I love Ben Ratliff’s paean to old-school stacks browsing at the Butler Library at Columbia University in today’s New York Times “Still Life” column: “the Butler stacks, the stillness capital of my imagination.” Wow.
Stillness. The antidote to the busyness of websites, social media, viral videos, and other enemies of quiet reflection. Ratliff says, “I think by writing, and I write on a computer; the computer also contains the Internet, which manufactures express-service context as well as overstatement, sociopathy and lameness.” Amen, brother.
He goes on to praise physical stack browsing: “Doing it the inefficient way, you use the senses. You look at a row of spines, imprinted with butch, ultra-legible white or black type; your eye takes in more at any time than can be contained on a computer screen. You hold the books in your hand and feel the weight and size; the typography and the paper talk to you about time.” I say again, amen.
And then this: “You can also create luck in any given spot: You turn your head to the opposing row of books. A different subject area can arise, perhaps only partly to do with your areas of interest. This is non-link-based browsing. You can discover, instead of being endlessly sought.” Alleluia!
Sing it, brother Ratliff. This is the soul of library browsing. Libraries are caught up right now in being technologically savvy. We are working hard to use QR codes, Google indoor mapping, mobile catalogs, blogs, Tumblr feeds, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and whatever else might attract “digital natives.” We lend e-books and even e-readers. We teach database navigation.
I understand libraries have to serve all our patrons and that there are benefits to efficient online searching. But what if our core mission is to be the stillness capital of imaginations? We must continue to be that, no matter what other services we provide.