Category Archives: Buildings

Serendipity’s Not Just for the Stacks

The past week or so has been filled with the rush and excitement of the beginning of the academic year, new and returning faculty and students arriving on campus, a huge change from the quiet days of summer. I’ve just finished up a couple of commitments at my college and university that seem quite different at first glance, but have similarities that I find especially interesting at the beginning of a new semester.

One is a large collegewide grant that focuses on General Education at the college of technology where I work. A core activity of the grant is an annual professional development seminar that draws in full-time and adjunct faculty from across the campus to read, work, and learn together, and ultimately redesign the courses they teach. In the four years of the grant thus far we’ve seen participation from faculty members in nearly every department: from English to Nursing, Hospitality Management to Architectural Technology, and Biology to Computer Systems Technology, just to name a few.

The other commitment is a course that I co-taught last semester at my university’s graduate school in a certificate program in technology and pedagogy. I taught the class with fellow CUNY faculty member Michael Mandiberg, who has a background in art, design, and media culture; my background is anthropology and LIS, and we complemented each other well in teaching the course. Our students were also drawn from a range of disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Most were near the end of their coursework and preparing for their exams and dissertation proposals.

The biggest raves from faculty participants in the grant project at my college were about the opportunity to work with colleagues in other departments. Again and again, faculty have told us that they appreciate having the time and space for interdisciplinary conversations about teaching and learning. And it was fascinating to me to see the same enthusiasm in the graduate students I taught as well, their desire for conversations outside of their disciplinary silos happening before they’d even finished their degrees.

In libraries we often talk about offering opportunities for serendipity in the stacks, recognizing that sometimes browsing can suggest productive tangents or reveal connections that aren’t obvious. Reflecting on the end of my work on the grant and the course I’ve been thinking about serendipity of people, too: human resources, not just information sources. Laura wrote about this a couple of years back when she described a colleague who moved from a crowded building to a new lab, which, while spacious, was no longer in the thick of things, and how much she missed running into colleagues.

Small college libraries like the one where I work are all about students from different majors working and interacting: the library is an inherently interdisciplinary space. Can we encourage the serendipity of interdisciplinary conversations for faculty, too? A dedicated faculty area of the library is one option, though that may be a challenge for smaller libraries where space is at a premium. At my library we’re also thinking about forming a faculty advisory group to encourage regular discussion between librarians and faculty at the college, which may also provide opportunities for interdisciplinary conversations. Partnering with other offices on campus like the Center for Teaching and Learning or the Writing Center to offer workshops or brown bag discussions is another possibility.

Have you found success in fostering interdisciplinary opportunities for faculty in your library? Let us know in the comments!

Use it or lose it

I’d never even heard of a Math Emporium until six months ago.

For those of you in a similar boat, a Math Emporium is a large computer lab with associated tutoring and supplemental instruction space used to offer remedial and lower-level math instruction via online, self-paced modules. I am not qualified to speak to its pedagogical merits but have reason to believe it is less faculty-intensive than traditional face-to-face classroom math instruction (these reasons include the fact that, during the most recent round of non-tenure-track faculty layoffs at BGSU, the department that took the biggest hit was Math).

If a Math Emporium is less faculty-intensive than traditional face-to-face classroom math instruction, it is more space-intensive. We have been told BGSU’s developing Math Emporium requires a space large enough for a 180-seat computer lab dedicated for 13 hours a day to math instruction. Following the lead of the universities that have gone before us (including our neighbors at Kent and Cleveland State), the best space for such a facility is, naturally…library collection space.

We welcomed a Learning Commons into our library building two years ago, significantly cutting down space devoted to reference, periodicals and government documents. The partnership is imperfect: the Learning Commons group study spaces are not available to librarians or walk-in users, and no one can sit in their area without swiping their ID card and recording their activity in the space – a policy which, as it violates my professional ethics, prevented me from holding my office hours there this fall. I have collaborated with the Learning Commons, however. I have referred students to their writing tutors and taught joint instruction sessions with them. Their writing tutors also refer students to librarians at our reference desk.

I have trouble imagining the same kind of thing happening with the Math Emporium. I do not understand what connection remedial math instruction has to any part of the library’s mission as an academic unit – and I honestly don’t think anyone is prepared to pretend that there is one. The library is seen as a convenient place to house this kind of facility because, frankly, the people who make these decisions see most of our building as empty space. To them, space housing physical collections is space that is not being used.

