A few months ago, a librarian from a member library called to ask the best way to implement a shelf reading program.
The Central Mass. Regional Library System has only a small professional collection and, since we’re not open to the public, the staff here are the only ones who search for items and reshelve them when they return. It doesn’t mean our shelves are in perfect order, but we’re the only ones who see them.
So, I sent a brief questionnaire about shelf reading to the Regional Library Systems’ mailing lists and received 68 responses. While, I learned 68 slightly different ways to implement shelf reading in a library, there were some very definite patterns.
In many libraries, shelf reading is done informally as a part of reshelving. That seems to work with very small collections, but less well where the collections are larger. In short, some structure is needed or it won’t get done.
Who reads shelves?
Academic libraries tend to have work study students or other student workers and they usually become the shelf readers as well as reshelvers.
Some public libraries are able to hire pages who handle much of the reshelving and shelf reading. Sometimes shelf reading is a formal part of the page’s job (e.g. first 20 minutes); sometimes shelves are read when the shelving is finished. Many public libraries use volunteers for reshelving. Several responders noted that some of their volunteers are part of the local Senior Tax Relief program where senior citizens work to lower their property tax bill by $500 or $750.
Even when students, pages or volunteers are available, staff often participate in shelf reading, sometimes on a regular basis, sometimes when the library organizes a specific shelf reading “event”. (More on events later.)
When is shelf reading done?
In addition to ongoing shelf reading by students, some academic (and some school) libraries have a major push at the end of the academic year, just before the beginning of the academic year, or during the summer. This generally includes staff who are also weeding and taking inventory. The push can happen during a time when the library is already closed. Other times it may close for the project or it may stay open.
Since public libraries don’t operate on an academic calendar, shelf reading is ongoing with heavily used (or “problem”) areas read more frequently. Shelf reading is often done before the library opens for the day, sometimes in conjunction with pulling requests. Otherwise, it happens when the library is quiet and fewer staff are needed in public services areas. A couple of public libraries have closed for a week (or however much time is needed) to inventory and read shelves.
How is shelf reading organized?
There are two main ways to organize a shelf reading program and responses were split pretty evenly: Assign readers a specific area to maintain, or keep a log so that one person begins where the last person left off. The argument for an individual having responsibility for one area was usually “ownership”. Another is that supervisors can more easily determine if a shelver or shelf reader needs additional training. However, one person pointed out “If people get too familiar with their sections, they tend to miss things.”
How much time do people spend reading shelves?
Shifts range from 20 minutes to 2 hours with one-half hour and 1 hour being the shift lengths most commonly cited. Longer shifts often include a break in the middle. Occasionally, a section length is used rather than time.
One public library assigns shelf reading times to all staff and selected volunteers the way a library assigns time at the circulation desk.
What training is given?
Training is needed for students, pages, volunteers and new library staff. A common approach is to give potential shelf readers a short test that involves arranging call numbers in order. If you want to test your shelf readers, there is an LC shelving game and a Dewey shelving game. The Bolton Public Library has developed a shelving manual. Interestingly, two academic libraries intentionally put a couple of books in the wrong place to test shelf readers’ attention to accuracy.
Shelf reading “events”
One responder commented, “the more ongoing shelf reading you do, the less need for the huge collection-wide shelf reading projects.” Yet, as I mentioned earlier, some libraries draft all staff to read shelves at a specific time when the library is closed or they close specifically to implement a thorough shelf reading project. Often such an event includes weeding and/or taking inventory. One academic library chooses this route because shelf reading “is such a lonely activity, the students really like doing it all together.” When this type of event happens, it’s not unusual for the library to provide food or snacks and turn what could be a tedious chore into a celebration.
There are other ways to make the job of shelf reading more fun. At one academic library, student workers are assigned to specific sections of the collection for the duration of the school year. The students keep a log of their shelf reading and periodically the library awards small prizes to those who have done the most shelf reading. The activity becomes more interesting when it results in cool stuff. Another library allows shelf readers to listen to music, but not audio books.
While not every library is able to implement a shelf reading program, all see the value of having the collection in order. Communicating that message to students and pages, however, can be “a constant challenge.” As one person wrote: "If it's not where it's supposed to be, it might as well be in Ohio."
And even though many libraries use students, pages and volunteers for a job that one librarian described as “mind numbingly boring”, most pointed out that “Everyone is responsible for neat and orderly shelves. Just like everyone is responsible for making patrons feel welcomed and well served.”