What is Accidental Shelf Browsing?

Shelf browsing is the act of finding books in a library by looking through the books on the shelves without consulting the catalogue first and without looking for any book in particular. While a person might shelf browse in an entirely undirected way, people more often shelf browse parts of the library they are familiar with or in the area around the book they had come to the library to borrow in the first place. This means that shelf browsers often rely on the library’s classification system—the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress systems are most common in North America—to ensure that the books they are looking at are roughly about the sort of things they find interesting. (The term “shelf browsing” does not ordinarily have a hyphen; I have included one because I feel intuitively like there ought to be one, but also because I did not want to imply the existence of accidental shelves. That may have been a mistake.)

Accidental shelf browsing might then be what happens when you go into a library intending to check out only the one book but somehow you leave with four. That “somehow” is accidental shelf browsing. You do not always intend to shelf browse, but the book you want is buried in the midst of other books, and, well, their spines have titles on them…

Sometimes shelf browsing is deliberate, of course. It is currently a cherished part of academic culture; at any rate, when libraries try to move some of their collection into long-term storage, faculty and graduate students often get up in arms about it, in part because they believe shelf browsing to be an important part of academic research. The argument usually goes that shelf browsing allows for the spontaneous discovery of books that allow the researchers to make unexpected connections between two topics. I can attest that I have found the most valuable information in the books adjacent to the one I had looked up in the catalogue; while I doubt it plays such a central role in research as some professors make out, those unexpected discoveries do happen. You could say, then, that shelf browsing is a way of opening up space for the unintended; shelf browsing is the intentional creation of accidents. It is, in its very essence, accidental.

Donald A. Barclay does a good job of explaining why long-term storage is necessary and why popular arguments against it do not hold water in this article in American Libraries, so I do not need to go over all of them. I’ll mention a few, though: for instance, which books are on the shelves at the time you browse is largely a matter of chance; often, the really valuable books spend no time on shelves at all, since people put holds on them. It’s up to luck, really, whether you find the best resources by shelf browsing. You might say it’s largely accidental.

The most interesting observation Barclay makes, though, is that the books on the shelves do not fit neatly into the library’s classification scheme. A book can only be in one place at a time, but it might cover topics in a wide variety of categories. A guide to the relationship between science, religion, and politics in 16th century England can only fit in one of the science, religion, politics, and history categories; good luck spontaneously discovering it if you are in the politics section and it is in the history section. The very reason shelf browsing works at all (the co-location of related books) is also the reason it is limited (the location of books in divided sections).

So the classification system in a library represents a certain way of imagining knowledge, and how different kinds of information relate to each other. In fact, you could say that a library’s classification system is a vision of the world itself.* According to my classification and cataloguing instructor’s introductory lectures, Dewey himself intended his decimal system to reflect the structure of all knowledge. However, as discussed, such ways of imagining knowledge are not absolute nor perfect; there are problems with Dewey’s system he could have avoided, but the mere fact that each book can only have one place is sufficient to chop knowledge up into artificial categories. The spontaneity and the unexpected discoveries of shelf browsing, then, come from one particular vision of the world; the reproductive habits of salmon may be very relevant to local history or to forms of government on the Pacific coast of North America prior to European colonization, but in most libraries you will not find books about salmon reproduction next to books about forms of government. The books that shelf browsing turns up are therefore dependent on the worldviews of the people who made the classification scheme and/or assigned books a place in that scheme. The products of shelf browsing are contingent; by the system’s very nature, they are a matter of historical accident.

There is much more to say on this topic: there are other classification schemes for local purposes; there’s a difference between classification and categorization which is conceptually really helpful; and there’s the fact that, structurally, physical collections are linear while digital collections and catalogues are networks. But I’m already using up too many words and I have more introduction to get through, so I’ll defer that discussion for now.

