Meandering the Stacks: Act I
03 March 2021 by Eric Calaluca
Product Updates | Reference Universe | RU Product Updates
“Classified bookstacks allow researchers to find through recognition what they don’t know what to ask for…focused browsing provides deep access via recognition in a way that digitized libraries of the very same text do not. ” 1
There’s much to be said for moments of serendipity. Finding a pair of lost sunglasses while looking for your keys; finding just the right sweater while looking for new socks; and, of course, the singular joy of discovering $10 in an old pair of jeans. That’s a nice one.
Similar things happen to a researcher in the library stacks. After identifying a title in the catalog, they are dispatched to a spot in a physical library and there it is: the desired title. But often they linger and check what is shelved next to it, behind it, above it, and… another source catches their eye.
As librarians know, this activity—looking for works shelved adjacent to the target book—employs arguably the greatest benefits of the Library of Congress Classification system: subject-based sorting.
Subject-based sorting allows for discovery of materials you weren’t aware you were seeking simply through browsing—often fostering an “aha!” moment of recognition or sending you down an unexpected path.
Browsing is a powerful research tool that should not be overlooked.
Paratext has recently deployed two interrelated features in Reference Universe that harness the power of subject-based browsing to facilitate serendipitous discoveries of authoritative introductory materials:
See Similar Titles and Focused Browsing
These two features are two sides of the same coin. Both are means of recreating library stacks through a remote access application. They differ in the particular entry point they employ, whether the user knows a particular book they want to look around or if they simply want to move through the stacks subject by subject.
A post about the Focused Browsing feature is slated for April, as well as a third in May related to the unexpected value of specialized encyclopedias for graduate research. Here we focus on “See Similar Titles”: a feature that appears next to all search results in Reference Universe.
Searching Versus Browsing
Browsing the stacks is a time-tested step in the research process. Unfortunately due to COVID restrictions, this highly useful element of research has become nearly impossible.
Additionally, over the last decade libraries have deployed broad “discovery layers” designed to replicate the experience of massive web search engines across the library's catalog and indexed full text materials. The intent here is straightforward enough: do a broad search of a curated library’s content, avoiding the high seas of uncertain web content.
However, despite their usefulness as entry points, full text discovery searching does not obviate classification-based browsing, let alone physical exploration of a library. Full text is a vital means of discovery, but not the only, nor in every case, the best means.
Roaming the Stacks Remotely
I would argue that the case for browsing the stacks is more compelling when dealing with introductory works like specialized encyclopedias. This genre—the focus of Reference Universe—is where one can reasonably expect the researcher to have somewhat limited foreknowledge of the topic.
Researchers in such a position need an introduction not simply to the topic itself, but to the most relevant terms and themes about which to inquire. This is where Reference Universe “See Similar Titles” comes in handy.
The feature has already been deployed. Run a typical search in Reference Universe and look for this icon in the results set:
Selecting “See Similar Titles” takes users to a virtual shelf, allowing them to discover titles shelved adjacent to the one uncovered through the main search mechanism. This application "places" ebooks right alongside your print titles. This click alone could change the entire course of a research project.
Let’s take an example: search for “determinism” from the Reference Universe landing page and you get a useful—if somewhat anticipated—list of works containing articles or index entries on “determinism”:
- Encyclopedia of religion, BL31.E46
- Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy, B51 .R68
- Encyclopedia of science, technology, and ethics, Q175.35 .E53
- Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, B802 .E53
- Encyclopedia of science and religion, BL240.3 .E43
- The Oxford encyclopedia of the Reformation, BR302.8 .O93
Now look at the record for the Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, and select the “See Similar Titles” icon that appears next to it.
You are taken to a view of the book in context in “the stacks” at BL240.3 .E43. You can now explore the titles on religion and determinism, as compared with determinism in philosophy, psychology, or Science and Technology Studies. Scrolling expands the browse field.
In this case, as with orthodox search results, the users can access all the articles, explore the full index, link to the e-version, or find its location in their library’s physical collection.
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We often forget what we once did not know.
Librarians and other experienced researchers don't need to be reminded of the benefits gleaned from critical browsing of adjacent library materials, but new researchers do.
Through this tool, librarians can not only encourage gathering more materials, or even trying to find “just the right thing” through direct searching, but rather nurture the development of new methods to get at research material. Researchers at every level can make entirely new connections and chart new paths on their own.
We encourage all participating librarians to employ this new function and emphasize its value for patrons. Insofar as this browsing positions electronic editions alongside your print editions, no format is lost, and increased awareness and usage will follow.
There is an additional way one can browse, less specifically than our See Similar Titles, and this is broader Subject based browsing—what we are calling Focused Browsing. This will be addressed in April on our site.
 I’ve quoted Thomas Mann’s Oxford Guide to Library Research, 4th ed. here, and for many of our posts. Mann’s book is fascinating, serving as tour guide as much as vital textbook introduction for the serious researcher. Better yet, Mann doesn’t withhold his well-supported opinion on what truly works best for researchers and takes aim at fads and sacred cows wherever he finds them. This adds to the fun. I recommend it highly. The WorldCat entry is here.