ASSOCIATES (vol. 3, no. 3, March 1997) -

Table of Contents

                  *FROM THE BOTTOM SHELF UP:
                     IN AN ACADEMIC LIBRARY*
                         Roberta Stuemke

I've been a Stacks Manager for over ten years now - and the
shelves still haven't fallen down, which was a frequent nightmare
of mine when I first assumed the title, late in 1985, after eight
years of working full-time at the Circulation Desk.
The collections of Libraries & Learning Resources (LLR), housed
in the Forrest R. Polk Library serve approximately 11,000
students at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.  By 1985, we
knew we were facing a major renovation that would eventually
require shifting our entire Main Collection, over 300,000
volumes.  My supervisors thought that it would be a good idea to
have one individual in charge of planning and overseeing that
project, and they wanted that person in place well ahead of time.
There were other shelving difficulties that we hoped would be
solved by having all the stacks-related responsibilities
consolidated into one position, originally called Stacks
Maintenance.  Shelving, shelf-reading, and searching for missing
materials were part of the Circulation department, but they were
something like unwanted step-children.  Circulation student
employees would be assigned to these tasks whenever it was felt
they could be spared from providing 'direct' patron service - or
we were so overflowing with unshelved books that we had no choice
but to have someone shelve.  As for such things as picking up
after in- house use, we wasted a lot of time asking each other,
"Do you know if such-and-such has been done recently?"  There was
little effort devoted to monitoring shelving accuracy or keeping
track of overcrowded areas in need of spot-shifting.  The result,
of course, was that the stacks were in pretty bad shape.  We all
felt it would be easier to fix things if one person was in
charge, rather than sharing the responsibilities with the rest of
the Circulation department.
I didn't have any special experience with stacks maintenance.  In
fact, I didn't even have a library degree.  I got my B.S. in
English, and I came to library work via the civil service
examination route.  Still, I wasn't particularly worried about my
new job.  At the start, we all figured the duties could be
handled as a mere third of a full-time position.  I would
still be spending a lot of time at the Circulation Desk, and the
remaining third of my time would be spent assisting in the
Interlibrary Loan department.  I was sure I could find enough
information about stacks maintenance in the library journals.
Much to my dismay, there was virtually nothing in print.  When my
casual research failed, I tried several detailed database
searches.  I couldn't find anything except articles on how to
select the right type of shelving for different library media, or
how to calculate the amount of shelving needed for a particular
size collection.  Even these few articles were
written more from an administrative viewpoint, and they were of
little use to me.  Choosing the kind of shelving, and deciding
how much new shelving was needed, had already been done for me.
What I needed was help in figuring out how best to use what
Administration gave me.
After several more failed research attempts, it finally dawned on
me that we were trying something that was not only new to Polk
Library, but also was not a very hot topic for professional
research.  I would have to build our Stacks Maintenance program
from scratch, or from "the bottom shelf up".
Fortunately, I wasn't alone.  My supervisors and my Circulation
Desk co-workers spent a lot of time brainstorming with me, and
everyone was open to experimentation.  The renovation project
hadn't even started yet, so we had at least a year before the
major shifting would be needed.  That gave us time to get
everything else into place first.
We established a list of priorities, and used these to decide how
the new program would be shaped, expecting that we would be
making lots of changes along the way.  One of these changes was
in terminology: Stacks Maintenance became Stacks Management,
mostly because in Personnel terms, maintenance referred only to
janitorial duties.
The first thing I asked for, and the one decision I have never
changed my mind about, was to have my own student employee
schedule, student assistant hours devoted to Stacks alone, not
shared with the Circulation Desk.  The only way to guarantee that
certain duties would be accomplished on a regular, routine basis
was to first guarantee that a minimum number of student/staff
hours would be available, regardless of how many patrons were
lined up at the Circulation Desk.  So, from the beginning, Stacks
Management has had its own separate student assistant allocation.
Admittedly, I always feel that I need at least double the hours I
have, but I suspect this sentiment is shared with every other
unit in the library.
One advantage of having my own student staff is that I can see to
it that all the workers in Stacks are trained in the same way for
every duty in the unit.  Gradually, starting from a very basic
'Introduction to Call Numbers' and a demonstration of proper
shelving procedures, Stacks Management training has become a
comprehensive program that includes a standard orientation
lecture, a forty-page manual, call number tests, checklists,
and, my newest experiment, self-training guides.  No one goes
upstairs to work in the stacks without knowing exactly how I want
things done.  Even if I cannot personally go up with each
student, the first time anyone takes on a certain chore, there is
a written guide that takes the worker through all the necessary
steps to accomplish that chore properly, with questions to
answer so I can look at the guide later and be certain that the
instructions were fully understood.
One of the problems I faced was that I couldn't be a full-time
supervisor, present whenever there were Stacks students working.
I had other responsibilities that took me away from the area;
besides we needed student workers in Stacks during evening and
weekend hours as well.  So, I had to develop a program that would
allow for what I call 'long-distance supervision'.  In other
words, the Stacks Management student workers have to know what to
do even if I'm not present, without having to ask the Circulation
staff for instructions.
