Product literature libraries in an online world


It’s surely no more than a coincidence but as Oxford University opens a new book storage facility in Swindon the product literature library here at ESI HQ in Stirling is being dismantled.


The Bodleian Library's new book storage facility

The Bodleian Library's new book storage facility


Quick facts on the the Bodleian’s new depository
– 153 miles of shelving and space for 8.5m volumes
– 11.4m high racking, and 71m long aisles
– 31 aisles totalling 3224 bays with 95,000 shelf levels
– 2196 tons of steel
– 4550m of safety rail
– Over 25,000 nuts and bolts
– Over 1,000,000 rivets
– Over 18,000 floor fixings


One of the features of our office over the last 10 years has been the grey bulk of the product literature library which bisects the length of the office.

Once an important resource, the Berlin Wall, as it has come to be known, has being doing little beyond gathering dust for the past few years.

In a digital world it seems easier to search for product information online rather than walk 15 feet. A few key catalogues have been plucked out, but everything else is being recycled.


I’ve been trying to think through why this is so.

At a top level it’s simply the way of the world.

There has been a fundamental shift in people’s relationship with information. The internet empowers individuals to search for, use, evaluate, create, compare and reject information. And this is at the expense of more centralised models of information management and control. It’s slightly beguiling to feel you’re doing what you want rather than what you’ve been permitted to do. And people like it.

Or, from a different perspective, people have very quickly become habituated to a Googlised world where what they can access from the comfort of their seat is good enough. And they are only to happy to take the path of least resistance.

At a practical level there are probably three specific criteria which have cemented this transformation.

1. Cost of maintenance
Product literature* libraries are expensive to create and maintain. It needs care and attention if it is to be used. Could that resource be being used elsewhere?

* The key here is that this is information which you have paid nothing for; it is different for information with monetary value (technical guidance, legislation, standards etc).

2. Up to date
There was always a slight sense of doubt when you pulled a brochure with a light veneer of dust on the top. It’s dated a year ago. Is it the current brochure or has it been updated? I quickly check online and whilst I’m there I find what I wanted to know and that slightly dusty brochure sits where I left it.

3. Time
I need the information now. Right now. If it’s not in the library it may as well not exist. I just can’t phone up the manufacturer, battle through the sales lead questions and wait two days for it to arrive. So I download the PDF, skip the human interaction and the online habit becomes that little bit more engrained.


This is a paragraph from Chapter 5 – ‘Sources of information’ – from The Architect in Practice (9th edition / 2005) by David Chappell and Andrew Wills.

The second type of information that needs to be held is technical information on products. Some will be in the form in the well-prepared and fully illustrated catalogues, preferably in strong, clearly-marked loose-leaf binders … Other information will be in pamphlet form which can be stored in folders kept in open-ended boxes for ease of retrieval. Again, it is essential that all information is up to date; some practices go so far as to acquire new information every time it is wanted. There is a great temptation to take information that is 2-3 months old and assume, often quite wrongly that it is still current; some material will almost certainly have been withdrawn and new introduced with concomitant numbering alterations.

I just couldn’t imagine this being included in a 2010 edition. Every time you need something it is ordered? All filed away in boxes for easy retrieval? This is what the internet delivers without the overheads.

To be fair, later in the same chapter, a brief mention is made of information technology, but it’s in relation to ‘Acts of Parliament, Statutory Instruments and law reports.’ No mention of products.


However, most people will have by now experienced a key flaw in the information revolution.

Google does its clever stuff – ‘About 2,040,000 results (0.43 seconds)’ – but the heavy lifting is left to the individual user, and minutes or hours are spent sifting the results.

For a professional specifier or contractor time is money.

Della Pearman, a freelance librarian, information consultant and researcher, sums it up nicely.

Busy professionals may think that they don’t need librarians or researchers any more – they have Google! – but Google can be a sledge hammer, when what you need is a nutcracker!

If you find that it is taking hours to find the piece of vital information that you need on the internet, then it might be better to spend a short amount of time briefing an expert in research and Internet searching, than wasting your own much more expensive and fee-earning time.

Her solution is one way of making sense of the problem.

Here at ESI, our focus is on giving construction professionals the tools they need to do it quickly and easily themselves.

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