The Dark Days of the Library: Reading the Shelves

At the end of this semester after the student workers had gone, we were called to go up to the stacks and find books. Once the overdue lists are run, we do a last check to make sure that the books are truly not here and were just not discharged properly.

We did find a few that had slipped through the cracks. But worse, we found there were books in the wrong spots, enough of those that we needed to read the shelves and get things in order. 

While most library workers have their favorite tasks (some like to work with students, others like the solitude of cataloging), almost no one likes reading shelves. There are several reasons for this:

  • It is a tedious job. After all, it’s not as if you’re reading books or even titles. You’re reading a group of letters and numbers. It goes something like this:  E185.96.A37; E185.96.A38; E185.96.A389; etc. (An iPod with your favorite music can reduce but not eliminate the tedium.)
  • It is a dusty job. Books collect dust. Moving a misplaced book to its rightful space can stir up that dust. A day of reading shelves can also be a day of sneezing.
  • It can be emotionally and physically draining. Besides the eye strain of looking at number after  number, there is the moment when you realize that one book was put in the wrong spot at some point, and then all subsequent shelvers put more books right behind it. So not only do you have to move several books, it may also mean that they can’t return to their rightful place until a shelf is cleared for them, and in a crowded section, that can mean mean moving several shelves of books. (Usually, when a loud groan comes from upstairs, we know this is what has happened, and the rest of us stay away.)

When I go to library conferences, the talk is always of instruction, mobilization, and information commons. No one wants to talk about the dreary (old-fashioned!) chore of reading shelves. But students have a right to be able to find a book when they need one. So this May, a-reading we shall go.



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