During the summer, BGSU sets up incoming student advising in the library, and a group of student workers sits by the front entrance to direct traffic. I once overheard a parent ask one of them, “Is this entire floor of the library the learning commons?” He said, “Yes. Well, pretty much. The learning commons is most of this part over here; that part over there is just library storage.”

Just library storage? I told the student, “No – those are our books – all the materials we collect and make available for people to use to complete their coursework and research!” He clearly felt bad, and he quickly apologized and told me he loved libraries. But it seems like he thought the same thing our administrators do – that everything is online, our stacks are full of things no one uses, and if we cut the library’s footprint for physical collections in half, no one will miss the thousands of volumes that will, almost certainly, just be thrown away.

I bet that to many, and even to many of you, I sound like a Luddite, not wanting to get rid of “legacy print collections.” It’s not that I’m opposed to doing that. (I’m an e-resources librarian – remember that!) I would be especially willing to do that if that work was going to result in spaces that would support the programmatic needs of the library and that would showcase our remaining collections. If it would allow us to create the kind of student and faculty space that makes people want to discover and create knowledge. The kind of space where students could work with our collections (curate, engage, create). But we never made that investment in our own space. We don’t have any processes in place to support those kinds of uses. We’ve just been doing the same things with our collections for years and years and years, crowding more and more volumes into a smaller and smaller space, keeping things for posterity while ignoring the present, and now both are threatened.

I believe we should both try to manage legacy print collections in a way that makes space for new priorities as well as in a way that leverages their use in the broadest possible way. This is going to require a little more nimbleness on our part – more proactivity, more willingness to adopt non-normal procedures, more cooperation, and more imagination. A year ago, a new professor in the School of Art approached me about our library’s space: she wanted her students to engage with our collections, but our collection spaces were “so uninviting.” Nothing about how our books were shelved or presented encouraged the kind of engagement she envisioned. As reimagining our first floor space was under discussion even then, I suggested we pilot something with the School of Art. My dean said she would talk with Capital Planning “when they get to the point of imagining the new spaces on the first floor…I imagine it would involve a lot of stacks shifting to create what we would really like.”

I don’t think a large computer lab for remedial math instruction is what she had in mind when she mentioned creating “what we would really like,” but it looks like that’s what we well may end up with. Regardless, earlier this week, the library faculty passed a resolution stating that we believed the Math Emporium was a “bad fit for the academic mission of the library, and therefore a bad fit for the Jerome Library building.” We’ll see what happens. I think part of the problem was we let Capital Planning imagine new spaces on the first floor of the library instead of going ahead and doing it ourselves. If our collection spaces are not especially inviting, I don’t expect replacing them with a Math Emporium will make them more so. Not for people who need to engage, curate, discover and imagine. Not for anyone except a couple hundred students taking low-level math, and not, perhaps, even for them.


Office Space in Academic Libraries: Lumpers or Splitters?

Several colleagues and I took a field trip last week to Bronx Community College (BCC), one of the other colleges in our university system, the City University of New York. The library at BCC recently moved into brand new digs in a freshly-constructed building, a rarity for colleges here in the space-challenged NYC metropolitan area. In the library at City Tech where I work, we’re thinking about space use and the possibility of renovations, so we were eager to see what BCC’s librarians and the architects who designed the building had done with the opportunity to build a library space literally from the ground up.

The new BCC library is gorgeous, and my colleagues and I came back to Brooklyn with lots of ideas to think on for our library at City Tech. Curiously, since then I’ve found myself not reflecting on what students are doing in a college library, which is usually the lens I use when I look at space use in our library. Instead, I’ve been considering how we librarians use and move through space in a library.

At City Tech, offices for librarians are located along the perimeter of the library and divided nearly evenly between both of our two floors. We have a few areas that include several offices that open into a shared space, but most of us are in individual spaces with doors that open into the library itself. Staff restrooms and our lounge/kitchen are on one end of the upper floor of the library, our conference room is on the other. My colleagues and I are, for the most part, split up — scattered throughout the library.

BCC’s new library features a different plan for librarian offices: there the offices are clumped together on the first of the library’s two floors. The office area is rectangular with librarian offices along the outside edge, presumably to take advantage of the incredible views that accompany BCC’s location in the University Heights section of the Bronx. The office area also includes staff cubicles (in the center of the space), restrooms, a conference room, and a kitchen/lounge. The librarians are all together, and the space is accessible from one corner of the public area of the library via a single door.

