The curse of the moveable stacks

This year my wife was elected to the faculty senate. I already know her friends and enemies in her department, but since this puts her in contact with new colleagues it gives me perspective on different parts of her school. Now I’m privy to a whole new level of gossip and hearsay.

One running joke between us is that I’ve been to her campus library more than she has. For the most part she uses electronic resources, but on occasion she will need a book from my campus. Her campus has a smaller collection and all of it is set in moveable stacks. It seems that one of her secret fears is getting trapped between the moving walls of books and crushed as another person is shifting the stacks. I shake my head and tell her that’s not possible, but she insists that it is and so on the rare occasions she needs a book she fetches it under a cloud of distress. Quickly she dashes in and out without lingering.

Real estate on her campus is tight and the library is popular, so to expand the library will be hugely consequential because there is not much space. Or, I should say that the library is popular but the stacks are not. All of this is fodder for discussion in the senate. Students come to the building to use the coffee shop and commons more than the books. In discussion with her fellow senators about how to get more students to use books it was suggested that the proposed library expansion intersperse work areas throughout the stacks, so that students would have to enter that space in order to get to the desks and carrels.

Then one senator addressed the elephant in the room. If the library was to expand the stacks would that mean there would be more moveable stacks? He had always been afraid to go in them for fear of being crushed. And a second person rose to agree, she too never went in there. What if someone rolled the stacks on top of her?

See! My wife declared, other people are afraid of the moveable stacks too. It’s not just me.

Apparently this is a thing? Be honest. Are you afraid to go into your libraries moveable stacks?

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

9 thoughts on “The curse of the moveable stacks

  1. Matt,
    Is it weird that I liked hanging out in the library stacks because I knew that no one else would be there? I found it peaceful and I always seemed to find a book that proved to be useful, even if I wasn’t consciously seeking it out. In some ways it was the only “me time” that I could squeeze in during the day. Overall, I think it’s more troubling that students are disregarding these resources. I’ve found some amazing electronic resources, but I generally hit a wall when I don’t expand my search.

  2. In my 20s I worked in a library with a room of rolling stacks. In my junior role there I had to reshelve the books. I was shelving in the last bay which backed onto a window with a deep windowsill. Being a lazy sod, I decided that, instead of hunting down the elusive kickstep, I would just climb on the windowsill to shelf the books on to the top shelves. I was happily working away standing on my windowsill when someone came in. I froze. I knew it was wrong and definitely a health and safety risk. I might get fired! I stood still, hoping they would not see me. To my horror, they started to turn the handle and the stacks started to roll towards me. I stayed as still as possible and flattened myself against the window. The person then left the room but of course left the stacks in that position. Once they had gone, I had to push on the shelves and move them enough to squeeze out. No kickstep was ever again to far away for me to fetch!

  3. There were signs on ours saying you shouldn’t go into them if you weighed less than 50 lbs. I was never consciously afraid, but both times I had panic attacks during my comps a fear of being crushed in movable shelving was involved.

  4. The first time I ever saw movable stacks was at the CRC in Suitland (one of the NMAI facilities, and the one where most of the objects are stored). I had never heard of such a thing and thought they were kind of Star Trek-y and super cool. Still do.

  5. Good story and reminds me of the graduate stacks at Berkeley, which are awsome – about 9 stories of them. Although I arrived at Berkeley well after the time of Regan as governor, there continued a dark humor joke – that he had proposed all of the several millions of books and periodicals in the stacks be photocopied and sold to other campuses, as a money-making venture. Well, perhaps now not so far from reality.

  6. P.S. – The stacks at Berkeley were not moveable, although someone once did try to start a fire in the basement. I remember looking up at the library one day and seeing smoke arising from this fine, and grimly thinking that it was not the wonderful collection of books at risk, but also my many notes stored in my carrel. Happily, the fire was quickly put out.

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