences – and it’s true, we as librarians do cater to the needs of all our users, students, faculty, etc…. but I would argue that we are also catering to the needs of the curriculum. Many disciplines require group projects and students look to their library as a place to get things done.


Stacks as study space.

If all we offered were quiet study tables and cubicles it would be a disservice to our community. There is a ton of research on the value of social learning and I’ll let you discover it via your method of choice, but let’s just say there is a big difference in the types of locations that promote reflection and comprehension compared with places for ideation and production. Libraries have to cater to both sides of this spectrum… not just one niche.


In libraries we see a different side of the academic lifecycle. We see students struggling to understand their assignments. We see students when they are stressed out. We see students feeling triumphant. We see a full range of emotions: happy, sad, excited, confused, discouraged, and so forth. We see them being super creative and super immature.

I’m not sure that many teaching faculty observe the effort that goes into their coursework. They see the final product in the form of a paper or test or whatever, and they might talk with students during class time or office hours, but as librarians, we get to observe and interact with students while they are actively learning. It happens everyday all around us.

Be Serendipitous

Last night I had a conversation (online) with a friend about college basketball. We were talking about a game that happened over 40 years ago. I was unfamiliar with one of the universities so I looked it up on Wikipedia. I found out that this school underwent a dramatic transformation and uses a very interesting business model. This is perfect for a paper I’m currently writing. I would not have found this info by wandering the stacks or clicking around in databases. It arrived purely though a social interaction.

These types of things happen to me weekly. I’ll see an interesting paper mentioned on Twitter, a friend will tell me about a podcast, my wife will tell me about a story she heard on NPR, or a colleague will show me something on her iPad. Serendipity is everywhere! It’s not just something that happens wandering the stacks. It doesn’t even require a library. The difference is that when it occurs online or during conversations we barely notice it. But when an “ah” happens in a romantic setting like a row of dusty stacks we feel that’s a special moment.

Serendipity is a state of mind. If we open ourselves to it—it can happen anywhere. Perhaps a better way to think about it is as a skill that can be developed—always be seeking info nutrients! Why limit that opportunity to an artificial environment that requires rows and rows of one type of source?

Think about the student who joins the Peace Corp and has information needs in a remote village? Where are the stacks for him to browse? What about the student hired by NASA—how should she locate the information she needs for a new project? Or the recent grad who moves to a new city and doesn’t have access to the library of the private college in his neighborhood?

I feel that we should be teaching students to be platform agnostic. I would rather teach students to be good searchers instead of lucky ones. I would rather they graduate with proficient skills and exposure to many types of resources rather than with lots of experience scanning the stacks for interesting book titles. This conversation should be about enabling them to ask different questions, tackle new types of problems, and to think differently… not about containers of text.

I actually feel we would be doing a disservice to students if all we did were teach them how to use library resources. There is a much bigger world of information out there and we should encourage them to explore and discover using a wide range of methods and sources, not just ones that require proxy access or large stacks found at elite colleges.

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