How does office configuration affect the ways that we interact with each other as librarians and with our students and other patrons in the library? Because we’re so spread out at City Tech, I can sometimes go days or even a week without seeing my colleagues who have offices on the other side and floor of the library from me. While of course we mingle in meetings, at the Reference Desk, and in other library-related functions, my colleagues and I often have to intentionally seek each other out to have the kind of casual conversations that were common when I used to work in an office that was all cubicles, the kinds of conversations that I imagine are a part of the daily routine at BCC where the librarians’ offices are all together. Those conversations can provide a social glue that fosters camaraderie and helps a group of people work together as a team.

While I may not see my colleagues as often as I would if our offices were grouped together, a benefit to having librarians spread out like we do at City Tech is that we have to walk through the library’s public areas throughout each day. Anytime I come and go from the library, use the restroom or microwave, or need to make a photocopy, I’m walking through our stacks and study areas. Since I can never really turn off my inner anthropologist, I find that I highly value the opportunity to observe students and other patrons as they use the library. In the best moments these observations can provide inspiration to try something new with our services and resources. And of course the insights they offer can also inform our thinking about renovation possibilities.

It seems like there’s a strong positive side to both lumping and splitting office spaces in the library, so I’m not certain that one layout is clearly better than the other. I wonder if there’s any configuration that would facilitate the advantages of both?

In the Wake of the Storm: How CUNY Libraries Adjusted After Hurricane Sandy

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey at the end of October, most of the twenty-three schools that make up the City University of New York were in the midst of midterm exams. With the devastation wrought by Sandy, the university was closed after the storm, as were many others in the area. CUNY is a public institution and many of the colleges provided shelter to displaced local residents during and after the storm. Some CUNY schools, both in Lower Manhattan and other parts of the city, were without power for the week (or even longer). The damage to mass transit systems on which so many New Yorkers depend made traveling throughout the city difficult for students, faculty, and staff.

Yet despite all of these challenges, overall most CUNY facilities escaped serious damage from the hurricane and were able to reopen to students on Friday, November 2. We all returned to a semester that looked different from the usual, and in some cases, very different. Here my colleagues and I share our post-hurricane adaptations in some of the libraries across the CUNY system.

New York City College of Technology, Brooklyn
Maura Smale, Information Literacy Librarian
At City Tech we were lucky to have no significant damage to our facilities and the library reopened on Thursday, November 1. I coordinate our information literacy and library instruction, so my main focus immediately after the hurricane was figuring out the impact on our teaching calendar. We typically offer over 200 instruction sessions during the fall semester; there were 11 sessions that had to be canceled while the college was closed. While it was a bit of a scramble to reschedule that many sessions just as we were heading into our busiest time for library instruction, thanks to the flexibility and patience of our instruction librarians and faculty colleagues we were able to find new times for all of the sessions that were missed.

One unexpected effect of the hurricane was the impact on library classes that did not have to be rescheduled. Our instruction sessions are highly assignment-driven, and I spend lots of time at the beginning of the semester working with faculty to ensure that their classes are scheduled to come to the library for instruction when it’s most useful for them. Because the hurricane closed school for several days most faculty had to revise their syllabi, which meant that we saw many more classes than usual in the library in which students did not have an assignment to work on. It wasn’t a huge issue, but it definitely kept us on our toes, and I’ll be interested to meet with the Instruction Team after the semester ends to discuss our lessons learned.

Medgar Evers College, Brooklyn
Benjamin Franz, Digital Reference Librarian
At Medgar Evers College we sustained no damage from the storm. After mass transit was brought back online, normal business resumed. The process was a little slow, but after a few days spent mass-processing information literacy one shots, the library was caught up.

Reference brought its own peculiarities: after the storm, attendance in the library was down. It gradually increased, but took until near the end of the semester to do so. Now with finals occurring, we are in full swing.

The impact came in the form of plans for the library renovation. Originally, the strategy was to cease loans on 11/30 and implement the move of the materials to the temporary locations in December. Hurricane Sandy slowed down this process. We have now met the movers, and they are busy labeling the shelves for moving. We will end all business and close the library December 23rd, as per the notice of our current Chief Librarian, Brian Lym. So Sandy delayed the full implementation of the move, but we progress well, if slowly, towards the renovation project.