Starting with such simple ideas as a bulletin board for posting
'special assignments', and a student log for signing in and out,
I ended up with a set priority schedule that begins with what I
call the Daily Duties.  I worked out a list of things that must
be done everyday, and finally turned this into a weekly pin board
that lists each of these chores with a space for a push pin to
indicate that each specific one has been done.
Originally, the Daily Duties were simply the In House Use pickups
of the study areas.  We needed to guarantee that these were done
on a regular basis, because once we're a few weeks into a new
semester, the number of library items left sitting on tables,
carrels, photocopiers, etc., grows dramatically, and rapidly gets
out of control if not handled daily.
When I started out, I kept an incredible amount of statistical
data about what materials were picked up, including counts of
Main Collection items done according to the primary letter of the
call number, to be reported to Collection Development.
Eventually, I was drowning in figures, and the pickups were
taking much longer than I could afford.  So, I discussed things
with my supervisors, and we decided that the letter-by-letter
count was not necessary.  Now, the only pickup statistics we keep
are simple counts of the number of items from each collection
found throughout the building.
As for the Daily Duties, the list on the Pin Board grew to
include such things as cleanups to straighten the shelves in the
Main Collection, pickups and cleanups in three smaller special
collections, reshelving oversized books daily, and searching for
missing items.  Only this last year, with the addition of
Periodical Stacks to my responsibilities, new duties have been
added to the Daily Board: processing incoming newspapers, and two
daily sessions of collecting and reshelving current periodicals.
There is a Self-Training Guide for each chore listed on the
Board, and learning how to follow the Board is an essential part
of the original Orientation lecture.  No one has to ask whether
certain essential jobs have been done - if there's no pin next to
that duty on the Board, it still needs to be done.  This assures
that the routine chores get done every day, with a minimum of
fuss or confusion, regardless of unexpected student schedule
changes or absences.
Because the Pin Board allows for a lot flexibility, I don't have
to readjust things because a certain student calls in sick or
another one comes in to make up some missed hours.  Unless there
has been a really bad storm that closes the university, the
routine chores WILL get done.   I myself can be absent from work
for several days without having to appoint another staff person
to cover everything for me - once trained, the students can
maintain the routine work with little supervision for at least a
Once the Daily Duties have been done, the students are instructed
to follow some set priorities in deciding what needs to be done
next.  First, they do work on any special problems that have come
up, such as straightening a particular row of shelving that's
been decimated due to an assignment given to three different
sections of the same class on the same day.  After these come the
other routine responsibilities of the Stacks Management unit:
shelving, shelf- reading, and both major and minor shifting
projects.  With this list already established, the students can
easily figure out what to do throughout their scheduled hours at
work, whether I'm around or not.  This system has proven itself
to be remarkably adaptable, so that I could easily expand it to
include the new Periodical Stacks duties.
The old sign-in log has evolved into the present Activity Log,
which serves many different functions.  I use it to verify the
student timesheets, to watch for the signs of specific problems
or irregularities in student worker performance, and to do time-
studies.  When needed, I can give my supervisors pretty specific
figures regarding how much time per week is needed to keep up
with the shelving or to handle the in house pickups, which can
help when it's time to divide student assistant funds.  The Log
is also a regular reminder to the students that even if I am not
around, I am still their supervisor, and they are answerable to
me.  When shelving was handled only by Circulation Desk students,
it was frequently considered 'dog-work', almost like punishment,
to be gotten through as rapidly as possible so the students could
return to the important work of helping patrons at the
Circulation Desk.  This problem was one of the earliest things I
had to solve.  I did it not only by hiring students specifically
for Stacks Management, and by emphasizing the importance of
shelving accuracy over speed in their training, but by
establishing the measurement of shelving accuracy as an integral
part of the overall Stacks Management program.
The Circulation department had been experimenting with random
accuracy checking before I became the Stacks Manager.  Everyday,
a different student would be assigned to shelve, tagging each
book with a slip of colored paper, so that a staff person could
go up and check all the tagged books as soon as the student
finished.  My first attempt at monitoring accuracy was to expand
this system, by assigning each student a number and giving them
packets of numbered tags.  This way, I could check virtually
every single book that had been shelved, making note of the
There were some definite advantages with this program.  Shelf
order improved drastically, since any shelving errors were
corrected within 24 hours; I had examples of errors to use for
instructional purposes; and I could provide concrete statistics
on the numbers of books shelved and the accuracy rate of the
shelvers.  The shelving accuracy rate rose rapidly until I could
virtually guarantee an overall shelving accuracy of 98% or better
over the course of a semester.  We had much better success when
searching for materials the patrons couldn't locate, and
shelf-reading was easier because the basic order was better.  I
got very attached to this system.
However, it gradually grew to such proportions that it became
more and more difficult to maintain.  As each semester wore on,
and the returns grew heavier, I would have to exempt the best
students from tagging their books, simply because I couldn't keep
up with the checking.  There were days when I would pull tags
from upwards of 1,000 books, and then I had to sort the tags,
count them, and tabulate the results.  It all became very labor
intensive, and finally I developed a different, much simpler
system, once again based on random checking.
