Wednesday, June 24, 2015 What is a Shelver?

What is a Shelver?

January 31, 2011
3:42 AM MST

In a large library, actual librarians do not usually do the work of placing books on bookshelves. Instead, that work is done by someone called a shelver, a library employee who does not have a Master of Library Science (M.L.S.) degree and does nothing else than place books (as well as DVDs and CDs) on shelves (and occasionally give directions to library patrons). This is the bottom of the pecking order in a library, but just as armies can’t function without infantrymen and retail stores can’t function without cashiers and stock boys, libraries can’t function without shelvers.

In a blog post last February, Christopher Bowen, Downers Grove Public Library Director, explained that people who want to volunteer at the library frequently ask to shelve books, and “They are always surprised when we explain that we do use volunteers for a variety of tasks, but we only use trained, paid employees to shelve library materials.”

In some libraries, the entry level job is that of “page.” [Yes, that’s the same title carried by little boys who carried messages in medieval courts, the errand boys (and girls) in the Canadian House of Commons and U.S. Congress. One may also picture NBC pages who act as ushers and tour guides, as depicted on 30 Rock with page Kenneth Parcell (portrayed by Jack McBrayer).] Pages and shelvers need only have high school diplomas or GEDs. They shelve books (as well as DVDs and CDs) and verify everything on a shelf is in the correct order, which is called “shelf reading.” Often, they only work part-time. Many librarians will tell you they worked as shelvers or pages while in college.

Bowen writes “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 shelves 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 at the Downers Grove Public Library in 2009! What most people don’t consider is that if over 1 million items were checked out, over 1 million items also have to be returned to the shelves – to exactly the right place on the shelves.”

He stresses the importance of accuracy in a shelver’s work. “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 Child 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 mis-shelved item may not be found for some time, and then the on-shelf status will drive patrons and staff crazy whenever someone else tries to find the book (or DVD or audio CD).”

Bowen explains that the job requires not just a certain level of analytical intelligence, but also some willing and able to physically strenuous work. “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 shelves 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 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 [sic] and CD’s [sic]. And shelvers must be strong! Loaded book carts are really heavy.”

If a page or shelver is lucky, he or she may be promoted to library assistant or information assistant. A library assistant or library information assistant has a paraprofessional job. They do administrative work that may be performed at the check-out desk or in the library’s processing department in support of the professional librarians. If he or she is diligent at his or her work and very lucky, a library assistant or library information assistant may rise to a low-level managerial position as a circulation manager or head of circulation.A cataloger or library technician can have a similar career path.

The American Library Association (ALA) published the book Hiring, Training, and Supervising Library Shelvers by Patricia Tunstall. It is supposed to provide “practical advice to help administrators, supervisors, and human resource personnel do just that with a complete overview on how to hire, test, train, and retain shelvers.”

At the time the book was published, at least, its authoress was “an information assistant at Indian Trails Public Library in Wheeling, Illinois.” According to her ALA biography, which gives us insight into the work of information assistants, “She spends most of her time at the reference desk helping patrons with their questions and their leisure reading choices. She was first employed as a page at Indian Trails and subsequently as the supervisor of pages and shelving. Since receiving a teaching certificate from Nottingham University in England, she has held jobs in a variety of fields.”

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