- Open Stacks in Library Design
Technological innovation has fostered structural shifts in scholarly communications and cooperation among academic institutions over time. The shift into ubiquitous digital content ushered in transformational changes to research and teaching. The change presents an opportunity for libraries to transform themselves as well, rethinking how we select, display, share, and curate creative, scholarly, and informational works in all formats.
People who use academic libraries have great interest in where these works reside, how they are accessed, and how their future is ensured. We at Arizona State University (ASU) Library propose that the bookless library model represents an unfulfilled promise to those we serve. Instead, we posit that academic libraries can still host tangible materials in multiple formats while adapting a user-focused and intentional design approach to scholarly works, keeping them in openly accessible shelves in our buildings, even as we increase available study space. Open stacks, available for viewing and browsing by the public, offer an intentionally designed, material experience as a key component of space design. They also remind us that not all knowledge exists in digital form.
A Case for Open Stacks
In our current sea of digital information, the metadata describing information of academic interest and utility are not sufficient to resolve every search query and research process. The more purely transactional the query, the easier it is for commercial search engines to satisfy. On the other hand, the more a question is open to interpretation, the harder it is to provide a satisfactory experience for the searcher. Library staff routinely respond to complex queries and challenging questions by means of a reference interview, in which they clarify the user's information needs, which might differ from the question posed, and direct the user to appropriate resources. Online search and discovery mechanisms have yet to develop sophisticated interactions with users about their needs. Therefore, the expertise and human insight of library staff are still valuable and necessary to scholars and learners for higher-order search and discovery processes. [End Page 423]
The online catalog, commercial discovery layers, the open Web, and books available for browsing in libraries all aid in the process of discovery of resources. An absence of books means one fewer discovery method available. It is important, therefore, that libraries retain physical books in open stacks to offer our communities a hands-on opportunity to discover and use resources. Applying the same expertise and human insight to decisions about the collections we make immediately available on site also affords an opportunity to increase the effectiveness of in-person discovery.
We intentionally use the term open stacks as a counterpoint to open educational resources, which are publicly accessible resources for teaching, learning, and exploration. When academic libraries open their doors, whether to K–12 learners, independent researchers, community archival and public history projects, or those seeking access to government information, we believe that print collections and other tangible resources are public goods that should be discoverable and usable by the public. We propose open stacks as a manifestation of the public social institution of library collections, following the norms of other social institutions, such as open government or open science. With open stacks, open characterizes the participatory nature of the collection development process, the distributed benefit of access to all who enter our building, and the freedom to consume, modify, and share the conceptual components and outputs of the collection development process.1 We consider our buildings and spaces to be educational opportunities, opening them to people to use information and build knowledge from the resources readily available at hand.
Think Globally, Act Locally
Print resources, primarily books and journals, are ubiquitous in most academic libraries and still vital to many disciplines. There is little conversation in national library forums, however, about developing general print collections, except perhaps how to reduce their size. Most print collection development activities are limited to the needs of local constituents, for example, the students, faculty, and staff of the institution and possibly nearby institutions serving overlapping patron groups. As such, planning and decisions are limited to a local context. Where active planning and decision-making have waned, the...