The Power of Shelvers


My start in libraries at Willard Library in Battle Creek, MI.

We’re going through the process of hiring a few new shelvers at the library. This is something we do fairly regularly as shelvers either graduate and depart the area or move on to pursue other interests. Shelvers are the backbone of library operations. They’re charged with the essential task of getting the items back onto the shelves and keeping the collection in reasonable order.

The task of hiring new shelvers isn’t just a routine task to be taken lightly. Look for candidates that can offer the library something beyond the standard shelver skillset. Don’t only evaluate how they’d function as a shelver. They may have further potential in your organization down the road.

With some of our higher performing shelvers, we’ve given them the opportunity to start taking on front-line customer service at the Circulation desk. This is a win-win for all involved. The shelver gets to take on additional responsibility, gets to vary his or her duties and feel a stronger connection to the library. The library wins in this scenario as we get a trial period for a potential Circulation clerk, can provide a longer period of training into the complexities of Circulation work and can have an extra person around who knows the desk when things get tight. (I do make it clear to both employee and supervisor that we’ll be paying the person for the work he or she is doing on a given shift. That means we can’t pull him onto the Circulation desk if he’s working as a shelver unless he gets paid the clerk rate. I want to be certain that each person is being compensated properly.)

Work as a shelver can also be an introduction to the library profession. We’ve had a handful of library shelvers go onto to get their professional library degrees. They didn’t expect to take that route when they started working in the library but soon found it worth pursuing. It’s then really rewarding to see them move up within the organization from Circulation into the professional ranks of the Adult or Youth Departments.

I look back to my start in libraries as a library shelver at my local library. I had volunteered there two years before I was finally old enough to be hired and couldn’t have been happier to be an employee with the library. It wasn’t too long before my duties started to expand into new and somewhat unconventional directions. Fish tank needs to be cleaned? Teach me how and I’ll do it. Bookmobile needs to be washed? Sign me up! I loved the variety these tasks provided. It also gave me the opportunity to get to know the library from a variety of perspectives. Willingness to take on new duties with gusto is invaluable to employers.

The library shelver you hire today may one day be a youth librarian, corporate librarian or even a library director!

7 thoughts on “The Power of Shelvers

  1. I started out as a shelver-library assistant hybrid at my hometown library back in high school. I shelved books and also worked the circulation desk. Having now worked at several other libraries where shelvers don’t get the experience of working at the circ desk, I feel that would be beneficial in helping students gain a voice and customer service experience. Yes, there are some concerns, but there also great benefits as well. As you noted, the library shelver hired today could be the library directory of tomorrow.
    I got over all of my shy/introverted teenage tendency at that library, in addition to a career path (I’m in grad school for my MLIS now). Being a shelver is the gateway to library and non-library career paths in great ways.

  2. Tracy Bedford says:

    Shelvers really do have power. If items are not in the correct location, the reference librarians look foolish when they have to tell a patron that an item the catalog says is in, really is missing. I would also argue that the shelvers know the collection as well as, or possibly even better than the librarian responsible for developing it. I am a librarian at a small library, and I shelve regularly. I am in such frequent contact with books that the collection development people haven’t seen in some time, that I can often tell patrons without even looking in the catalog, if we have the specific title they are looking for. It’s nice to see shelvers getting some props. Nice blog post!

  3. I started out as a shelver in college. Less than a decade later, I’m the head of a children’s department. I’m so grateful to my first library system for promoting me from shelver to clerk and then into youth services as a paraprofessional while I was in library school.

  4. JR says:

    Hi Matt,

    I remember when you were shelving at Willard. You and your sister were terrific. Thanks for posting this picture. :-)

    I always thought that shelvers were the most important staffers in any library. Back in the day when most of our material was physical (books, media items, etc.), the shelvers were the people who made everyone’s other work possible. We could select and buy the best books available and provide top-notch reference service but if we couldn’t go to the shelf and find the item we needed in the right spot at the right time, the whole manual system came to a crashing halt and it didn’t matter what we owned or what we knew because we couldn’t find the stuff. As Howlin’ noted above, a good shelver is worth his/her weight in gold.

    Bless the shelvers. They always made (and make) the rest of us look good. :-)

    Jane R.

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