Hunter College, Manhattan
Sarah Laleman Ward, Outreach Librarian
Hunter College has three campuses, with libraries at each location. Two of the campuses weathered the storm just fine. Our main campus at 68th Street and Lexington Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side functioned as an emergency shelter during and after Hurricane Sandy, and the Wexler Library at that campus reopened on November 1. Our newest location in East Harlem, which houses the Schools and Library of Social Work and Public Health, also sustained no damage and was able to reopen when classes started up again on November 2.

Our Brookdale Campus was another story. Located on East 25th Street near Bellevue Hospital, the Brookdale Campus houses Hunter College’s School of the Health Professions and the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing. The Health Professions Library (HPL) is located on this campus, as are Hunter’s dorms. The campus sustained extensive damage from Hurricane Sandy and when classes resumed at the rest of Hunter, the faculty, staff and students from Brookdale had no place to return to.

Hunter’s Chief Librarian, Dan Cherubin, was asked to find space at the Wexler Library for those displaced from Brookdale as the extent of the damage was assessed and clean-up began. Although the 3rd Floor of Wexler is already off-limits due to ongoing renovations, the 5th Floor was quickly turned into temporary office and classroom space for the faculty, staff and students from Brookdale. Spaces within the library and in other campus locations were secured to house Brookdale’s classes, and the semester carried on. This impacted the Wexler instruction calendar as we shifted classes around to accommodate the Brookdale classes and also attempted to reschedule our own classes from the days we were closed. Additionally, we welcomed our colleagues from HPL at Wexler and found spaces for them to work until the library reopened. Over a month later, there are still members of the Brookdale community being housed on Wexler’s 5th floor although some programs have now been moved back to the 25th Street campus.

We’ve been happy to accommodate our displaced colleagues from Brookdale, and they have been excellent roommates. But at a busy, crowded urban campus like Hunter’s, the squeeze on already limited study space for students is still being felt by everyone, particularly because it’s final exam time.

Hostos Community College, Bronx
Kate Lyons, Reference & IT Librarian
When we reopened after three days of being closed, we discovered a huge opportunity awaiting. Our Office of Academic Affairs, after meeting with department chairs, decided not to add any days to the academic semester, and instead requested that all faculty make up lost class time by posting assignments on Blackboard, and taking advantage of other interactive online tools. Our Chief Librarian called on the library faculty and staff to help support this initiative.

Lisa Tappeiner and I (chosen primarily because are currently offering our library information literacy workshops via Blackboard, and because I am the Faculty Liaison to our EdTech Office) offered one-on-one drop-in support for faculty new to Blackboard, and our library provided more circulating laptops in anticipation of an increased demand from students for access to Blackboard.

As a result of this initiative (and Hurricane Sandy) and the subsequent spike in faculty using Blackboard, we’re revisiting how we in the library work with faculty who teach using Blackboard, and how we ourselves use Blackboard to offer asynchronous information literacy workshops. The storm provided us an opportunity to connect with faculty teaching online, and to think about how to better support our distance students.

Lehman College, Bronx
Jennifer Poggiali, Instructional Technologies Librarian
Robert Farrell, Coordinator of Information Literacy and Assessment

Like Hostos, our Bronx neighbor, Lehman College was fortunate to come through Hurricane Sandy relatively unscathed. Our administration also suggested that discipline faculty make up cancelled classes online. The instructional unit at Lehman’s Leonard Lief Library saw an opportunity to create a so-called win-win.

Before the hurricane, we were planning to use online writing assignments to assess the learning outcomes of our library web comics. The challenge we faced was finding professors willing to work the comics into their syllabi. When we returned to work a few days after the storm, Robert had an idea: we could offer instructors the comics and their accompanying writing assignments as a way for them to make up the time lost due to Sandy.

Four professors took us up on the offer, with three of them using our assignments in a total of seven classes (the fourth professor preferred to hold an in-class discussion on their content). We wrote instructions for the students, handled any questions or problems they had, collected the completed assignments through Google forms, and sent the results to faculty on prearranged dates.

We found that having the learning modules prepared–for a rainy day, so to speak–was a good investment of time and resources for the library and the campus.

