Last summer our public library was looking for volunteers and I signed up. Taking on this volunteer position was a watershed moment as it was the first thing I'd embarked upon in eight years that was just for me. I love books, I love reading, and I love libraries, so to immerse myself in all of it felt right. It appeared that the best job for me would be shelver, as it didn't require committing to pre-determined shifts. I was giddy with excitement during the training because we got to go behind the scenes and into the circulation department. I even got a key card to open the locked staff-only areas, you know, the ones that would set off an alarm if someone unimportant--someone without a photo I.D.-- tried to enter them. True, I had to sign the key card in and out each time I went, but still!
Shelving is a perfect match for me. For each book, there is one right place. It's just a matter of finding it. Like fitting a piece into a jigsaw puzzle or writing an answer into a crossword puzzle, there is the satisfaction of knowing one correct answer exists and you've found it. What could be more fulfilling?
When you think of someone shelving, you probably picture a librarian with a small stack of books clutched to her chest, strolling dreamily down the rows and sliding a book into an empty slot right at eye level. Curse the entertainment industry and their misleading stereotypes!
Here's the thing: Shelving is hard physical work. You start in the circulation room with a wheeled cart that has a sorted selection of books on it, perhaps biographies, or mysteries, or juvenile fiction. It's a wheeled metal cart with three rows on it and probably holds about sixty books. Once you've put the books on your cart in catalogue order, you head out into the appropriate section of the library. Shelving consists of three basic tasks. First, of course, is replacing each book in the proper catalogued position. Second is to straighten the row by pulling each book forward so that the entire row is flush with the front edge of the shelf. Last of all, books must be shifted so that the amount of books on each shelf is approximately equal. For example, if the top shelf is 3/4 full and the second shelf is only 1/4 full, you need to shift books down from the first shelf to the second so that each is about 1/2 full. Each shelf has an adjustable book-end on the right hand side. It's a small metal frame that slides into the upper part of the shelf and can be pulled out towards you, then slid in either direction to adjust to the amount of books on the shelf.
As this is a fairly large library, with many wonderful devoted volunteers, shelving is an ongoing process. Which means that the open spot where a book was removed by a patron for check-out is long gone. Which also means that nearly every time I need to shelve a single solitary book, I have to swing the book-end out, slide it to the right, and shove over part of the row to make room for my book. Once I've determined I have no more books to put on that particular row, I reach behind the books and move them forward to the edge of the shelf. Lather, rinse, repeat. By the time I'm done shelving, I've pretty much touched every single book in an entire collection because even if I don't need to replace books in a particular row, the books need to be straightened and the length of the rows adjusted.
When you think of a library, you probably think of a quiet place. Not surprisingly, given my documented history of clumsiness, I am the world's noisiest shelver. It starts when I take a handful of books off of my cart (which must remain parked at the end of the row so as not to block those darling library patrons' access to the shelves). No longer supported by my handful, the rest of the books slam over on their sides with the ringing sound of a wooden mallet striking cast iron. I get tired of going back and forth to the cart (mustn't block the happy little library goers!) so I usually take what my mother would call a "Lazyman's Load" and grab more books than I can easily handle, so that the stack starts to slide and a few of the books in the middle squirt out of my hands, often onto the floor. Once I get down to business, you'll hear the blood curdling screech of metal against metal as I enthusiastically try to adjust a book-end. Sometimes, with a sound not unlike wind chimes, they come completely free of the shelf and, to my surprise, I find one loose in my hand. It requires a bit of blind banging around to get it re-attached as the book-end must slide into a hidden lip that runs along the top of each shelf. Also, think about this: To make room on a shelf, I first slide over the book-end with my right hand. At the same time, I have to use my left hand to keep the row of books, now freed from its book-end, from toppling over. I switch to my right hand for this job and use my left to start shoving the books towards the newly positioned book-end. Now, I ask you. How the hell do I keep the books on the LEFT side of the gap I've just created from falling over? There are not enough hands! Sooooo, add the sounds of books sliding and slamming over and, occasionally, falling off the back of the shelf to the Secret Book Purgatory.
It's a physically demanding task. Between squatting down for lower shelves, reaching overhead for the upper ones, carrying armfuls of books, and acting as a human book-end I am wiped out by the end of each shift. And to the person who felt the need to check out SIX phone book sized volumes on stamp collecting: Get a life! Those damn floppy slippery books that OF COURSE belonged on a top shelf nearly killed me. I briefly considered using one of those wheeled step stools that are scattered about, but I value my spinal cord.
But as I shelve, I find myself exploring sections of the library I would otherwise never encounter. (Sometimes I shelve in the Nonfiction 700's where the craft books are. The other day I saw not one, but TWO books on gourd crafts. Gourd crafts! People write BOOKS about it. More than one! And then people take those books out of the library, read them, and make things out of gourds!! Like, you could paint faces on them or decorate them with scraps of felt!) And it's wonderful when your cart is empty and you can gaze upon the rows of neat, orderly shelves feeling pride at a job well done. And then watch a library patron wander over and screw it all up by choosing a book. Bastards.