Confessions of a Stack Rat

stacks small-thumb.jpgI’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about the purposes of law libraries. In part that’s because of Dave Hoffman’s insightful post about these institutions. The bigger reason is that I’m on the library director search committee for one of the two law schools Dave mentions: the nascent Drexel University College of Law. (Reading between the lines: I will be joining Drexel Law this fall as an inaugural faculty member.) In this context, I’ve confronted an issue that is front and center for librarians – the rise of the digital collection.

I have mixed feelings about digital libraries. On the one hand, there is the nasty truth of the matter: I do most of my research on my computer. I rely on Westlaw and Lexis for most case and law review research. I use the many other fabulous databases to uncover articles in other disciplines. And then there is the world’s easiest (if not always most reliable) way to learn stuff: Google. The ABA, however, rightfully requires a core collection of materials for those without access to digital collections, and I think there are good pedagogical reasons to train law students to do book research. Also, while this will change, today’s fully digital library has a gaping hole in the area of treatises and monographs.

And what about serendipity as research method? How many of us have discovered important books simply by browsing through a call number? John Searle’s Speech Acts may be off the shelves (presumably relaxing in the cluttered office of an English professor), but what of the other 200 books adjacent to B840 .S4 1977x? We lose access to valuable knowledge when we lose the Eureka moment of the unexpected book discovery.

For a stack rat like me, more is at stake though.


There is something awesome, exciting, even breathtaking about settling into the long rows of books, gaping here, pawing there. I’m not sure when this passion started, though it certainly grew during my years as a work study student in Brown’s John Hay Library (that’s the Hay, but not me, in the photo.) I would spend hours “reshelving” books in the endless closed stacks. Sitting on a stool, gazing at the racks, I communed with the truly special collections. There were classics: fragile volumes of Leaves of Grass. There were quirks: Tyrrell Mendis’s can of poetry (82 x 8 cm. rolled in a cylinder, according the now digitized card catalog.) And there was, well, tacky: a first edition of Suzanne Somer’s poetry volume, Touch Me.

I will do my duty in hiring a new library director who lives in the present, complies with ABA and AALS guidelines, and services the research needs of students, faculty, and lawyers. But I hope our new librarian won’t be insulted if, once in a while, I wander off to one of those grand old libraries (will they soon call them book museums?) Drexel is only two or three blocks from the Amtrak station, and from there Providence is a straight shot. I’m not sure I need to browse Somer’s newer oeuvre, such as Eat, Cheat and Melt the Fat Away, but a few quiet moments in the H.P. Lovecraft collection might do this boy good.

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3 Responses

  1. Asenath Ryder Waite says:

    Dan,

    Fear not. I, a lone Pa Law Librarian, will race you to the H.P. Lovecraft collection! It is in the basement of The Orne Library, for which I have the ONLY PASSKEY. My Miskatonic Library Card may be yellowed with age, but Dr. Armitage gave me permission to study the Necronomicon on my breaks.

    I pray you to teach Lovecraft amid the law this fall!! Make them read At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow over Innsmouth and the Call of Cthulhu, and The Strange Case of Dexter Ward… It is the mix of old and new that makes the law library–and Lovecraft so very very special.

  2. Betsy McKenzie says:

    Be still my beating librarian’s heart! I only grieve that you are going off to Drexel. You deserve a librarian’s library! I’m not sure the undoubted charms of Lovecraft will adequately assuage your broken library-lover’s heart.

  3. Gordon Russell says:

    I am firmly convinced that libraries have never been about books but access to information. For over 500 years, since the the printing press, information has been stored in print and libraries have organized and provided access to that information.

    Today we are struggling with how to provide access to digital information. Librarians, are struggling with providing organizational structure and developing ways for the serendipity of browsing to be part of the digital world. I do find a serendipity in searching for a unique phrses or idea in the digital pages of The Making of the Modern Law or in a long forgotten law review article that comes up in a full text search on Hein Online.

    Those are also truly enlightening moments made possible by our new digital initiatives.

    We are seeing a huge transition with large quantities of print material being converted to digital and we are struggling to determine what is the right mix of print and digital in our academic law libraies. I believe that our challenge is to create a digital equivalent to Langdell’s eloquent description of the library as the heart of the law school

    We are also challenged to make the digital law collection available to all of our clientele in the same way that the our library stacks are available to all of our patrons.