In praise of shelf surfing – the sport of new discoveries

A few months ago, in pursuit of a fact-checking mission for a project I was working on, I found myself signing up to gain access the truly remarkable Warburg Institute in Bloomsbury. The collection was begun in Hamburg early in the twentieth century by Aby Warburg, a brilliant scholar with a particular interest in the influence of classical civilization on modern life and thought. By the time the Nazis came to power, he had amassed around 80,000 volumes, many of them extremely rare. In due course, the collection came to England, and a deed of trust was signed, passing it into the care of the University of London in 1944.

The current collection stands at roughly 350,000 books, and its cataloguing system is entirely unique. And on my first visit there – and due in part to the idiosyncratic ordering system – I had one of those great eureka moments which are only possible in libraries of this kind. I went to the shelf to collect the book I’d ordered… and my eye drifted along the shelf until I spotted several other volumes which I didn’t even know existed, all of which looked completely brilliant and fascinating, and which I made a note to order at once. Shelf surfing 101, you might say.

But now the Warburg is in serious trouble. The University of London is challenging the deed of trust that it signed seventy years ago, hoping to relocate the collection and thereby destroy both its ordering and its integrity as a unified whole. It will no longer be on open shelves. It will mark the end of those magical spontaneous discoveries which can only occur when we walk through the stacks ourselves, as readers and researchers.

Those of you who have ever been into an open shelf library will know what this is like. You might be looking for a Mills & Boon novel you’ve been recommended… or some Dickens… or a book about advanced statistics… Liszt… Duchamp… you get the idea. You go to the shelf, and in the act of searching for it, you spot other books. More interesting books; or unexpected and thought-provoking alternatives; or books with excellent titles that you have to photograph to show all your friends (my recent favourite in this category is How to Avoid Huge Ships. Second Edition).

There are other valuable things to be gleaned from this system, too. Take your average student writing an essay. The deadline is fast approaching. They have to get through 2,000 words on Beethoven late string quartets. Chances are they’ll go to the biography section of the library, find ‘Beethoven’, and then yank everything off the shelf that looks vaguely relevant to construct their bibliography. The shelving system becomes an authority, a mode of thinking about the books and their subjects – it guides us and affects the way we think about a topic. You need a nice helpful wave to surf, after all, and in this case our cataloguers provide the impetus for the journey.

The closed shelf system, where books are held in stacks ‘backstage’, so to speak, and you have to order up specific volumes, is used by many major collections – particularly if they are so large as to make an open shelving policy untentable, such as the British Library. And let’s be honest, it’s possible to hand too much control to that shelf-based wave: your resource list can end up being determined entirely by what’s in front of your nose, rather than making use of the many excellent and extensive electronic resources that detail subject areas and library holdings more broadly, including new volumes that your library might not hold yet (COPAC, RILM, RIPM and Worldcat are just a few that I use regularly). These resources allow for a different kind of surfing to guide your investigations, and the results can be rich and significant.

But. And of course there’s a but. But have you ever had that experience where you’re walking around a library and your eye catches something that has nothing to do with why you first came in, but it looks so interesting that you have to go and look at it? Have you ever found a book that, despite its relevance to your research area, the search terms somehow didn’t pick up on Google? Is there not an amount of pleasure to be had just at gazing across a wonderful wall of spines short and tall, pristine and battered, gold-embossed and spiral-bound, and taking a moment to consider what you could find there? It’s a special thing, not least because of the tangibility of the wisdom it presents. I feel a Buffy the Vampire Slayer quotation coming on – a conversation between the school librarian (Rupert Giles) and the school IT teacher (Jenny Calendar):

Jenny:  Honestly, what is it about [computers] that bothers you so much?
Rupert: The smell.
Jenny: Computer’s don’t smell, Rupert.
Rupert: I know. Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower or a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell. Musty and… rich. The knowledge gained from a computer, is… it has no, no texture, no, no context. It’s, it’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible, it should be, um… smelly.

So if the opportunity presents itself to go wandering around an open-shelf library – a local library, university centre, institute, wherever you might find it – go and explore. Have a surf along those shelves. See what you find that you never thought of looking for. And better still: help us preserve that experience for other readers. Go and see the Warburg for yourself. Sign the petition to save the collection by clicking here. As the petition site so eloquently states, the very library itself is a testament to Warburg’s research, his great achievement. Will you help to protect it?



Great news from the University of London following the article in Times Higher Education announcing the possible breaking up of this collection: 

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