John Jay College, Manhattan
Bonnie Nelson, Interim Chief Librarian
“The Library is closed due to the storm,” said the notice on the Library’s homepage on October 29-30, while the city was reeling from the effects of Hurricane Sandy. But by Halloween we realized how wrong we were, and changed the message to “The Lloyd Sealy Library is closed due to the storm, but electronic resources remain available.”

Of course, our students and faculty already knew that. Although the beautiful wood, carpet, and paper Lloyd Sealy Library was very much shuttered tight, the online library was wide open. 4,312 people visited the Library website from Monday to Wednesday of that week, viewing 9,240 web pages. During that same time there were 2,105 logins by students, faculty and staff members for remote use of our licensed electronic resources.

The Sealy Library is so busy during the course of a normal workday–with students studying in groups, reading, asking questions, or just chilling–that it is easy for us to forget how much of “library” work goes unseen. The subway may stop; the College may be closed; the Lloyd Sealy Library’s glass doors may be locked, but the Library is open.

Enabling the Research ‘Flow’ and Serendipity in Today’s Digital Library Environment

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Bohyun Kim, the Digital Access Librarian at Florida International University Medical Library. She blogs at Library Hat ( and can be found at @bohyunkim ( in Twitter. She also writes regularly on ACRL TechConnect blog.

Today’s library users do not carry pencils and notebooks to a library. They no longer want to be isolated to concentrate on deep study or contemplative reading when they are at a library. Rather, they have the dire need to be connected to the biggest library the human race ever had, the World Wide Web, always and even more so when they are at a library walking through the forest of fascinating knowledge and information. The traditional library space packed with stacks and carrels does not serve today’s library users well whether they are scholars, students, or the public visiting a library for research, study, or leisure reading. As more and more library resources are moved to the fast and convenient realm of the World Wide Web, libraries have been focusing on re-defining the library space. Now, many libraries boast attractive space almost comparable to trendy, comfortable, and vibrant coffee shops. The goal of these new library spaces are fostering communication, the exchange of ideas, and social learning.

How the loss of book stacks and carrels affects library patrons

However, some library patrons complain about this new and hip research and reading environment that libraries are creating. They do not experience comfort and excitement, which today’s libraries strive to provide in their new coffee-shop-or-makerspace-like library space. These patrons rather miss the old dusty moldy stacks packed with books, many of which were left untouched except by a handful of people for a very long time. They miss the quiet and secluded carrels often placed right outside of the stacks. They say that browsing a library’s physical collection in those stacks led them to many serendipitous discoveries and that in those tiny uncomfortable carrels, they were completely absorbed into their own thoughts reading away a pile of books and journals undisturbed by the worldly hustle and bustle.

This is an all-too-familiar story. The fast and convenient e-resources in library websites and the digital library collections seem to deprive us of something significant and important, that is, the secluded and sacred space for thought and contemplation and the experience of serendipitous discovery from browsing physical library collections. However, how much of this is our romantic illusion and how much of it is it a real fact?

How much of this environment made our research more productive in reality?

What we really love about browsing book stacks at a library

In the closing keynote of 2012 ACCESS Conference last Sunday, Bess Sadler, the application development manager at Standford University Libraries noted the phenomenon that library patrons often describe the experience of using the physical library collection in emotional terms such as ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ and ‘beautiful’ characteristic to our right brain whereas they use non-emotional terms such as ‘fast’ and ‘efficient’ to describe their use of a library’s online/digital resources. The open question that she posed in her keynote was how to bring back those emotional responses associated with a library’s physical collection to a library’s digital collection and its interface. Those terms such as ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ and ‘beautiful’ are often associated in a library user’s mind with their experience of serendipitous discovery which took place while they were browsing a library’s physical book stacks. Sadler further linked the concept of serendipitous discovery with the concept of ‘flow’ by Csikszentmihalyi and asked the audience how libraries can create such state of flow with their digital collections by improving their interfaces.

One of the slides from Bess Sadler’s Closing Keynote

This was a very interesting question to me because I have been mostly thinking about the concept of flow in the context of library services (and more specifically, gamification applied to libraries) and the usability of the systems that serve a library’s online resources.

The most annoying thing about the e-resources that today’s libraries offer is that the systems where these resources reside do not smoothly fit into anyone’s research workflow. How can you get into a zone when the database you are in keeps popping up a message asking if you want to renew the session or demands two or three different authentications for access? How can you feel the sense of smooth flow of thought in your head when you have to navigate from one system to another with puzzling and unwieldy interfaces in order to achieve simple tasks such as importing a few references or finding the full-text of the citation you found in an e-book or an online journal you were reading?

