Shifting: I Hate It

I’ve long maintained that my least favorite part of being a librarian is shifting.  It’s a lot of work for only a slight payoff.  Need to fit more books in this area?  Move every book in the library to make room. It’s like a much bigger, much simpler sliding puzzle (which I also don’t like). Plus, shifting can be physically demanding and I didn’t go into librarianship expecting to sweat at work.

Shifting is also made more difficult in smaller libraries where space may be at more of a premium than larger libraries.  Often in larger libraries or just libraries with the recommended amount of shelf space (a luxury, to be sure) the bottom shelf of most stacks are left empty.  This allows for mini-shifts that would only require moving a few shelves to accommodate for growth.  However, in my library we’re running low on shelf space and each bottom shelf is in use, which means we really do have to move every book in the library to make room.

We shift on an as-needed basis.  And With a growing collection and a static collection, we know it’s an inevitability, but it snuck up on us this year.  We found that we couldn’t shelve most of the returns from the end of the semester and knew the time had come for the dreaded shift.  I’ve only been behind the wheel of a full-on, major shift twice: here and now and a few years back at another library.  So I’m far from a shifting expert.  The first time was relatively easy because there was plenty of room to work with (open bottom shelves) so things could be ballparked.  This time, however, since shelving space is so tight there was little room for error – we had to know exactly what the plan was before we started.

This is what the planning document looked like:

Shifting measurements

The general idea is to create more open space in areas that are running out of/have run out of space.  The “easiest” way to do this is to spread evenly all the open, unused shelf space.  First I needed to know how much unused space there was throughout the whole collection. To do that I first measured how much space was currently being used on the shelf – I literally took a tape measure to each shelf and measured, in inches, how much space each shelf of books was taking up.  Then I got the total amount of available shelf space. I didn’t have to measure all of the shelves for this since they are standard sizes – I just measured how many inches a shelf was and multiplied that by how many shelves there are (plus a few other similar measurements for different-sized shelves).  I took the difference between those two numbers to get to get the total unused shelf space.  Then I took that number and divided it by the total amount of shelves that we have, thereby evenly spreading out that space. So it looked something like this:


That part wasn’t too difficult (even though math is not my strong suit – math and sweating: two things I didn’t get into librarianship to do).  Where the difficulties came in was figuring out where to start and how, mechanically, the shifting would actually work.  You have to take books from where there is less space and put them where there is more space and depending on where more or less space is, that can be tricky.  Ideally, you want all the open space to be on one end of the collection and everything can move in one direction to fill up that space (in what’s called a “forward” or “backward” shift depending on the direction.  Or, if you’re unlucky, the open space isn’t concentrated on one end of the collection and you have to shift from the outside in and/or vice-versa in unending trial and error because you don’t know exactly where any one book will end up  (unlike forward or backward shifting where you know for sure that certain books are moving to the end or beginning of the shelves).

In our situation, we could do a full forward or backwards shift of the full collection.  However, our collection was able to be broken up into three areas we could treat independently of one another, and they could each be forward or backwards shifted.  At that point, I redid the calculations for each section independently to know how much open space per shelf in each section.  Luckily, the numbers were close enough that we weren’t bothered by the slight difference in open space in each section.

From there we could have started actually shifting, but I got ambitious.  I thought we could account for areas of higher growth by leaving more space in those areas. We didn’t go back and actually run reports on growth rates of specific call number ranges (that’d be something else I’d have to learn how to do), but we had a solid understanding of what areas saw more continual growth.  We handled it shelf-by-shelf and picked out the shelves we’d like to leave more room on and arbitrarily picked the amount of extra space we would leave per shelf  From there it was a matter of headache-inducing recalculating to figure out how that would affect the space on the other shelves:


Then with that number:




Basically, I figured how much extra space the shelves given more room would take up then I subtracted that from the total available open space everywhere else and finally divided by number of “everywhere else” shelves to know how much open space would be left in those areas.  We did that for all three sections. Now, there’s probably a better way that this could have been done, but this was the best my math-addled brain could come up with.

So now we knew how much space, in inches, each shelf in each section was going to be left open, and we knew what direction everything was shifting in. The only thing left to do was make spacers for each shelf length (out of cardboard), pray to the god of works studies for help during the summer, then start shifting.

So how did we do? Not good. Something went wrong.  In all three sections we got about 80% of the way through the shift then ran out of room – We hit the point that in order to keep shifting we would have to have less space per shelf as we went along.  It has been a bit of a failure.  I honestly don’t know what happened.  It could have been my math, but after double-checking, the math seems pretty solid and it seems unlikely that I’d make the same math mistake for all three sections.  In fact, as we went along with the shift we got nervous that we would run out of space and completely abandoned the idea of leaving extra open space on some shelves- which means all that funky math didn’t even come into play, it was purely an even spread.  Some things that may have contributed: books that got added to the shelf after the measurements (as a small library with little shelf space – every book counts), or leaving a little too much space shelf-to-shelf as things were shifted.

It feels like it’s been a failed project.  Although it’s not disastrous because the majority of the collection has been shifted and, for the most part, the areas that weren’t shifted aren’t jam packed.  Now we’re left with two options:

1. Let it be knowing that it’s much better than it was before we started

-OR –

2. Reshift everything

I lean towards #1, but we may do a bit of both.  I like the idea of waiting until the fall semester and having our work studies do all the reshifting.

So I think it’s evident why I hate shifting, but it’s also clear to me that I’m no good at it.  I hope with this shift we bought enough time to keep the next shift at bay for as long as possible.  Or maybe if I’m lucky I’ll die before then.


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