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When did library stacks open?
January 20, 2012 10:05 AM   Subscribe

My university has a relatively large number of libraries. The oldest ones were obviously designed to have closed stacks. In other words, a patron would submit a request for a particular book to the staff who would, in turn, retrieve it from the stacks and deliver it to the patron. The newest library with that design opened circa the 1930s. Then, at some point, library architecture philosophy changed and campus libraries built in the 1970s and later were obviously designed to have open stacks. The older libraries have been converted to open use. Library science and architecture types, I ask you: When did this change, which appears on my experience to be a nearly universal characteristic of library design, occur? And why?
posted by LastOfHisKind to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Over the years, there has been a shift from Library As Temple (librarian behind the Reference Altar, supplicant approaches seeking succor) to Library As Marketplace (librarians go out and seek to drum up business, "sell" services) and the buildings have changed to reflect that. Books became more plentiful, so replacing them was easier, plus there was the rise of easy to understand cataloging systems that made locating materials more straightforward. Entering the stacks is no longer entering the Holy of Holies, it's entering the supermarket.

Plus, there's the efficiencies of open stacks. As college populations rise, the amount of staff it would take to provide access to materials in closed stacks in a timely manner would go through the roof.

So it's no wonder that it was a capitalist's libraries that lead the way in opening the stacks.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:17 AM on January 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


John Cotton Dana is generally credited as the "inventor" of open stacks, if you want to do some Googling about him.
posted by besonders at 10:22 AM on January 20, 2012


At the University of Toronto, the stacks at Robarts Library were originally intended to be open only to faculty, graduate students, and fourth-year undergrads, but in 1972 (before the library opened) undergraduates protested and staged sit-ins until they were granted access.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 10:47 AM on January 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


There is also the security issue. People weren't allowed into the stacks because of the fear of theft. Books now get outfitted with little thingies and anyone who tries to walk out of the building without properly checking the book out sets off an alarm.

I was in grad school in the late 80s at a university with several libraries. The one that I used most did not allow undergrads in the stacks.
posted by mareli at 10:50 AM on January 20, 2012


The worst culprits in terms of theft were grad students who cut articles out of bound journal volumes, now those same articles are available in databases.
posted by mareli at 10:56 AM on January 20, 2012


I think they originally closed the stacks because it was just so damn much work putting chains on all the books.

Seriously, though, in some ways the closed-stacks library was an improvement over earlier types of library - librarians (the guardians-of-books kind) are going to be more comfortable handing over a single volume to a filthy undergraduate than they would be allowing said filthy undergraduate to wander the stacks (with PENS in his pocket!). So in one sense, closing the stacks may have allowed more people access to the book (albeit mediated access).

I suspect we will see more of a return to closed stacks in the form of offsite storage (or high-density storage); browsing the catalog has become so much easier over the past 30 years or so and hopefully will continue to become easier still, and real estate on university campuses is generally at a premium.

On preview: gah, yes, people cutting articles out of journals. Assholes.
posted by mskyle at 11:10 AM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Built in the 1970s" is the key. Many research universities established undergraduate libraries post-baby boom that, for a variety of reasons, did away with the closed-stack system. Undergrads were often unsatisfied with the limited collections available in these libraries, though, and put pressure on administrators for unfettered access. This eventually led to an abandonment of closed stacks in academic libraries, for the most part.

Public libraries made this transition much earlier. DC's Central Public Library, for example, was considered to be obsolete within a few years of its completion in 1903 because of its largely closed-stack design (see pg. 9 of its HABS data sheet.) All subsequent DC libraries (e.g. Takoma Park, completed in 1910) are open plan. Both are Carnegie libraries, and the design shift was mirrored nationally as a result.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:12 AM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Now days, when I want a book, I put it on hold through my library's website. When the email comes through telling me the book is waiting, I go to the library and pick it up at the counter. Though I sometimes go to the stacks to find a book, this is rare.

So, though my library has open stacks, computer technology enables me to use it in the old fashioned way by requesting a book and waiting for the librarians to pull it. I like this. All the libraries in my county are in a cooperative system, however. Often the requested book is pulled from a distant library and brought to mine to await my pick-up.
posted by partner at 12:26 PM on January 20, 2012


This hasn't changed everywhere. Academic libraries in Ukraine, for instance, still have request slips and silent reading rooms.

National libraries still operate on a largely closed stack system.
posted by wingless_angel at 12:37 PM on January 20, 2012


The worst culprits in terms of theft were grad students who cut articles out of bound journal volumes, now those same articles are available in databases.

I don't agree with that. Also open stacks happened a lot earlier than the Internet. I think an earlier poster's point about books being tagged with things that set off sensors if not deactivated at checkout is more to the point. That and the need for fewer staff dedicated to searching for particular volumes when the patrons could do it themselves.
posted by zomg at 12:53 PM on January 20, 2012


I suspect we will see more of a return to closed stacks in the form of offsite storage (or high-density storage);

I do agree with this. Even when I was in grad school (25 -eek- years ago) this was an issue. Older volumes of journals were being moved offsite and were notoriously difficult to obtain even though they were in the collection. It was easier to get certain things through Interlibrary Loan than things that were in the collection but in the regional storage facilities.
posted by zomg at 12:56 PM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


My experience is similar to that of wingless_angel - I carry out research in the former soviet union and i have always had to request access to materials and use them on-premises. any xeroxing must also be done via the librarian.
posted by scrambles at 2:14 PM on January 20, 2012


I carry out research in the former soviet union and i have always had to request access to materials and use them on-premises. any xeroxing must also be done via the librarian.

