From time to time someone looking for volunteer work will contact the Administrative Office and ask if they can shelve books for a few hours. They are always surprised when we explain that we do use volunteers for a variety tasks, but we only use trained, paid employees to shelve library materials.
The fact of the matter is that although they are on the first rung of the pay scale, shelvers are among the most important employees on a library’s staff. The ability to shelve materials accurately and quickly is critical to our mission of providing excellent library service. Most patrons know that we have been celebrating a circulation record – more than 1 million items were checked out of the Downers Grove Public Library in 2009! What most people don’t consider is that if over 1 million items are checked out, over 1 million items also have to be returned to the shelves – to exactly the right place on the shelves.
We work hard to organize our collection so that material can be found. The online catalog tells a patron that the call number for “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Childs is 641.5944/CHI and that there is a copy on the shelf. The patron expects to go to the shelf and find it there. If a staff member (or more likely, another patron intending to be helpful) places the book on the wrong shelf it is effectively lost. A miss-shelved item may not be found for some time, and the on-shelf status will drive patrons and staff crazy whenever someone else tries to find the book (or DVD or audio CD).
We use alphabetizing and decimal sorting tests to select shelvers. New shelvers receive a lot of training and supervisors audit their work thoroughly, particularly during a new shelver's first weeks on the job. In addition to accuracy, shelvers are monitored for productivity. They are expected to accurately sort and shelve a specified amount of material per hour. In addition to accuracy and speed, shelvers must be in good physical condition. They are constantly stretching up to the top shelves and crouching down to the low shelves for a four hour shift. Shelvers must have a reasonable amount of manual dexterity in order to manage several different types of locking security cases for DVD’s and CD’s. And shelvers must be strong! Loaded book carts are really heavy!
In the interest of full disclosure, I should confess that I started working in a public library as a shelver when I was in college. This means that I can testify that shelving is a great part-time job, with one significant hazard. Be warned that you will bring home almost as many books as you shelve, because shelving is a great opportunity to find books, movies, or music that you might never have discovered before.
Next time you see a shelver pushing a cart-load of books across the library, think about what it takes to get over 1,000,000 items back on the shelf.