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A Technological Dream; or, If We Only Knew

May 15, 2019

I recently took the time to perform a once venerated rite of library research. When no one was looking, I browsed several books roughly adjacent to each other on a shelf in the stacks. Then, feeling emboldened, I pulled books from the row, turned to their indexes, skimmed them for relevant entries, and, in most cases, returned the book to the shelf and pushed onward as if a better title might actually be lurking down the range. Occasionally, perhaps with every 3rd or 4th volume, I found something in the index that led me to turn to the listed pages themselves. There—on page 37 or 377—I actually read.

I do not share this anecdote for purely nostalgic or romantic purposes. Nor do I want to sanctimoniously declare—see! we can still compare, analyze, evaluate, and otherwise think critically with actual books in our hands. Finally, I am not about to make the case for keeping books on the shelf when we are otherwise tempted, or ordered, to send them by the truckload to offsite storage.

My motive is actually technological in nature. It occurred to me after my recent foray into the stacks, as it has from time to time over the years, that librarians really have no idea how many times a book has been pulled from the shelf. We can measure its “circulation”—a term that suggest a broadness it does not really describe—with checkout numbers and even, if we have or take the time, by enumerating in the system when it is found on the “Please Do Not Reshelve Books” shelf. This last, the place we want students and faculty to place books they survey, but ultimately reject, is, I would argue, the most deceptive and treacherous location in the library. Perhaps one tenth of all books inspected in the stacks ever make it to the library limbo of a Do Not Reshelve shelf. We know this when we discover that yesterday’s row of flush spines are suddenly displaced like a bad set of teeth. We know it when we shelf read and utter curses under our breath that only Melvil Dewey can hear. If any of this rings true, if it is familiar and equally frustrating for you, I would like to propose a solution—the technological part of my now overlong windup to the point. I want to see “smart shelves” in every library.

Why couldn’t a sensor run the length of every shelf and detect the movement of any book on the shelf below it? Why couldn’t this be a fairly affordable system to build and install? Why couldn’t such a shelf easily integrate with an ILS to vastly improve our understanding of just how, and how often, books get used in the library?

I should say I have no idea how to actually design or manufacture a smart shelf; my technical skills will never reach such rarified air. But surely someone somewhere can do this. It is just one of many practical library tools that we could use to better understand how our users behave and how we might better serve them.

The next time my library debates what new ILS upgrade to make, or what CMS to transfer collections to, or wonders if we are subscribing to the best databases for the money, I think I will consider the smart shelf instead. Or, I will imagine an app, or device, or digital tool that might actually help us solve one of the old problems we never seem to overcome. Of course, none of these things may ever come to be. But isn’t there some solace in an elegant solution, even if it doesn’t actually exist.

 

 

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