No, not the sheepish activity, of which we saw a fair bit on our tour of Ireland. The other activity, per Merriam Webster.

Browse \brauz\
2b. to look over or through an aggregate of things casually,
especially in search of something of interest

Or, for today’s purposes, perhaps an even more apposite definition comes from

3. to look through or glance at casually or randomly:
“He’s browsing the shelves for something to read.”

Armagh is home to a mailbox from the reign of Edward VII (1901 – 1910) as well as two rather better known sites: hill-top cathedrals, both named for St. Patrick. We had a guided tour of the Roman Catholic one and the public library.

3-photo collage of Armagh, Ireland

The cathedral is impressive, but it’s the library that stuck in my mind, and not just because of its old books.

3-photo collage of Armagh Public Library, showing shelves

Look at how the books are shelved. That is, look at the shelves themselves: They’re built in different and fixed heights. Books are shelved by size, and have been since the library opened in 1771.

Let me say that again. Books aren’t shelved by topic: They’re shelved by size, in the order in which they were acquired.

Close-up of one shelf in Armagh Public Library

Just half of one shelf offers these:

  • History of England
  • Inland Waters of Africa
  • With the Guard We Shall Go
  • First over Everest
  • The Light of Experience
  • The Fear of the Dead in Primitive Religions
  • The Early Life, Correspondence & Writings of Edmund Burke
  • Mediaeval France
  • An Irish-Woman in China

None of these seemed to be quite what I was looking for, so I jumped right a few titles.

Now, in theory, I can imagine being interested in Christian ethics as well as related topics. You know, something a little bit different. Just not too different.

And so, having alighted on Christian Ethics, I might be interested in books on the ethics of other religions. Or intrigued by biographies of famous Christian ethicists. Or prepared to explore Christian dogma, even. But French Renaissance Architecture and Probate Practice of Northern Ireland? It seems unlikely.

Browsing these shelves for something to read would be either frustrating or invigorating, depending on the person and the day. And finding something specific requires you to know what the book is, and to ask the Library Helper to look up its location in their database.

Oddly enough, Seth Godin had a post about this very topic this week, about being organized for finding versus being organized for browsing. He notes how easy the digital world makes it to find something we want, when we know what that something is. Conversely, we haven’t quite figured out the browsing.

What we’re still exploring, and not very successfully,
is how to organize things for browsing.
How do you bump into the thing you didn’t know you were looking for?
How do you decide what your next home improvement project should be,
or the next movie you should see?

A new problem, then. And an old one, too, as it turns out.


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16 Responses to Browsing

  1. John Whitman says:

    As a brand new lieutenant in my first military engineering unit my assigned secondary duty was as Unit Technical Library Officer. Up until my appointment to that lofty position there hadn’t been a Library Officer of any kind and reference texts in the library were sort of shelved by author as opposed to topic. “Not a very efficient way to run an engineering library”, said my boss and as my first task I should assign a Dewey Decimal System number to each text.

    Needless to say, I got to ‘browse’ that library in detail and by individual text.

    No longer a fan of browsing where libraries are concerned!!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – Which just goes to show how any perfectly good vice (browsing, in this case) can be ruined by turning it into work.

  2. My clever husband tells me the way to access this library is through its catalogue. Did you happen to notice whether the books have that kind of key? Or do “browsers” need to use their computer browsers before they come to find a volume in this library?

    As I contemplate the loose organization of books throughout my house, my initial astonishment at your revelation about this church library begins to soften. I realize that the time of acquisition of our books largely determines where they are shelved, which also has an approximate organization by subject: the classical English literature and the philosophy, anthropology, and language books of my academic study [upstairs hallway], my explorations of religion that followed [guest room], the mystery stories that whetted my problem-solving skills [back hallway], and the books on behavior and neurology that were part of my research into the neurology of behavior [family room, especially by my desk], and my husband’s library of books he has edited in his study. “Sets” of books, mostly inherited, take up a few more shelves.