Right - I should have qualified my answer to say that it only applies to the US. I'm not sure how things have evolved elsewhere.
posted by ryanshepard at 2:33 PM on January 20, 2012


The Mansueto Library opened in 2011 at the University of Chicago, and it is fully closed stacks. Books are retrieved via robot, quickly and efficiently.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 7:50 PM on January 20, 2012


The first of the influential "five laws of library science" published by S. R. Ranganathan (1931) states that "books are for use," e.g. open shelving.
posted by cosmologinaut at 8:36 PM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


In Britain, the pioneer of open shelving was James Duff Brown, who introduced 'safeguarded open access' to Clerkenwell Public Library in 1894. Brown was probably influenced by developments in America, where several public libraries had recently been experimenting with open access; the first library to go over to the new system is thought to have been the Pawtucket Public Library in Rhode Island, which introduced open access in 1889.

Brown's support for open access was vehemently opposed by other librarians, who didn't want to let the public into their territory and complained that the new system would result in 'unknown persons of every class' crowding into the stacks. One of the bitterest opponents of the new system was Alfred Cotgreave, who had patented a device called the Cotgreave Indicator to enable the public to see whether books were in or out of the stacks, and realised that open-access shelving would make his invention redundant. The debate rumbled on for years, as the Sun newspaper commented in 1897:

There is war in the library world .. Solemn and sober librarians have been stirred to burning and blinding passion over one apparently simple question. Clerkenwell is responsible for this, and Clerkenwell has a good deal to answer for.

Open access was slow to catch on, but by the early twentieth century it was being installed in most new library buildings, and over the course of the 1920s and 1930s most older public libraries gradually went over to an open-access layout.

Clerkenwell Library, where it all began, is now Finsbury Library, part of Islington Library and Heritage Services. Public library use in Islington is higher than in other London boroughs (the legacy of James Duff Brown's work, perhaps?), and although public libraries are under threat all over the country, Islington Council has pledged to keep all ten of its libraries open and to 'protect library services from the worst of the government's public spending cuts'.
posted by verstegan at 4:38 AM on January 21, 2012


Jason and Laszlo wrote:
The Mansueto Library opened in 2011 at the University of Chicago, and it is fully closed stacks. Books are retrieved via robot, quickly and efficiently.
The U of C built that library, though, to avoid the more common solution of off-site overflow storage, which usually requires 1-2 days to retrieve material. Regenstein and Crerar libraries still have more frequently used material in open stacks.

I'm currently working primarily in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, which has several sites. The specialized libraries (like manuscripts) are closed stacks. There's a "study library" at the new Tolbiac site in the 13th arrondissement that is all open stack, but has a collection focused on what university undergrads need for their courses. The research library at Tolbiac (restricted to Ph.D. students, scholars, and others who can demonstrate a need to use it) has a mixture: recent journals and selected scholarly books are open-stack in the reading rooms, but most of the collection is closed stack. The latter books are ordered online and delivered to the desk in your reading room.

As part of its recent renovations, the Bodleian Library at Oxford opened part of its stacks and put recent acquisitions and frequently consulted material there. They've also moved less frequently used materials into remote storage in Swindon, though. The University of Basel opened up its library stacks a little more than a decade ago. Some of those changes are driven by declining staff numbers, as people retire or leave and are not replaced. At a certain point it gets easier to let patrons retrieve books themselves.
posted by brianogilvie at 5:12 AM on January 21, 2012


Where research libraries are concerned, there are valid intellectual reasons for preferring open-stack access, so while 'declining staff numbers' may be one reason, it's not the whole picture. A few years ago the Harvard Library Bulletin published an issue called 'Voices from the Stacks', in which various Harvard scholars wrote about the value of the open stacks in the Widener Library in helping them to carry out their research and make unexpected connections. These essays have now been put online and you can find them here. I particularly recommend John Stilgoe's poetic essay, 'Four Mornings, Seven Afternoons', and Michael McCormick's 'Research and Teaching: Making Connections in Widener Library' which describes very vividly how historical research is done, and how historians make patterns out of the fragments of evidence that they have.
posted by verstegan at 9:05 AM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


The U of C built that library, though, to avoid the more common solution of off-site overflow storage, which usually requires 1-2 days to retrieve material. Regenstein and Crerar libraries still have more frequently used material in open stacks.

Even before they built that library, collection overflow problems due to (among other factors) the closure of another on-campus library had forced them to move some rarely-used volumes into closed stacks within the Reg, which was generally considered to be an unfortunate but necessary compromise. The new library is definitely being marketed as a technological marvel, but it is, as you say, also a solution to a very particular problem.
posted by dizziest at 7:53 AM on January 22, 2012


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