Today’s research environment that libraries offers with its electronic resources is riddled with so many irritating usability failures (often represented by too many options none of whose functions are clear) that we can almost safely say that it is designed anything but for the ‘flow’ experience. The fact that these resources’ interfaces are designed by library system vendors and light years outdated compared to the interfaces available for individual consumers and that librarians have little or no control over them only exacerbate the problem. So I always associated the concept of flow with usability in the library context. And considering how un-user-friendly the research environment offered by today’s libraries is overall, asking for ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ or ‘beautiful’ appeared to me to be a pretty tall order.

But more importantly, the obstacles to the ‘flow’ experience are not unique to online resources or digital libraries. Similar problems do exist in the physical collections as well. When I was a grad student, the largest library collection in North America was available to me. But I hated lugging back and forth a dozen periodicals and monographs between my apartment and the university just to get them renewed. (This was the time before the online renewal!) After the delightful moment of finding out in the online catalog that those rare scholarly books that I want are indeed available somewhere in that large library system at Harvard, I grumbled at the prospect of either navigating the claustrophobic rows and rows of stacks at Widener Library in order to locate those precious copies or running to a different library on campus that is at least a half mile away. At those times, the pleasure of browsing the dusty stacks or the joy of a potential serendipitous discovery was the last thing that I cared for. I was very much into my research and exactly for that reason, if I could, I would have gladly selected the delivery option of those books that I wanted to save time and get into my research flow as soon as possible. And I did so as soon as my university library started moving many books to an off-site storage and delivering them on-demand next day at a circulation desk. I know that many faculty at academic institutions strongly protest against moving a library’s physical collection to an off-site storage. But I confess that many times when the library catalog showed the book I wanted as located on the stacks and not at the off-site storage, I groaned instead of being delighted. I won’t even discuss what it was like to me to study in a library carrel. As an idea, it is a beautiful one to be immersed in research readings in a carrel; in reality, the chair is too hard, the space is too dark and claustrophobic, the air is stale, and the coffee supply is, well, banned near the stacks where those carrels are. Enough said.

The point I am trying to make is that we often romanticize our interaction with the physical stacks in a library. The fact that we all love the library stacks and carrels doesn’t necessarily mean that we love them for the reasons we cite. More often than not, what we really like and miss about the library stacks and carrels is not their actual practical utility to our research process but the ambiance. Strand, the used bookstore in NYC is famous for its 18 miles of books. Would you walk along the 18 miles of books even if you know in advance that you are not going to make any serendipitous discovery nor find nothing directly useful for your research topic at hand? Yes you bet. Would you walk by the stacks in Trinity College Library in Dublin, UK even though you are not doing anything related to research? A very few of us would say ‘No’ to such an invitation.

Can you resist walking between these stacks? Our desire doesn’t always correspond to its practical utility.

But the fact that library stacks and browsing them may contribute very little to the actual research output doesn’t mean that the stack-browsing is therefore not useful. To borrow the words of Saint-Exupéry, something is truly useful because it is beautiful (The Little Prince, Ch. 14). Let me explain.

The library book stacks as high as the walls filling up the whole floor generate the sense of awe and adventure in us because it gives us the experience of ‘physically’ surrounded by knowledge. It is magical and magnificent. It is amazing and beautiful. This is where all those emotional adjectives originate. In the library stacks, we get to ‘see’ the knowledge that is much bigger than us, taller than us, and wider than us. (Think of ‘the sublime’ in Kantian aesthetics.) When our sensory organs are engaged this way, we do not experience the boredom and tediousness that we usually feel when we scroll up and down a very long list of databases and journals on a library web page. We pause, we admire, and we look up and down. We are engrossed by the physicality of the stacks and the books on them. And suddenly all our attention is present and focused on that physicality. So much so that we even forget that we were there to find a certain book or to work on a certain research topic. It is often at these moments that we serendipitously stumble upon something relevant to what we were looking for but have forgotten to do so. Between the magnificent tall stacks filled with books, you are distracted from your original mission (of locating a particular book) but are immersed in this new setting at the same time. The silence, the high ceiling, the Gothic architectural style of an old library building, and the stacks that seems to go on forever in front of us. These are all elements that can be conducive to a serendipitous discovery but “if and only if” we allow ourselves to be influenced by them. On the other hand, if you are zooming in on a specific book, all of this visual magnificence could be a nuisance and a bother. To a scholar who can’t wait to read all of the readings after physically collecting them first, the collection process is a chore at best. To this person, neither a serendipitous discovery nor the state of ‘flow’ would be no doubt more difficult to happen in between the stacks.

