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Library Shelving: Organization in the Stacks

Updated on May 30, 2012

Picking up litter is rather like fighting a losing battle. The same can be said of organizing a bookshelf (or any sort of shelving system), especially in libraries. With so many people handling materials, making sure they are kept in a place (and in a condition) where they can be easily found and accessed is vital to library circulation. Checking them regularly can be time-consuming, but it all starts with choosing a system that works and keeping to it - within reason, that is. There are many systems to choose from, and some make more sense to some people than others, but they are all equally valid in the grand scheme of things.

Most libraries use either the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress system for organizing their materials. For patrons who are unfamiliar with one or the other, the adjustment will take some time. However, looking up a specific book in the online catalog narrows it down, so most do not have to trouble themselves with the meaning behind the call numbers. Even librarians have their huge binders to consult because these days no one has the capacity to memorize it all (if they ever did in the first place). As long as you know your way around the library, you should be fine. Some materials you may be looking for may not even be under the subject you think they are.

As for different departments, each library will have its own way of organizing things. For instance, additional labels may be attached to an item's spine indicating a genre or an age group (YA is usually the only common one, but others can be identified from children's or adults' by different colored circle stickers). The genre stickers help items stand out on a shelf or be easily identified and pulled out for a theme month display. Still others may be set aside in their own section rather than being mixed in with the general collection; however, they still may be carelessly put back in the wrong place, confusing and frustrating patrons and librarians alike. Children especially are guilty of this. Labels must be legible but tend to fade over time; replacing them is another tedious task that most librarians do not have time for and so falls lower on the list of priorities. Electronic materials are often kept in different cases than their original packaging, but as that usually falls within the realm of processing, the task is given a higher priority (unless it's a repair job, which a librarian or volunteer or intern will get around to eventually if it is not urgent).

When you volunteer for Adopt-a-Shelf, you are given a handout explaining how the shelves are organized. Depending on which kind you're in charge of organizing, you will follow those instructions. Call numbers are pretty self-explanatory, but fiction is a bit trickier. They go in order by author's last name, then by title. This calls into question so many details that seem to defy common sense; others are too superfluous to matter in the long run. For example, when there are multiple authors, the book is usually filed under the name of the first author; if that author has written other works either solo or with different authors, it can become confusing. Also, titles beginning with "The" are filed under the first letter of the next word; titles beginning with "A" or "An" are kind of a grey area, as some prefer to file them under A while others treat them the same as "The." Finally, there are the items belonging to a series; no heed is paid to these as they must be sorted alphabetically no matter what, but putting them in chronological order makes just as much sense. As long as the items can be clearly seen and are in the general area of where the system says they should be, there shouldn't be too many problems in the end.


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