Many scholars value shelf-browsing and fondly remember serendipitous discoveries made in the stacks. They often encourage their students to do the same and gently nudge them by telling them where to start. Shelf-browsing has unique qualities that are not easily defined. What drives us to reach for an unknown book? Is it its title or the fact that we are familiar with its author? Is it the color or material of its binding? Is it its size or its condition?


It is easy to forget that shelf-browsing has its disadvantages too: books that are missing or checked out escape our notice unless we take note of the empty space on the shelf. These "missing" books are often the most influential or “popular” titles. By far the biggest drawback to shelf-browsing is the absence of electronic books.

Virtual shelf-browsing is in many ways a superior alternative to in person shelf-browsing. It is one of the most overlooked search features in today’s library catalogs. It may lack some of the meditative aspects of getting lost in the stacks that in person browsing can convey, but it certainly will lead to more serendipitous discoveries than a stroll in the stacks. Virtual shelf-browsing shows the complete collection: the virtual shelf presents digital records of electronic books and print books. Print books are represented independent of their status including checked-out books.

The two main approaches to virtual shelf-browsing are a call-number search and the use of hyperlinked call numbers in book records as starting points.

Call Number Search

The search menu on the Library's website includes a call number search option. Most library users are not familiar with call numbers beyond broad classes that describe general subjects such as BJ which is the class assigned to ethics. A search for BJ will result in a list of all ethics books and journals. Browsing through over 5,000 titles is generally not a practical approach.

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Let's assume you recently read Stearn's Tolerance in World History and would like to see other titles on the same topic. Start with a call number search for Stearn's book: BJ1431 .S73 2017. The hyperlinked call number will take you to the virtual shelves. Click on the call number to the left of the title to open catalog records with complete publication information. Records show the format of books and in the case of print books their circulation status.


Hyperlinked Call Numbers

All print books in the catalog include a call number. The call numbers of electronic books are not displayed in catalog records to minimize the potential for confusion as electronic books can only be found on the virtual shelf. The hperlinked call numbers will take you to the virtual shelf.

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