The Height-Shelving Threat to the Nation\'s Libraries


Here\'s a rather unusual story on the Librarian of Congress James Billington, and his plans to shelve books by height. The author\'s name on this is Thomas Mann, though I didn\'t do any checking to enuse it is real, so take it with a grain of salt, unless you know otherwise. It still is rather interesting.

\"Librarian of Congress James Billington is moving towards shelving books at the Library of Congress by height rather than by subject. Such a move by LC would directly undercut the ability of scholars everywhere to search book collections below the superficial levels of access provided by computerized catalog records, because any example set by the national library is likely to be imitated by others.\"This is the abstract
Here\'s the full thing.

The Librarian\'s belief that libraries \"must evolve\" into digital forms is a misperception of reality. The biological evolution metaphor implies that an inevitable natural process is at work, like the unpacking of information in a DNA code; and such a natural process cannot possibly be \"wrong.\" Regarding the matter as one of \"evolution\" neatly take it out of the realm of professional judgment, and suggests that the change \"must\" happen along these particular lines regardless of rationally-foreseeable negative consequences.

The Librarian\'s vision also entails the mistaken assumptions that a \"library without walls\" can be created without significant trade-offs (i.e., that eliminating where restrictions on place can be done simply, and without thereby creating other massive restrictions of what can be digitized or who can use it); and that locality (i.e., service within walls) is equivalent to passivity.

The assumption that books\' contents can be electronically freed from paper formats, and distributed on the Internet, apparently justifies cutting corners in cataloging and classification because these operations are geared to providing access to real books within the walls of the Library. Such localized use is no longer accorded the importance it previously had; a concern for service within library walls is viewed as the defining characteristic of a \"passive warehouse\" or a \"passive mausoleum.\" What is more important is providing \"massive digital access\" to the Library\'s holdings through the National Digital Library, and warehouse-shelving the original paper \"containers\" of information by height rather than by subject in order to save space.

Although the New York Public Library\'s 42nd Street facility already shelves about half of its book collections by height, its example is considered by all larger libraries \"an aberration to be avoided rather than a model to be copied.\" The same example set by LC itself, however, would give an enormous stamp of approval to library administrators who wish to \"re-engineer\" their own facilities according to the \"evolutionary\" model. Dr. Billington\'s proposals for LC run counter to the thinking of those in the library profession who reject the biological \"evolution\" metaphor, who reject the equation of locality with passivity, who reject the belief that a \"library without walls\" can be created without any significant trade-offs among restrictions on access, who see a continuing need for professional controlled-vocabulary cataloging and classification of books, and who think that physical book collections still need to be maintained as libraries rather than warehouses. The approval of height-shelving at LC is emblematic of a whole nexus of unarticulated, and erroneous, concealed propositions in management\'s thinking. The example set by the Library of Congress on how to shelve books may well be the most important issue the facing the library profession at the turn of the century.

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