The shelves are yours

One of Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science is that every book has its reader, and therefore the library should make it easy for books to be found by their reader. To that end, he advocated open shelving, meaning that patrons can access the books themselves and browse at will, as in a book store. This came as something of a surprise, because I’ve never encountered a library with closed shelving. I understand that in those libraries, the patron issues a request for a book, and a staff member retrieves it. The patron is never able to browse in an anonymous and uncommitted way, but must instead request a specific book, and then probably feels obligated to check it out, even if it turns out not to be to their liking. What a different environment that would be! I can’t imagine that being the standard for a public library. It was interesting to discover such a different potential model for libraries, and I am grateful that we ended up with open shelving as the default instead.

This issue came up not only in “Foundations of Library and Information Science,” the textbook for LIBR 200, but also in another book I’ve been reading, a 1903 text called “A Library Primer.” It is a charming how-to guide for the establishment and operation of libraries, and it also includes commentary related to our ethics discussions. Here is one excerpt showing that the advocacy of open shelving went back at least to 1903:

Give the people at least such liberty with their own collection of books as the bookseller gives them with his. Let the shelves be open, and the public admitted to them, and let the open shelves strike the keynote of the whole administration. (Dana, Chapter IV)

Dana goes on to give advice about the dimensions of the shelves:

Single shelves should not be more than three feet long, on account of the tendency to sag. Ten inches between shelves, and a depth of eight inches, are good dimensions for ordinary cases. (Dana, Chapter VIII)

and even chairs (ouch!):

In many cases simple stools on a single iron standard, without a revolving top, fastened to the floor, are more desirable than chairs. The loafer doesn’t like them; very few serious students object to them. (Dana, Chapter VIII)

I also enjoyed this encapsulation of the ALA core value of Service (which the ALA did not adopt until 1939):

The whole library should be permeated with a cheerful and accommodating atmosphere. Lay this down as the first rule of library management; and for the second, let it be said that librarian and assistants are to treat boy and girl, man and woman, ignorant and learned, courteous and rude, with uniform good-temper without condescension; never pertly. (Dana, Chapter IV)

The shelves are yours, and the librarian’s job is to courteously guide you through them, only when needed.

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I knew this already. I learned something new!