Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College;  
Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Kathleen Miller, Florida Gulf Coast University;
Steven J. Bell
, Temple University; Larry Hardesty, College Library Directors' Mentor Program;
Mark Tucker,
Abilene Christian University

Vol. 30, No. 5                          printable version (pdf)   home

May 2010


What Has Happened to Browsing Collections
in Academic Libraries?

by Tom Kirk

The poet W.H. Auden once remarked that while he didn’t think college was a wonderful place to learn to write, it was a wonderful place to learn to read. Among today’s college students, the practice of reading outside the narrow confines of the curriculum may have all but disappeared. Students read to pass an examination, write a term paper, prepare a report. For many the pleasure of reading for its own sake has yet to be experienced. Yet reading is an essential attribute of culture. In a technological society, reading assures that the humane tradition will survive. Many college librarians have willing[ly] accepted the challenge of promoting reading on their campuses, fully realizing that because of the classroom relationship faculty have the opportunity to be far more influential in stimulating students to read than they can ever hope to be. … Librarians do have a major role to play in piquing intellectual curiosity. They display new scholarship in new book sections; develop exhibits on relevant themes; purchase the latest fiction; and have browsing collections designed to stimulate interest.1 (Coughlin and Gertzog’s revision of Guy Lyle)

This quote, summarizing a philosophy expressed nearly half a century ago, asserts a role for the academic library in promoting reading that may be questioned in today’s online information environment, and, in practice, may be dying. How should academic libraries specifically and higher education in general respond to this assertion?

This is certainly not a new problem and it may well be a problem easier to identify than to solve. Nevertheless, the problem of a narrowness of reading among our students has become exacerbated by increased demands on undergraduates and changes in undergraduate education (working longer hours at jobs to pay for their education, more emphasis on specialization at the undergraduate level, and an increasing lack of cohesion in general education). The browsing collections of libraries, or some technologically based alternative, therefore, have an important role in overcoming the all-too-frequent silo education which many undergraduates experience. Through browsing collections, the library can foster reading beyond the curriculum and provide contact with ideas to which students may not usually be exposed. After all, isn’t this just what parents are hoping for by sending their children to college? Administrators and admissions offices may even benefit the marketing of their campuses by trumpeting the ability to intellectually broaden their students’ minds. The library can help to cultivate a habit of intellectual curiosity and unexpected learning that can serve students well far beyond the confines of the classroom and an undergraduate education.

At the same time, there are forces at work that may be undermining the library’s effectiveness in providing browsing collections. So if we subscribe to this role for the academic library, how do we fulfill that role in the face of the forces at work in higher education?

Past History of Browsing Collections

During the last part of the 20th century, academic libraries commonly offered a room or space near the library entrance where visitors could find a collection of current issues of periodicals and newly received books and general interest books. Often the dust jackets remained on the books while temporarily in this area. Also, the collection might contain general magazines and examples of the more visually attractive scholarly journals. Frequently the more scholarly journals, in part because of space considerations, were housed elsewhere, as were the bound back issues. Librarians intended for these browsing collections to attract library users to peruse the resources there and perhaps read outside of their more focused disciplinary interests or curriculum requirements.

Supporting incidental learning. More recently, libraries have expanded the attractions of these areas with the addition of a cafe or beverage dispensers and a wide variety of comfortable seating. Increasingly more and more libraries have relaxed restrictions on consumption of food and beverages in the browsing collections areas, if not the entire library. As with similar facilities at Borders or Barnes and Noble, these spaces in academic libraries have proven popular locations that attracted visitors wanting a comfortable place where they could connect with magazines, journals and new books that they might not otherwise see. And if they did not see the browsing area as a destination for reading they were casually exposed to reading material, as one TV commercial has put it, "they didn’t know they wanted." Pedagogically speaking, these browsing collections were justified in their effective support of incidental learning.

Developing a balanced collection policy. As part of this mission to provide print library material to meet the general interests of faculty and students, libraries developed collection development policies that would ensure that these collections contained materials which presented a broad range of perspectives across political and social issues, and across the spectrum of general intellectual interests. The ideal was often characterized as developing a "balanced collection" but the real goal was the collecting of a diverse set of materials representing varied opinions on the issues being discussed. In an effort to present quality material representing these opinions and perspectives, professional, academic and special interest groups and individuals developed juried lists of publications that could be considered for inclusion in a library’s collection. Perhaps the most widely used general list of magazines and journals is Magazines for Libraries begun by Bill Katz and now in its 17th edition authored by a team of librarians under the direction of Cheryl LaGuardia.

