Forgotten Skills: Browsing

As libraries evolve, more and more research activity is moving online: digitized journals, books, and documents are now the norm, rather than an unexpected treat. We don’t (entirely) regret this change – anyone who has had to wade through bound back issues of journals to find an article, or who has visited Current Periodicals just to look at the tables of contents, understands how much more convenient it is to access academic materials from the comfort of one’s office, home, or cell phone. And we’ve dedicated several posts to the specific skills needed to locate books and articles online. For this post, we’re going old-school with some basics: why should you visit an actual library, and what should you do once you’re there?

Let’s start with the “why“. There are many reasons to visit the library that aren’t related to books. Libraries have printing stations, scanners, study rooms, computer labs, and coffee. All of these features are useful, but this post is focused on a more mundane part of the library, yet one that’s crucial to the library’s mission: the stacks. For those of you who are new to academic libraries, the stacks are where the majority of the library’s books live. There are a few different types (open vs. closed; mobile vs. immobile), but those distinctions are largely unimportant for first-time browsers (unless the stacks are closed to patrons as well, meaning that they are inaccessible except to library staff).

In most private and some public universities, access to the stacks is restricted. Only members of that particular university community may enter (although visitors may apply for temporary access). In those libraries, you will need to show your ID to access library resources. Don’t be intimidated by this step! It is a way to protect both books and patrons. Conversely, you shouldn’t feel unsafe in open stacks; allowing the community at large to use the library is an important way of showing its commitment to the public.

So why should you visit the stacks? Aside from getting a book in hard copy, there are two advantages to a dawdling library visit: you can discover new content that you wouldn’t otherwise be aware of and get a sense of what’s available in the field.

Let’s break those ideas down a little, since they might sound like they refer to the same concept.

  • Discover new content: Let’s say you’ve gone to the library to locate a book or journal that isn’t available electronically. As you search for it on the shelf, your eyes need to skim the titles of other books. Because books are organized by topic (more on this below), you’ll often find books that seem relevant to your current research project this way. For example, if you are researching Cicero and go to the library to find Shackleton Bailey’s biography, you’ll find Everitt’s more recent biography, Mitchell’s multi-volume work, and even Trollope’s public-domain Life. And that’s just the beginning. So by a simple visit to the library, you can expand the range of relevant research materials.
  • Get a sense of what’s available: It’s also useful to visit the library when you don’t have a specific project in mind. This is true browsing, and it’s best done in small doses or in a library with smaller collections, because your brain can easily fatigue by trying to take in so much new information. For a visit like this, you’re just seeing what’s out there. Let your eyes slide over the books’ spines and look at the titles. What topics do people write about?  What subjects and authors exist that you’ve never heard of? If you see something intriguing, stop and open it. Read the table of contents. Glance through the introduction. Learn about something new!

Now that you have some idea of what the stacks will do for you, you might be wondering, But why should I do my browsing in the stacks? My library has an online catalogue with shelf-browsing capabilities! (Okay, maybe not. But bear with me.)

It’s true that some library catalogues now allow you to virtually “browse” the shelf by scrolling backwards and forwards through the call numbers. If you’re only interested in a very small topic with a limited potential number of volumes – for example, the collected works of Statius – this type of online browsing is probably sufficient, and you’ll get the same results you’d get from scanning the shelves. But if your topic is larger or multifaceted, online browsing will only help to a degree. For example, if you’re interested in Cicero rather than Statius, the Latin works alone will take up nearly a whole bookcase (yes, bookcase – not just a shelf). Because libraries are organized with similar content next to each other, you might have to flip past 5-10 editions of the Pro Caelio before you get to a single commentary or work of scholarship. And if you wanted to read up on Ciceronian oratory in general, you’d have to browse from your initial speech to the end of all Cicero’s works before you got to the broad range of Ciceronian scholarship. In a large library, there could be hundreds of books between your starting point and desired destination. Even for a generation raised on Tindr, that’s a lot of swiping.

The advantage of browsing in person is that your eyes can see more than one book at once, and you can also move them up and down, not just left and right. So when you realize that this shelf seems to be entirely Pro Caelio, you can glance down a few shelves. Maybe at that point you’ll notice the Pro Milone, and later still the Pro Sulla. As a smart student, you’ll realize that the speeches are arranged alphabetically, and you can then move on to the next categorical group. What would have taken you dozens of clicks online can be even faster in person (I know, I know. It’s rare).

I hope by now I’ve convinced you that browsing in the library is worth your time, at least sometimes, and that now you want to know the best way to start. I’ll begin with the basics: how to read a call number. There are two systems of organization used by most libraries (very small libraries, such as a departmental library, may have their own system). The Dewey decimal system is used by most public libraries and K-12 schools. It’s not very common in college and university libraries, but it’s used in some. Books on the Latin and Greek languages take up the 470s and 480s, while literary criticism is in the 870s and 880s (respectively). Ancient history is spread widely throughout the 900s. Very general works can be found under 911 and 913. Roman history is mostly under 937, and Greek history is mostly under 938. You can see a few trends here: each major categorical field is assigned a 3-digit number. The general works on a topic are in the low values of each number (for example, general literary criticism is under 809), while more specialist works come later. The numbers proceed geographically, but the order isn’t entirely consistent. In our example, for instance, Latin is always before Greek, but sometimes it’s before English and sometimes after.

The other major cataloguing system is the Library of Congress (LC) system, which is used by most major research libraries in North America (readers, feel free to chime in about other regions!) . Like the Dewey system, the LC system groups similar material together. But it is a system based on both letters and numbers. Because it’s more common in post-secondary libraries, I’m going to outline the numbers of classical interest a bit more fully. In the explanation below, ‘xx‘ stands for any given number. So ‘7xx’ is any number between 700 and 799.

  • BL 700 to 820: covers ancient Mediterranean religion prior to Christianity.
  • DF: covers Greek history; most classicists will stop at 500.
  • DG: covers Italian history; most classicists will stop at 400.
  • PA: covers ancient literature. This is where you’ll find your original texts: 4xxx for Greek, 6xxx for Latin.

It’s helpful to know that the historical sections (DF/DG) are organized chronologically and thematically – historical overviews and narrative histories first, then works on civilization and culture (usually for more than one period or era), and finally more specialist works that proceed chronologically through the civilization’s history.

I find that sometimes it’s helpful to go with a research question and 1-2 call numbers for books that I know will help me answer it. Then I can proceed using the two browsing methods described above. But also, now that I’m familiar with my call numbers, I can enter any library and automatically know where to do. For example, if I visit an LC library for the first time and I want to kill some time reading Vergil, I know that I just need to find the PA6xxx section and browse from there. I hope that you’ll give it a try the next time you have a few minutes to spare!




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