    When looking for one of our books, I first hunt by size, then by binding color and appearance. Very large books are on very tall shelves, regardless of subject, although art and “coffee table” books predominate.

    If someone were to “organize” these books for me, I might have a hard time finding some of them. My hunting criteria still would be by size and appearance. If I ever get around to my long-promised vow of “cleaning up the bookshelves” I will be pondering this church library system over any other reasonable scheme.

    • My partner John Benn is the buyer (!) of books (even at the public library),
      but now has far too many for our many shelves, so they pile up higher and higher
      on the chesterfield next to his narrower and narrower “spot” for sitting & browsing.

      He, too, has his own filing system, essentially based on thickness (I think)… ?
      To move a book from his “system” is more than my life is worth. Ha!

      Perhaps they could be filed by weight? most of his are v. heavy art books.

      (Some book hoarders take each book off the shelf and dust it off every year or so.
      Mad or wise?)

      • Isabel Gibson says:

        Barbara – Maybe John is related to Steven Wright, who wears socks of any colour and considers them matched because he “goes by thickness.” This tiny window into Canadians’ book-shelving practices has been fascinating.

        • Steven Wright knows the best words and I’m not surprised by his thickness comment. (Oh, the tyranny of post-drying them) When I told John I don’t often get his black and very dark navy blue socks matched up, he said, “That’s OK. As long as there’s a right and a left.”

          When I told him of the Irish library filing system, he, of course, greatly approved, and thought it was the perfect insight into the mind of an Irishman. My insight into the Irish mind — only knowing it through novels — is this: If I had to come up with the quintessential Irish novel,
          I would title it — Down to the Sea on Crutches.

          • Isabel Gibson says:

            Barbara – About the Irish, GK Chesterton said, “The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad, For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.” No pithy summary of a people is entirely fair but it’s worth noting that this is not something we would even think to say about, say, Canadians. Although Lightfoot did tend to the depressive, come to think of it.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – I came away from the library thinking they had a card catalogue which gave the 2 numbers necessary to find (and correctly reshelve) any book – shelf and position thereon. I have a vague memory that maybe they’re in the process of digitizing. So how anyone knows what they have, I have no idea. Maybe they’re already online, or listed in some arcane inter-library resource. As for your books, your system sounds eminently sensible to me. With the groupings you describe, you’re already hunting in the right area, and using your memory of the book’s physical attributes to scan. Heaven forfend that anyone should organize your library!

  3. Judith Umbach says:

    Great Library! I am a dedicated fan of browsing, although a little context is helpful. Perhaps this practice of organizing by height and acquisition, which I have encountered before, began when having a home library was a status symbol more than a resource.

    • Doubt one can buy books by the yard nowadays — no longer impressive — tho they probably
      would pay you to take them away.

      I actually participated — enthusiastically — at a cottage a few years ago in burning all the bumpy-cover
      romances left behind by previous guests. They made a wonderful heat…

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – It reminds me of the books I saw in a Kingston motel – clearly serving a decor function, rather than a “books our guests might enjoy leafing through” function. Your hunch could well be right. Certainly it optimizes the use of the available space.

  4. Jim Taylor says:

    In my teens, I organized my bookshelves by colour. It seemed just as valid a system as any other. And it worked fairly well — often I can’t remember a book’s title, or the author’s name, but I can remember that it had a green cover with gilt lettering.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Sure, I can see that (as it were). Organizing personal books for our own retrieval is a different task, of course, than organizing a public collection for others. But it would make a lovely statement in a large library. All red books on the second floor; blue, green, and blue-green on the third . . .

      • Myabe the next decor fad will be book spines pasted together to make wallpaper — books, what else are they good for?

        Saw a display at the St. Laurent Branch last month of books pages carved up in spectacular fashion. Have seen this on-line but never in person. The artist doing this was offering courses.

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