In the Restricted Section

Over the summer and unbeknownst to me, my university library moved all the U, V and Z (Library of Congress classifications) books out of the general circulations stacks and into storage. Err, the first floor depository, they say. I call it “The Restricted Section”.

Harry wandered over to the Restricted Section. He had been wondering for a while if Flamel wasn’t somewhere in there. Unfortunately, you needed a specially signed note from one of the teachers to look in any of the restricted books, and he knew he’d never get one. These were the books containing powerful Dark Magic never taught at Hogwarts, and only read by older students studying advanced Defence Against the Dark Arts. (J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)

Just imagine, wandering innocently into your library, in search of five books you need to check out for your class. You know they’re there. You check them out every year (it’s a small class of grad students – they can share the books over the last half of the term). But the books aren’t there. The whole circulating collection seemingly ends with the T classification for technology topics. But wander farther afield and there’s nothing. Not even a sign. I stumbled about the third floor for ten minutes, looking for where the books had gone to – I knew we had hundreds, if not thousands of titles in that range that had seemingly disappeared.

Only when I headed down to the circulation desk did I get an explanation – those books had been moved to the first floor, off limits to users – I’d have to ask a librarian to retrieve them for me. I presume (but I wasn’t told explicitly), that this was done to free up room upstairs in the circulating collection or ‘stacks’ – as new books are added, and a few are every year, they fill up the current ranges and threaten to overflow. Plus, goodness knows!, we can’t cut back on the study desks and comfy chairs that have filled in around the circulating books over the years.

Still, just wrap your heads around the situation with the books for a bit. Entire classifications of library books are gone. Sure, if you look at each individual catalogue listing, as I did later, you see a note after the call number that explains the book is located at the 1st Floor Depository. But imagine you’re an undergraduate – what does that mean? There’s no word of where that is or what you’ll need to do to see the book. How likely are you to go and ask for that? There’s not even a sign at the end of the range of books still available indicating that you need to go elsewhere and speak to someone. Even better: maybe you committed the call number to memory when you trotted off on your quick search after getting the information from the first page of the catalogue entries? If so, I bet you’ve forgotten it after a few minutes of fruitless searching.

Will you ask? will you wait? Or will you just give up? Remember, you’ve got to intuit that you have to ask someone specially for these books and then you have to wait for them to get them. We aren’t blessed with an overabundance of librarians – on weekends and into the evening, who’s going to be around to fulfil requests? Who’s going to ask if it seems even slightly daunting.

Now consider the role of shelf-browsing? How many of you have found wonderfully useful books just by running your fingers along the shelves, to see what’s there beside the book you came to get? How can you do that now that entire swathes of the library are off in storage. I’ll give you a hint – our catalogue doesn’t have that function anymore to browse a range of call numbers so you won’t.

90% of my students will give up if they think they might want one of these books. They’ll change their topic, make do with what’s online or simply pass the material by. And so the usage stats will drop even more and the library will feel justified in carting these and other books off to our local equivalent of the Restricted Section.

So much for consulting the bibliographies to direct you to other works in particular. Pay no attention to the vast scholarship in print on authorship, reading and publishing that also sits in this range – they’re all getting condemned to near uselessness by such a decision. So much for the many classic and current works of military history and scholarship – if they’re in the U category as opposed to particular national histories, they’re out of reach for ordinary library patrons at my institution.

I’m also afraid of what’s next – in any given year, for my teaching and research, I check out books from many different Library of Congress areas, particularly B, D, H, J, P and Z. What if they decide to shave off those lightly used A & B classifications into the depository next? How am I going to get my students to engage with the works of religious thinkers and the abundant scholarship we own in print of the same if the books are tucked away elsewhere.

Yes, this is a first world problem but it really irked me. I work hard enough to get our students to appreciate the range of books we have available at our library. When something like this happens, I’m filled with despair. What’s the point if our books are going to be consigned to the Restricted Section, willy-nilly?

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7 Comments

Filed under academe, history, teaching

7 responses to “In the Restricted Section

  1. That’s totally frustrating. Ugh. Our catalogue has a thing where you can browse (and see icons of) nearby books on the same shelf. At least that helps a little. But it’s never the same as browsing books in person!

    • J Liedl

      Our catalogue used to have that functionality but I don’t see it after a major update. I agree, at least that would be useful!

  2. sophylou

    Can you do a call number search in your catalog? In ours you can search by call number and then scroll through listings of nearby call numbers. Not at all the same as shelf browsing.

    Also, as an instructor-turned-librarian, I wish I could tell you why librarians do this kind of thing without warning, signage, information, but I’m as puzzled by this kind of thing as you are.

    • J Liedl

      I’ve been poking at the upgraded catalogue to see if I can do that – it used to be easy and obvious so, if it’s still possible, it’s hard to find. And if it’s hard for me to find (not that I’m the world’s smartest person, but that I spend a lot of time dealing with website design and philosophy), I know my students won’t be finding it!

  3. I hate hate hate when books get moved into storage. I adore browsing shelves – and try and pass the pleasures along to students. With miserable results – I totally agree with you. It’s frustrating and counter-productive.

    Of course, the alternatives aren’t easy either: build more space, quit buying books, give up study space. My students are finding pleasure in the ‘new’ spaces to study in the library. The spaces aren’t new; the furniture is.

    I want everything: books on the shelves, comfortable seating to read & study, lots of space to grow and books to fill those spaces created just for them.

    • J Liedl

      It’s the culture of quiet that’s the most annoying. How am I supposed to know where the books are now? Especially when the catalogue listing for three of the five books that I wanted indicated they were upstairs in the circulating stacks (whereas all five are now in the depository).

      Added to that, I know that our administration has targeted some of that first floor space for their own storage needs. Who’s to say that books won’t be moved farther afield, especially since they’re now going to be used very, very rarely!

  4. With at least a decades’ worth of computerized records in most places, you’d think they’d be able to cull (if cull they must) on the basis of which books are being used most and least. That doesn’t solve the other problems you name (and doesn’t take into account the possible value of books that aren’t often checked out, but may be consulted in the course of exploring a shelf/subject area), but it would make a bit more sense. But really, couldn’t they make just a bit more space, knowing that growth in numbers of print volumes will probably diminish over the coming decade (to be replaced, one hopes, by e-volumes, though so far the ones I’ve tried to read online have been incredibly frustrating; it might help if I had a dedicated e-reading device or program, which I don’t). Those sliding banks of bookshelves (the user-operated ones) aren’t a bad solution, either — a bit annoying, but once you get the stack you need open, it works as usual.