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Behind the Scenes: Managing the Piles of Books Returned!

Clare sorting books

What happens to borrowed books after you return them to the circulation desk or drop them off in the book drop after library hours? These books somehow appear back on the shelves, waiting for the next person to check them out again.

Not surprisingly, there is a very methodical process for the discharging of books and how they get back to their respective places on the book shelves. The process is known as stacks management.

“There has always existed a stacks management operation, responsible for shelving returned books, shifting the stacks when it was needed and shelf-checking for out-of-place volumes,” says Falvey Stacks Manager Domenick Liberato.

But this project took on a new face in fall 2007 when it was moved from the circulation desk to the stacks management sorting room on the ground floor of Falvey. The process primarily ensures an efficient discharge of returned books and also makes sure that they get replaced on the shelf in a timely fashion. This process also organizes and simplifies work behind the circulation desk.

Previously, the entire discharging and shelving process would take place behind the circulation desk. At the end of each semester, books would pile up behind the desk as students and scholars finished their research.

Also, circulation desk personnel are constantly called on to help patrons for various services. Having staff members’ attention divided between tasks opened the risk that some books might be shelved without being discharged.

“There was too much going on at the desk. Now there is a separate room and more organization for stacks management, and the operation is not getting in the way of the circulation desk workers who are there for library patrons,” says Richard Runyen, Villanova University senior and stacks management student worker.

Now, when patrons return books at the circulation desk, the books are collected on black carts. “Black carts are used exclusively for book returns to maintain quality control and mitigate the possibility of books charged out to patrons missing the discharge step and mistakenly being shelved in the stacks,” explains Liberato. Missing that one step could result in a patron receiving incorrect overdue notices.

The black carts are taken down to the ground floor sorting room where the books are discharged and placed on pre-shelving racks according to call number. They are then transferred to carts and taken to the appropriate floors where they are ready to be shelved. “Our goal is to get the books returned to their proper positions on the shelves as soon as we can, but we place ‘accuracy’ above ‘speed’ as our primary priority,” says Liberato.

Accuracy is monitored by periodically sending to a floor a cart with about 50 books, five of which the titles and call numbers have been notated. Later, a search is made for those five books to test the accuracy of each shelver. Very rarely is a ‘test’ book not in its designated place on the shelf.

Keeping the stacks looking neat and tidy is also a goal of this process. Shelvers are encouraged to scan the stacks and spend a few seconds “straightening any sagging stacks, pulling the books up to the front of the shelves and also re-shelving any books left by patrons at the ends of shelves,” says Liberato.

Self-checking is another responsibility of the stacks management staff. Shelvers regularly ‘shelf-read’ the call numbers of books, looking for any books that might be in the wrong places. If any misshelved books are found, the books are first discharged to remove any ‘missing status’ or to negate a fine if necessary, and are then re-shelved in their proper places.

In addition to Liberato, the stacks management team is comprised of staff members Phil Mairs and Jim Fox, and student employees Runyen, Clare Oven, Lucas Rabinowitz, Kent Grosh, Amanda Hogan, Alex Williams, Dan Love, Patrick Sutton, Brendan Gilroy and Kate Reynolds, all of whom work toward ensuring that all the goals of this process are carried out fully and effectively.

The process benefits Falvey and its patrons in many ways.  Oven,  a junior, says, “The process is systematic and laid out and there is a definite plan behind it. Students may not immediately notice the benefits but the circulation staff members are no longer focusing on discharging. Now that the process has moved to a different group of people there is more accountability. Circulation staff has more time now to be available to help patrons.”

“Patrons, be they students, faculty, alumni or non-VU visitors, would expect that books get returned to the shelves in a reasonably short-time frame, that the books are shelved correctly in their proper positions, that if a book has an ‘Available’ status on the library catalog, they should be able to go to the shelf and find it, or staff should be able to track the book down in a short time, and that the general physical appearance of the stacks should be a positive one,” says Liberato.

Liberato was awarded the Facultas Award in spring 2008, an award that recognizes exceptional support for the work of the faculty by Villanova University staff members.

The belief that patrons expect and appreciate neat looking library stacks is the impetus behind the stacks management team engaging in strategic and effective efforts to discharge and shelve library books.

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Last Modified: December 10, 2008