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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Keeping the Shelves In Order

Every other week I volunteer at my daughter's elementary school library. Although I am often consulted on larger issues pertaining to the library's collection and do provide quite a bit of RA to the students, I am mostly there to help shelve the books.

Also, this week at the BPL, our page injured herself and I spent a large part of my shift shelving books.

Now, many librarians would say that using a professional librarian to shelve books over other more "worthy" duties is a poor use of the librarian's skills and expertise. I am here to tell you today that those people are flat out wrong.
First and foremost, neat, clean, and ordered book shelves are THE most important service you can provide for you patrons. Think about it, if a patron comes in looking for a book, checks the catalog, and goes to the exact place where the book is supposed to be and cannot find it, how do you think they are going to feel about the service you are providing?

Many librarians think it is beneath them to keep the shelves in order. I would argue that as the professionals, we should be responsible for keeping them in order. If that means getting in there and shelf reading (which means you go through a section, book by book, to make sure they are in the correct order) or literally shelving the books, so be it. We need to take responsibility for our collections from the selection of materials to their home on the shelves.

This does not mean we should fire all of our pages and start adding daily shelving to our already busy schedules, but it does mean we should make sure all of our staff spend at least a couple of hours a week shelf reading or shelving. I have empty shelves of books and wiped them down with paper towels and cleaner many times. More memorably, I did a survey of the entire SF and Fantasy section, including weeding, shelf reading, and cleaning the shelves while 8.5 months pregnant. I can tell you I am a better librarian for it; possessing a more intimate knowledge of our collection and its strengths and weakness.

Too many librarians stay behind their desks all of the time. They do not get out, into the stacks to see what the patrons see. By just getting up and  roaming the stacks you will find people confused by signage (now you know to fix that signage), lost patrons looking for help (a great opportunity to start the RA interview), and dusty, messy, or over stuffed shelves (these need immediate attention.)

Once when I was helping out with the shelving, I came upon an area so tight that it needed immediate weeding and a huge shift. How long had this been going on? How many patrons were unable to remove a book they wanted and were too embarrassed to ask for help? I don't know, but myself and my then department head Briana spent a few days fixing that section. This led to a collection wide inventory, weeding, and shifting project which is still going on and has made our collection much neater and more relevant to our patrons' needs.

I haven't even begun to mention all you can learn yourself by roaming the shelves. When shelving I have come upon lost treasures: books that I had meant to read years before, books with interesting covers or titles that demand a second look, or classics in need of replacements. In each of these instances I have brought the books back to my desk and spent some time with them. Some times I will check them out or add them to my to-read list, but more often than not, I end up passing them on to a patron to enjoy. A book they would have never found if I hadn't of gotten up and moved myself into the stacks.

Now get off your butt and get into the stacks! Shelve some books, shelf read a few stacks, or clean some shelves. If I could do it 8.5 months pregnant, what's stopping you? Any of these duties will improve your skills as a librarian and, more importantly, they will greatly improve you patrons' library experience. And, isn't that why we work in public libraries in the first place?


Alexandra said...

Hee hee, I thought only I cleaned the books (secretly!)

I feel exactly the same way. I also find that going out and planting myself in a section (most recently the 970s) is a great way to do collection management and weeding. Once you see everything you have, you can pick off the weak ones (worn, damaged, embarrassingly out of date...).

I also send a voluminous pile for re-labelling. Like with items that are mis-shelved, if you can't read the label, then what's the point?

Melanie said...

I whole heartedly agree. I started my library career as a page in high school and college. No one in the library knows the collection better than the pages do. Now as a new library director I don't do much shelving. But I do like to make time to walk through the stacks to get a feel for what's been sitting there forever and needs to be weeded and do a general straightening and chat with the patrons.

Rebecca said...

I am all about librarians getting out in the stacks. How else do you know what your patrons see? How else would you know that your collection needs weeding and/or shifting? There is no better way to get to know your collection than by getting in there and getting your hands on the books. I think this is one of the reasons I love weeding so much.