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For each library, a librarian. Preferably in it.

It happens to the best of us. No matter how horrible the thought, sooner or later, at some point in your career, someone’s going to suggest relocating your library. This can involve anything from a relatively simple move to a new location within the same building, to a shift to another town, but no matter what the scale of the move, there are certain truths to the library relocation process. This is what I’ve gathered about that process, both from personal experience, and the painful struggles of other librarians.

Things that you will be told:

  • You will be kept involved and informed at all stages of the process.
  • Your knowledge of how the physical library is actually used is important, and your contributions to the best layout and use of space/furniture in the library space will be taken into account.
  • Your shelf space will not be reduced. In fact, it may actually increase, in acknowledgement of the fact that as time goes on, library stocks and the space needed for them tend to increase.
  • The books will be carefully packed and moved by expert movers.
  • The library will be in an attractive, central, easily accessible location, to encourage all staff to use it fully.

The reality:

  • Nobody will remember you exist until the day before the move, when in desperation, you finally pin an Important Person down, and rip the new floorplan out of their hands.
  • Anything you say about library layout and actual library space/furniture use will be completely disregarded in favour of the plans of someone who thinks libraries are just an element of attractive interior design (“Those old books will look just *lovely* over there, beside the radiator. Wait, what do you mean heat’s bad for books?”).
  • Your shelf space WILL be reduced. And you’ll continue to be told it’s the same amount, until you try and reshelve your stock, and find you’re short of at least 15 feet of shelf space.
  • Your books will be packed and moved by expert FURNITURE movers, who have no idea why you’re upset when you unpack the boxes and find that books have been put in them in no order at all. Other than perhaps size. Or colour.
  • You will be placed in an out-of-the-way corner, perhaps originally planned to be a staff breakout area, but later decided against as it was felt to be too gloomy and/or poky. Natural light will be a distant memory.

There’s also quite a high likelihood that, at some point, some Important Person is going to have an idea. A bad idea. An idea that pops up now and again, and unfortunately, occasionally gets listened to.

The idea tends to go along these lines: “I don’t visit the library in person myself very much, therefore nobody does. And, of course, everything’s online now, isn’t it? I know…why not put the librarian somewhere else, then the library can just be a pretty space with decorative books, and people can use it for informal meetings!”


Lets reason this one out. The Important Person doesn’t use the library much themselves: that’s true. It’s true because they delegate the research work to their staff….who use the library heavily. So while they think the library’s not being used, it’s in fact being used a lot, just not directly by them. And yes, a lot of library resources are available online, in order to make sure as many people have access to the best materials as possible, but there’s also a continuous high demand for current textbooks on a wide range of subjects – lawyers don’t stop learning just because they’ve qualified! Staff of all levels of experience come to ask the librarian for help on lots of topics, and a lot of those times, to be able to help with those topics, the librarian will refer to textbooks. 

Of course, no matter what stock tracking or circulation system you have in place, that will be comprehensively ignored by fee earners, so the actual physical location of books as claimed by the catalogue is only a hypothetical idea. The reality is, the librarian’s continuously running an informal log in their head of who they last saw looking at/using a certain text, who called/emailed or spoke to them to ask for it last, how disposed that person is to actually signing books out on the system, and the level of qualification of the person who was last sighted with a book (and therefore the likelihood of them still having it – it is a universal law of law firms that if a trainee borrows a book, they can’t expect to leave it alone on their desk for more than 2 minutes without someone more qualified helping themselves to it). A combination of all these factors helps track whether a book is likely to be where the catalogue says it is, or if it is in reality actually lurking somewhere in a random department.

Without the librarian being located in the library, there’s no way to maintain this type of an overview of stock movement. Which means a huge waste of time as the librarian escalates the hunt from checking shelves in case the books have been replaced randomly on the shelves (a popular one – apparently shelfmarks are hard to understand, with all that crazy alphabetical order malarkey), then wandering around checking desks and paperwork piles for them, to sending office-wide emails trying to locate them. I’m not even going to get into how frequently journal issues can disappear when they’re not kept somewhere that the librarian can keep an eye on them, but lets just say it’s far cheaper to NOT lose an issue in the first place, than to have to pay to replace it!

And a librarian being away from the library stock means it’s harder to easily help the people coming along with an obscure question, which will often involve checking a dozen textbooks, and moving between different shelving areas as the hunt develops. To have to go and ask a librarian for help can be hard enough, without highlighting the fact to everyone in the vicinity by having to follow them across an office to get to the library. 

The library is also a place where people can come to be dumb. Not dumb as in “unable to speak”, but dumb as in “asking questions because you don’t know the answers and need help to find them”. In a law firm hierarchy, things can get competitive, and it’s hard to admit that you don’t know something, particularly when you’re a trainee (“But we didn’t cover this on the course!” is a frequently heard and plaintive wail). But, in the library, the librarian’s not your line manager, or anyone who will be concerned that you don’t know something – they’re actually the person who’s there specifically just to help you. And to be able to feel confident that you can ask the librarian for that help, you need to be able to access them in a place where it doesn’t feel like anyone is listening in on conversations and waiting to pick holes in your knowledge, or checking exactly what books you’re looking at. You need a place where you can explore vague ideas without feeling you’re being assessed…you need a library. And the librarian, who can act as a sounding board to tease out those meandering thoughts on a topic, and firm them up through questioning and analysis. That isn’t something a trainee can do while sitting at their desk, with their line manager lurking behind them!

Nor should the library ever be viewed as some sort of a meeting space, decorated with those pretty things called books – as stated above, it needs to be a neutral and easily accessible place, available at all times, and to all staff. And, despite stereotypes, libraries are no quieter than any other part of the office!

So, if ever you see some Important Person in your workplace wandering about looking at the library shelving with a gleam in their eye, and hear them mutter about hotdesking, and breakout areas in the library….grab a rope, whip up a lasso, and pull them aside for a quiet chat about why librarians might actually just be the best people to help inform discussions on how the library is and could be used?

Oh, and a parting mention of my favourite library relocation problem – an office which had a library area where the lighting was linked to a motion sensor on the roof. Under that motion sensor was placed….a shelving unit. As shelving units are not well known for their vigorous activity, this meant the lights turned off every 45 minutes. Unless the librarian performed a gymnastic stretching and waving routine at their desk…

Anyone else care to share their nightmare move stories?


Michael said…
Oh gawd! This sounds awful. So where exactly were they proposing to put you? In a draughty portakabin in the car park.

How ridiculous! My rapidly dwindling faith in humanity has just taken another nose dive.
Dumpling said…
Luckily, my current library location is rather good!

The worst one I know of is where the librarian is not only not in the library itself, but actually separated from it by a few floors in the building! I imagine the interior planner who thought that one up got a gold star. *sigh*

Or where the completely unique collection of records (i.e. only set in the world) where put (against librarian advice) in a very hot room where they were literally slowly cooked...because they went well with the design on the carpet.
Michael said…
How hideous! I'd suggest beating the individuals who come up with such ideas around the head with a hardback, but I'm sure that's sacrilege to you! ;-)
Dumpling said…
Oh, not at all. I can think of few better uses for a hefty Legal 500! :D

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