Now, whenever a booktruck is organized for reshelving, fifteen
call numbers are selected at random for a checklist.  Once the
truck has been shelved, either I or an experienced,
specially-trained student searches for those call numbers,
keeping track of the errors and of the items that cannot be
located.  In addition, approximately one of every ten trucks is
processed for expanded checking, with an additional forty five
call numbers listed.  The first truck a new employee shelves is
always processed for expanded checking, but otherwise, the
shelvers don't know how a particular truck has been processed,
and none of them know which books have been listed for checking,
so they are encouraged to be equally careful with all of them.
We now check an average of 20% of the books shelved, and the
overall accuracy rate has dropped a little, to between 96% and
97%.  The stacks are not in quite as good order, but it's still
better than if we did no monitoring at all, and the time needed
is considerably less.  I miss the beautiful results of the
original system, but I don't miss the hours of extra labor it
One thing I still do not feel that I've found is a truly
effective way of handling is shelf-reading.  This job always
seems to end up on the bottom of the priority list.  The other
duties, especially keeping up with the shelving and the
searching, although not more important, are more immediate
and urgent. Especially since I would like to maintain the good
reputation we have so far had with the Library Appeals Committee.
Even cross-training, so several of the Circulation/Reserve
students are also trained for Stacks duties and can be sent up to
shelf-read whenever the Desk is slow, is only a partial solution.
Short of finding more funds for student help, I have not yet been
able to think of a good solution to this problem.
Now, do you remember the major shifting project that was the
reason for creating a Stacks Management position at this library
in the first place?  I have now planned, executed - and obviously
survived - three different major shifting projects.  I've learned
enough to no longer promise that I can get a particular project
completed in a set time period, because there are always too many
variables.  I've also learned that planning a shifting project
need not be as complicated as some ALA guidebooks propose,
especially when the amount of shelf space has already been
decided by someone else and cannot be altered.
I try to do a shelving survey every summer.  I include in that
survey an estimation of how many shelving units are 25%, 50%,
75%, or 100% in use.  With these figures, I can calculate how
much space is currently used for each call number area, and can
plan a shifting project on the basis of assigning the same
percentage of shelving to each section.  The only times I have to
make deliberate adjustments in these calculations are when we
know that particular subject areas have changed drastically. For
example, several years ago, when the PZ3 and PZ4 call numbers
(our old method of classifying the fiction materials) was dropped
in favor of the PR and PS classifications, the shelving patterns
in those sections changed as a result.
I did use the more elaborate system once.  Several years back, I
proposed erecting some new shelving in one study area.  My
original proposal was of the 'quick and dirty' variety, limited
by the amount of shelving available in storage and the space
available if we took over one study area for stacks.  I used the
'percentage of shelving in use' system mentioned above, and had
the proposal ready to turn in within two weeks.  Once the plan
had been accepted by library administration, I was asked to
provide more detailed figures, so I and several of my students
measured every inch of shelving.  The final results were within
4% of my original quick and dirty calculations.  I think the more
elaborate system is of more use at the very beginning of planning
for renovation, when trying to calculate the amount of expansion
room that will be needed over a period of five or ten years.
The special challenge of being a Stacks Manager is that there is
always something happening, something changing.  I don't
necessarily panic as much as I used to at the idea of such
changes, because things change virtually every semester, and now
I know the program can absorb such changes without requiring its
complete dissolution.  Also, there is a little more information
available now, and more people to call on for help, because more
libraries have Stacks Management positions than when I first took
the title.  I think this shows a greater concern for making the
best possible use of available resources in this age of
'downsizing' everything from overall budgets to staff and student
assistant allocations.
I think the one change here at LLR that I'm most pleased with is
one of attitude.  Shelvers now take real pride in their work,
frequently wanting to know what their individual accuracy rates
are.  People no longer talk about work in the Stacks as though it
doesn't provide the kind of direct patron service that the
Circulation Desk does.  Even my own opinions have changed, from a
feeling that stacks-related work was not quite as important as
anything involving direct patron contact, to the realization that
the services performed in Stacks Management are among the most
basic direct patron services the library provides.  After all, a
library is only as good as the material it provides to its
patrons; no matter how good a collection is, if the patrons can't
get to the material they need, the library is failing in its most
important task, that of disseminating information.
Perhaps as a result of this change in perceptions about this
work, my position description has also evolved, so that I no
longer 'wear three hats'.  Periodicals/Stacks Management is now a
full-time position, as perhaps it should have been all along, but
back in 1985, nobody knew what we were getting into.
I doubt that any of the procedures that I've developed over the
last eleven years are really earth-shaking innovations.  I'm sure
that similar problems have resulted in a variety of solutions in
academic libraries all around the country.  I would have liked
reading about some of those solutions, because maybe we wouldn't
have stumbled as often.  Still, I think we've accomplished
a lot here, and have established a good foundation for future