Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Warburg Institute (by Liz Chapman)

The Warburg Institute, which is part of the University of London, focuses on research in cultural history, art history and the history of ideas, and its library is world-leading in many areas relating to these disciplines. Recently, the Warburg has greatly increased its online presence: for example, it is on Facebook and Twitter, and it has an ongoing programme of digitisation. However, I want to focus on the way in which hard-copy texts are classified and presented: this has some interesting contrasts and also parallels with some of the more digital-focused projects presented in previous weeks, particularly in terms of what it suggests about the ways in which users locate materials.

The library is divided into four main sections: Image, Word, Orientation (the shift from magical beliefs to religion, science and philosophy) and Action (social and political behaviour). In all of these sections the focus is on how images, themes, literary forms, beliefs, approaches to scholarship and behaviours show both change and continuity over time (Warburg Institute, 2011). Rather than employing a traditional hierarchical classification system of discrete sub-sections, the Warburg tends to sub-divide general classes into broad sections which are not necessarily mutually exclusive. This helps the researcher to find interconnections and, by avoiding hierarchy, also avoids implications of precedence (Minter, 2008).

Within the sections the most important factor is that each book has something in common with the books next to it, a principle known as “the law of the good neighbour” (Friman et al., 1995). This theory holds that the book which will be most useful to you is not the one you think you are looking for, but the one next to it on the shelf. Research on serendipity supports this, as researchers report that the best ideas are often sparked by something only tangentially related to their current thinking. For this reason, the library also has completely open stacks to facilitate serendipitous information finding and to encourage cross-disciplinary research. Rare books are scanned and a copy is printed out for the open stacks, while individual articles are also kept on the shelves alongside related books.

In addition, the library also retains books on open shelving even if they have not been used recently. Professor Ernst Gombrich, formerly the Director of the Warburg Institute, once observed that in arts subjects, it is precisely the books which haven’t been used for many years which will provide interesting information, because they have been overlooked (Cieszkowski, 1991). This is fascinating in its contrast with what one is generally taught in library school, and it also has implications for the development and use of digital technologies in research libraries.
Cieszkowski (1991). “Heresy and the pleasures of the hunt.” Art Libraries Journal, 16 (1), 20-22.
Friman et al. (1995). “Chaos or order? Aby Warburg’s library of cultural history and its classification.” Knowledge Organization, 22 (1), 23-29.
Minter (2008). “ ‘Liberating the responsibility to think for oneself’: the Warburg Institute library classification.” Knowledge Organization, 35 (4), 192-208.
Warburg Institute (2011). Classification Scheme.

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