Monday, May 18, 2015

In Praise of the Library Shelf

books on shelves
I don't spend enough time in the library these days. Online requests have made it too easy to breeze in, pick up a book at the front desk, and walk out. But with that gain comes a loss: the loss of serendipity.

A shelf of books in a library is a serendipity engine: it brings books under my nose that I would never search out for myself. When I'm reading nonfiction, the good librarians have pre-sorted it by subject. Whether they use the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal system, they've done the equivalent of what Amazon now does with its "People who like this also liked that" algorithm. And they did it first, and better.

Even with fiction, which is often shelved by authors' last names, I have often found new authors through the sheer power of proximity. Lisa Scottoline is a best-selling author of mysteries. Sandra Scoppetone wrote a series of lesbian detective novels with punny titles like I’ll Be Leaving You Always  and Gonna Take A Homicidal Journey. They're side by side on the library bookshelf, and that's how I found the less read and (better written) series.  

So, I'll keep the convenience of the Minuteman Library Network and the assurance that anytime I hear of a good book, I can go online and order it. But here's to the physical shelves of the Somerville Public Library and the people who maintain them. Your subtle magic enlivens many lives.