Noting that the library’s classification scheme is a representation of the world is enough segue for me to mention one of my favourite metaphors by one of my favourite authors: Jorge Luís Borges has often represented the world as a library, or a library as a world. Of course, he also imagined heaven as a library, and heaven as a person, and the world as a labyrinth, and a person as a labyrinth; he is perhaps most famous in philosophy for inventing a microcosm that was a labyrinthine library. This world-maze-collection is in his short story, “The Library of Babel”; the eponymous library, which as far as its inhabitants know is the whole world, is divided into hexagonal rooms, each with twenty bookshelves (five to each of four sides of the room). Each shelf holds thirty-two books exactly. Each book contains four hundred and ten pages. On each page there are forty lines. On each line are approximately eighty letters. In the whole of the library, no book uses more than twenty-five orthographic symbols: twenty-two letters, the comma, the period, and the space. From what anyone can tell, every single book that conforms to these requirements exists in the library. Most of them are gibberish, of course. For instance, a sample excerpt might read like this: “aiauejmaisudfad fao,flasd.,rfg aojflasdfj[.]” But, equally inevitable, there is also a perfect edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, with commentary. This is also an edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass with a single error, and another with a different single error. In fact, for every possible typographic error, there is a book which has it. There is also, somewhere, an edition of next year’s bestselling novel, and next century’s bestselling biography. There is another book giving a perfectly accurate prediction of the future. There is a book which explains perfectly and truly why you are not as happy, or as good, or as loved, as you could be. There is also a book which purports do this, but is in fact false. There are several catalogues of the library, most of which are false, but many of which are not provably false.

Feel free to speculate on its inhabitants’ states of mind.

If you want a sense of what this might be like, I highly recommend looking at a version of it that someone is currently making on the Internet. (Thanks to Nat for calling it to my attention.) It has been used as a metaphor for the Internet, of course, and for good reason. It is also a metaphor for the world. But the library of Babel may not, in fact, be a library: most definitions of libraries require that the books be ordered in some way. Even if it’s only alphabetical order (or by colour), some degree of order is needed or else you could not find anything. So except insofar as it is a collection of books on shelves, the library of Babel is more like the world than a library: in the world information is chaotic, disorganized, decidedly not broken up into neat little sections. Shelf browsing the library of Babel—the collection of books of Babel—mostly means sifting through nonsense, noise, meaningless strings. Or not: the Library of Babel almost certainly contains a cipher which allows you to translate those strings of gibberish into sensible prose. It also contains every possible false cipher.

And that is what it is like to shelf browse the world, I think. There is sense and nonsense, signal and noise; but what you think is signal might be noise, what you think is nonsense might be sense. There are ways to distinguish them, to convert one from the other. There are also false ways of doing so. But I sift, because I must; I look for the catalogue, if I can, but every catalogue I find I treat with suspicion.

In this blog I will sometimes write about libraries. I will also sometimes write about epistemology, or the study of knowledge. Arguably, everything I write—everything everyone writes—is about epistemology. I do not know, entirely, what I will write about. I will shelf browse: I will start with what interests me and move around from there, grabbing whatever catches my eye. I think all of the topics I will cover will relate in some way, but those relationships might make more sense to me than to you; they might be an artifact of my own classification scheme for the world. I might engage in some degree of introspection too—we will see—but that will not be off topic either, if we imagine the self as a sort of library (of memories, of habits, of fears, of desires, of values…).

And, of course, if you know much about Greek philosophy you might have caught that accidental is no accident, either: at the moment I am trying to figure out the relationship between things and categories—classifications, if you like—and in the Western philosophical tradition that goes all the way back to Plato v. Aristotle and their disagreement over what they called essences and accidents. Expect that centuries-long conversation to influence what I do here.

A somewhat more traditional and direct introduction will follow this one.


*Yes, I have read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; yes, I am currently re-reading it.

2 thoughts on “What is Accidental Shelf Browsing?

  1. Pingback: Seshat and Saint Jerome | Accidental Shelf-Browsing

  2. Pingback: Trump’s Flat Speech: Populism and Richness of Language | Accidental Shelf-Browsing

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