Thursday, August 22, 2013

From Open Stacks to Open Access - the Long History of University Libraries

Image courtesy: University of Idaho Library
Though difficult to imagine, the concept of the modern library with open stacks fully flushed with mass collections for faculty and students to browse through.  For much of the twentieth century, most academic research libraries functioned with "closed stacks", meaning staff had to retrieve materials as users requested them, so the loans and periodicals desks were busy as you can see from the image above.

It really wasn't until the 1970s that research libraries began to alter its relationship with its users. Shill's 1980 report in the College and Research Libraries is one of the earliest and foremost studies done on the impacts of open stacks.  Although the utility of open stack systems has been widely debated up to that time (there were some that still held back on "opening" up their collections), not much empirical research relevant to the so-called controversy was available until Shill's work.

Using circulation, book availability, and search and library-use statistics of the main library at West Virginia University, major elements of the direct access debate were tested in a six-year study of the library that has recently undergone the transition from closed to open stacks in 1976.   The thinking at the time was that closed stack arrangements conserved shelf space and made detailed subject classification unnecessary.

Shill's findings disproved the conventional assumption at the time of a zero-sum game in which open stack systems would increase circulation to the detriment of book availability.  West Virginia University Library's three-year period revealed that was simply not the case; rather, a sharp increase in building occurred.  In fact, as the data reveals in Table 1, patrons actually used the library more with the novel idea of allowing them to physically access the books all by themselves.

This flashback is an example of how far the library has come in a relatively short amount of time.  Now the library world has moved beyond the physic collections, and is grappling with the notion of open access.  Academic librarians push hard for faculty and student research to be widely accessible for the online world.  I'm especially looking forward to this year's Open Access Week because we've finally reached the sixth year.  (It's felt longer!)

For more reading:

Shill, Harold B. "Open Stacks Library Performance." College and Research Libraries 41.3 (1980): 220-26. [Link]

Rovelstad, Mathilde V. "Open Shelves/Closed Shelves in Research Libraries."College and Research Libraries 37.5 (1976): 457-67.