Will Indexing Disappear If Library Books Lack Discoverability?

by Nancy Humphreys on September 19, 2013

Just imagine – what if libraries of the future didn’t have any shelves to browse, and library books didn’t have any call numbers? How would you find a book you wanted at the library?

Discoverability is a term created by the ebook industry to point to the fact that an ebook’s virtual existence makes it hard for readers to find. Digital books aren’t the only books that have this thorny issue to deal with. Print books on Amazon share this problem. Now – thanks to Automated Storage and Retrieval (ASRS) systems in libraries – bound books in libraries may suffer from it too!


ASRS library storage bin

On Authormaps, my blog site about quality book production for authors and publishers who intend to sell their books to libraries, I’ve discussed how ASRS could revolutionize the design of print books. Here, I’ll be talking about how ASRS systems may impact both the indexing and the marketing of print books intended for sale to libraries.

What is ASRS?

ASRS is a fully-Automated Storage and Retrieval System. Its predecessor, “High Density Storage” is a partially-automated shelving system for books that requires a person to retrieve the books from storage. Not so Automated Storage and Retrieval!

For obvious safety reasons, no human being can browse the shelves of an ASRS storage area. That’s because there are no shelves, only gigantic racks containing huge bins full of books. Cranes and robots do all the heavy lifting.

To see an ASRS in action, click on this short video from The University of Missouri at Kansas City where “RooBot” is on duty.

ASRS’s impact on book browsing

Browsing books on shelves involves two closely-related principles for finding things – serendipity and synchronicity.

Serendipity is a fortunate outcome resulting from some activity you engage in. Maybe you decided to go to the park instead of shopping. While there you met the person you later decided to marry. Going to that park was (hopefully) a serendipitous event in your life.

Synchronicity, a term popularized by psychologist Carl Jung, refers to a coincidence, or an unseen connection, between a thought and an event – or between two events. For example I think of someone, my phone rings and it’s them.

People who use libraries frequently discover print books through serendpity and synchronicity while browsing its bookshelves.

A patron might use the library catalog to find a book by subject, then take its call number, locate that book, browse nearby books, and identify another book as the one they really want (serendipity). Or a library user might walk past a shelf, and a title or spine of the book on the shelf grabs their attention (synchronicity).

If ASRS becomes the standard method for book storage in libraries, browsing like this can’t happen.

ASRS’ impact on book marketing

For authors, editors, indexers, designers and others who work on books, the ability to browse library books is crucial. A recent American Library Association (ALA) study shows that library patrons often buy books by an author they discover in the library. And patrons tell others about books they discover in the library.

For those who work with authors, the financial success of authors is obvious. Without books by authors, book professionals will have no work to do.

This is why library call numbers are critical. A “look inside the book” feature is not enough. Knowledge seekers and fiction lovers alike must be able to first “browse” a virtual collection of books to find the right book to look inside of.

Library call numbers group together books about the same “metatopic,” i.e., primary subject focus. This is what enables people to browse for books of interest at the library.

ASRS’ impact on book indexing

What will happen to browsing books in the same call-number section in a library? Nothing! Patrons can already virtually browse library shelves when using an online library catalog. Here’s a page that shows how to browse by call number at the Library of Congress.

However, the attraction of non-virtual book-browsing is that you can flip through any book you find on the shelf. You look at its table of contents, index, author biography, or any other feature of the book and quickly understand what the book is about.

These are actions a reader can now take on Amazon and other sites online  –  but not when using a library catalog. Theoretically, librarians could create the same kind of virtual browsing experience where patrons could look inside a book they find after browsing the library catalog by call number.

This would combine the best characteristics of browsing from both worlds – the library catalog and the online bookstore. This would also mean the book index will remain a key tool for readers to use when looking inside the books they find while browsing virtual library collections online.

For more about ASRS systems and their impact on the size of books, please see my post, “Largest Libraries of the Future“.




Marketing Your Book to Libraries Marketing Your Books to Libraries: An Insider's Guide for Authors by former librarian Nancy K. Humphreys includes: 
  • How to tell what kind of library to target
  • Types of librarians and books they order
  • Strategies to get past the "gatekeepers" who influence librarians
  • Right ways to approach librarians most likely to order your book

Learn more »

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