If this is a relatively accurate description of a serendipitous discovery that we experience while browsing the physical collection on library book-stacks, what we really miss about the traditional library space may well be the physicality of its collection, the physical embodiment of the abstract concept of knowledge and information in abundance, and its effect on our mental state, which renders our mind more susceptible to a serendipitous discovery. And what we are most unhappy about the digital form of knowledge and information offered by today’s libraries could be that it is not presented in the space and environment where we can easily tune our mind into the content of such digital knowledge and information. It is the same Classical Greek text that you see when you pull out an old copy of Plato’s Meno in the narrow passage between tall book-stacks at Widener and when you pull up the text on your computer screen from the Perseus Digital Library. It is our state of mind influenced by the surroundings and environment that is different. That state of mind that we miss is not entirely dictated but heavily influenced by the environment we are present. We become different people at different places, as Alain de Botton says in his book, The Architecture of Happiness (Ch 1). Who can blame a library user when s/he finds it hard to transform a computer screen (which takes her to many digital collections and online resources from a library as well as all sorts of other places for entertainment and distraction) into the secluded and sacred space for thought and contemplation?

Using Perseus Digital Library is way more efficient for research and study the classical Greek texts than using the physical collection on your stacks. However, we still miss and need the experience of browsing the physical collection on the stacks.

How to facilitate the ‘flow’ and serendipity in today’s libraries

The fact that today’s libraries no longer control the physical surroundings of a library patron who is making use of their resources doesn’t mean that there are nothing libraries can do to make the research environment facilitate serendipitous discoveries and the state of ‘flow’ in a researcher’s mind, however. Today’s libraries offer many different systems for library users to access their online resources. As I have mentioned above, the interfaces of these systems can use some vast improvement in usability. When there are as few hindrances as possible for a library patron to get to what s/he is looking for either online or at the physical library space, s/he would be able to concentrate on absorbing the content more easily instead of being bogged down with procedures. The seamless interoperability between different systems would be very much desirable for researchers. So, improving the usability of library systems will take library patrons one step closer to obtaining the flow state in their research while using library resources online.

As far as the physical space of a library is concerned, libraries need to pay more attention to how the space and the environment of a library emotionally affects library patrons. Not all research and study is best performed by group-study or active discussion. Baylor University Libraries, for example, designate three different zones in their space: Silent, Quiet, and Active. While libraries transform more of their traditional stack-and-carrel space into vibrant group study rooms and conversation-welcoming open spaces, they also need to preserve the sense of the physical environment and surroundings for library patrons, because after all, all of us desire the feeling of being in a sacred and dedicated space for contemplation and deep thoughts from time to time. Such space is becoming rarer and rarer nowadays. Where else would people look for such space if not a library, which the public often equate to a building that embodies the vast amount of knowledge and resources in the physical form.

Facilitating the serendipitous discovery in browsing a library collection in the digital environment is more tricky because of the limitation of the current display mechanisms for digital information. In emulating the experience of browsing books in the physical form on a computer screen, the Google WebGL Bookcase has made some progress. But it would be much more efficient combined with a large display mechanism that allows a user to control and manipulate information and resources with gestures and bodily movements, perhaps something similar to what we have seen in the movie, Minority Report. However, note that information does not have to be bound in the form of books in the digital environment and that digital books do not have to be represented as a book with pages to thumb through and the spine where its title is shown . If we set aside the psychological factors that contribute to the occurrence of a serendipitous discovery, what is essential to efficient browsing boils down to how easily (i) we can scan through many different books (or information units such as a report or an article) quickly and effectively and (ii) zoom in/out and switch between the macro level (subjects, data types, databases, journals, etc) and the micro level (individual books, articles, photographs, etc. and their content). If libraries can succeed in designing and offering such interfaces for digital information consumption and manipulation, the serendipitous discovery and the efficient browsing in the digital library environment can not only match but even exceed that in the physical library book-stacks.