Effects of Increasing Technology

But just as librarians created these spaces and attempted to make academic libraries more inviting, some other things began to happen—the application of technology to make access to information easier and more efficient. First libraries developed techniques for delivering information about new library materials through numerous mechanisms including systems for notification that new publications have been received and tables of contents, lists automatically generated from the online catalog, blogs about new books and now even RSS feeds of tables of contents or podcasts. Using these technologies libraries provide lists of new books and/or tables of contents of periodicals. As a result consumers of such services find less need to come to the library.

Revolution with online publishing. Second, and perhaps more consequential, after several years of experimentation with online journals and magazines, the whole publishing field has been revolutionized. Instead of print being the predominate publication media with online text as a secondary add-on, the online journal has become the norm and Web sites for popular magazines have become a whole new form of publishing that delivers greater content than the print ancestor ever could. (How many times have you seen a reference at the end of a print magazine article "For more information on this subject see our Web site at www……"?) This flip in the preferred publication media of journals and magazines, has undermined, for some, the concept of a library location where one might go to peruse both general interest print resources and print resources outside one’s disciplinary interest.

Increased access online. Most scholarly periodicals are now available electronically. While many libraries still have both print and online subscriptions to many of the same periodicals, increasing budgetary pressures are forcing the reduction in duplication, particularly as aggregators of online journal databases work to guarantee long-term access to back issues of online journals.

During the past few years, typically a journal’s publication has gone from the online subscription supplementing (often at a steep additional cost) the print subscription, to the independent pricing of the print and online subscriptions, with the online version often being the less expensive of the two formats. Still, for the more popular news, commentary and general interest magazines the online version has not fully replaced the print version.

While much of the editorial content of print magazines is available in third party databases (e.g., EBSCOhost, H.W. Wilson, ProQuest, Gale), usually without the page format and illustrations of the print publication, the publishers of these popular titles have developed alternative publications online that enhance the content of the print titles. Such titles as Time (http://www.time.com/time) , New Republic (http://www.tnr.com), American Spectator (http://spectator.org/), to name just three, have extensive Web sites which provide ample space for fuller coverage of their scope of interest than can be included in their print publication. In most cases this content can be accessed at no cost. These sites usually do not provide archives of previous issues but certainly are enticing electronic alternatives to the current print issue.

More visits to the library. Despite these technological developments that make access to an academic library’s collections from outside the library easier and easier, visitations to the library have increased. The American Library Association reported that visits to academic libraries reached an all time high in 2008 of 1.054 billion while total enrollment in higher education actually decreased 3.4 percent from 2004, the year with the next highest number of visitations.2

These figures support the assertion put forth by many librarians that the library as place has become increasingly important as the nature of academic work, student culture, and the services provided by the library have changed. Studies by the University of Rochester3 and others4 have revealed that despite the advances in remote access to a library’s electronic resources and the use of mobile devices, undergraduate students continue to visit the library and want the amenities of casual furniture, food and drink and, "yes," print materials they can browse.

A Variety of Options

Given today’s tight budgets should academic library continue to invest funds and staff time in the development of print collections of journals and magazines for browsing? If not, are there alternatives? There are several possible responses.

One. The first is to continue doing what libraries have been doing. That is to carve out a piece of an increasingly embattled budget to support the maintenance of a print browsing collection. If libraries do not, what does this mean for the traditional role of librarians as evaluators who seek to provide a carefully selected collection of material that users can turn to for a reliable and reasonably complete picture of the view points on a topic of interest? Furthermore, if libraries do not provide these materials, fans of browsing are driven to local bookstores where the market place dictates, i.e., the most popular, content.

Two. A second response, at the other extreme, is to "diss" browsing collections. After all we recognize that considerable browsing is being done on the Web. Why spend a significant amount of our increasingly limited resources (both staff and budget) trying to filter the cornucopia of material of widely diverse viewpoints and quality that is also available online or at local bookstores to create a restricted collection in a single physical space?

Three. A third, and hybrid, response is the development of an online browsing utility that allows users to select a group of journals and magazines to browse based on a variety of groupings ranging from pure entertainment to general intellectual stimulation, e.g., news sources,sports news, higher education news, sailing, backpacking, theatre and film, Shakespeare, social commentary, and popular science and literature.5

Instead of a search engine that finds a large set of individual articles that contain the search terms, such an interface could provide a list, with brief descriptions and links, of publications in each group and links to the online version of their content. As exists already for some resources, readers could provide recommendations and reviews to further entice the potential reader to browse the materials and even participate in an online discussion---something not possible through a strictly print collection.

Or would such search engines result in readers becoming too narrowly focused in their reading habits? Do we risk becoming myopic if we only read what we preconceive as of interest to us and/or supports our political viewpoints? Is the notion of an online utility for locating magazines and journals to browse inconsistent with the ergonomics of browsing? The ergonomics of browsing refers to the physical dimensions of selecting, scanning and reading print magazines and journals in a casual, loosely directed approach.

Options Create More Questions

Imbedded in these three choices is not just the practical question how the academic library will supply information resources to students and faculty members. The choices suggest answers to the following questions:

• Should the academic library develop a collection for general interest reading and browsing?

• If so, how should an academic library balance the support of the academic program with the provision of resources for general interest reading?

• How should an academic library respond to the changing delivery mechanisms (i.e., online vs. print) of information resources?

The first of these questions has traditionally been answered in the affirmative and been a staple of the mission of the academic library to which Lyle gives testimony in the opening quote of this essay. Responding to the second question, given an affirmative answer to the first, is a practical matter but with the increasing pressures on academic library budgets may drive the answer to the first question. While our educational goals suggest we should develop such a collection, the setting of priorities within a limited budget suggests we should not.

The third question is a new one brought on by the impact of technology on publication and dissemination of information resources. The proposal to develop an electronically supported browsing collection could resolve the tensions in questions one and two and allow academic libraries to continue to provide general interest reading material within a tight budget. Together the answers to the three questions project a fundamental understanding of the nature and role of the academic library in today’s environment.

Benefits of Browsing

In fact, one might say that the clichéd but accurately described "explosion of information" supports an increased role for the browsing collection to stimulate learning, intellectual curiosity, and increased exposure to a diversity of ideas. While the amount of information has probably increased at an exponential rate, the traditional term for an undergraduate degree has remained four years since the early part of the 20th century, although probably many, if not most students do not finish in that time.

If the academy attempted to cover and synthesize the same percentage of available knowledge in a four-year degree as was attempted in, for example, 1900, before awarding the baccalaureate degree, probably few students would ever achieve it during their life time. We would never let them graduate.

The curriculum is more selective and focused on understanding the nature of a subject, the grand structure of the field, and how scholars in the field explore, analyze and synthesize. Therefore, it is increasingly important for libraries to foster continued reading and learning throughout a student’s life.

Of further significance is that colleges and universities have created more specialization and an increased lack of coherence and cohesion among undergraduate general education. Frequently, certainly at the upper class level, the courses required for an undergraduate major often depend on the specialization of the classroom faculty members at that institution. At the lower levels, general education often reflects more of a focus by academic departments in generating credit hours than on fostering a breadth of knowledge and cultural understanding by undergraduates.

Unfortunately, many undergraduates believe, accurately or not, that they are too busy doing required reading to read what may help them become a more broadly educated person. Increasingly undergraduates are employed in part-time, and even full-time, jobs that place considerable demands on their time. In seeking employment in order to support their acquisition of educational credentials, they can sacrifice important elements of their educational experience.

The library, through browsing collections, can foster reading beyond the curriculum and contact with ideas to which students would not usually be exposed. The library through such collections can help to cultivate of habit of intellectual curiosity and seeking environments facilitating incidental learning. Each academic library and its host institution has to answer for itself the three questions above or, given the current trends, it will drift into an abdication of a responsibility for promoting reading among its students.

Tom Kirk is Library Director & Coordinator of Information Services Emeritus, Earlham College, Richmond, IN. <kirkto@earlham.edu>

Thanks to Larry Hardesty and Mignon Adams for reading earlier drafts and making valuable suggestions


1Caroline M. Coughlin and Alice Gertzog. Lyle’s Administration of the College Library, 5th ed. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1992. p. 415-416.

2The Condition of U.S. Libraries: Academic Library Trends, 1999-2009. Chicago: American Library Association, 2009. Available online at www.ala.org/ala/research/librarystats/academic/Condition_of_Libraries_1999.20.pdf .

3 Nancy Fried Foster has been the lead researcher in a series of studies of student use of the University Library. A list of her publications and links to electronic versions are available at https://urresearch.rochester.edu/viewResearcherPage.action?researcherId=25.

4 Rachel Applegate, "The Library is for Studying: Student Preferences for Study Space." Journal of Academic Librarianship 35, 4, (2009): 341-346; Jeffrey T. Gayton, "Academic Libraries: "Social" or "Communal?" The Nature and Future of Academic Libraries." Journal of Academic Librarianship, 34, 1 (2008): 60-66; Harold B. Shill, Shawn Tonner, "Does the Building Still Matter? Usage Patterns in New, Expanded, and Renovated Libraries, 1995 - 2002." College & Research Libraries 65, 2 (2004): 123-150.

5 Examples of such a browsing utility have recently come to my attention. Dartmouth College's Baker-Berry Library has implemented a "News Center" http://www.dartmouth.edu/~library/newscenter/ and Penn State University has developed a Research Guide to news sources http://www.libraries.psu.edu/psul/researchguides/matbytype/newspapers.html While the latter is not a browsing utility it gives a sense of what might be created.


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May 2010


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