Shelving, Collection Usage, and Your Library

By Stephanie Campbell, MLIS

Have you ever wondered how your collection “stacks up?”

The following figures, which represent how most Brodart customers approach opening day collections, are the target proportions you should aim to achieve when building a collection from scratch.

Pie Chart #1 - NEW

Pie Chart #2 - NEW

Pie Chart #3 - NEW

Of course, every library is different and should reflect the wants and needs of the community it serves. But chances are, your usage reports, re-shelving carts, and catalog searches will mirror the same general ratios shown above.

So how do general collection ratios influence strategies for displaying your materials? Good question! In short, your existing shelving should support how the collection is being used. In the absence of the space or money required to install more shelving, you can move collections around the building, which both highlights individual collections and frees up space in the stacks for areas that need to grow.

shutterstock_108584921Although slatwall and display kiosks are better for merchandising your collection, the fact remains that most libraries still rely on stacks—rows upon rows of shelving units—to arrange the bulk of their materials. The above guidelines are great when you’re planning a new space, but what if you want to rework an old one? How should you juggle the competing needs? How do you do justice to every subject area while growing those areas that enjoy the most traffic? At the end of the day, our primary goal as librarians is to help patrons find the titles that interest them.

Arrangements need to make sense so that patrons can self-direct. That said, fixed shelving units and the layout of your building may dictate the sizes of the collections and how they are arranged. Aside from weeding, how can you make more room for those popular 600s and 700s?

Breaking out collections is one way to overcome shelving obstacles. Here are some examples.

  • Biographies and classics can stand alone; they need not be housed in the physical rows where they belong according to Dewey classification
  • Reclassify and move your short stories to fiction, or vice versa
  • Pull out your paperbacks for a dedicated commuter collection
  • Interfile all books by a particular author, regardless of bind
  • Pull all the language learning materials, test prep, or travel guides into a special section
  • Dedicate stand-alone locations to mysteries and/or sci-fi/fantasy

There are pros and cons to all of these approaches. However, the needs and preferences of your patrons should guide your decisions.

shutterstock_394779487Once you’ve determined your priorities, sketch out a new layout. As the saying goes, “measure twice and cut once.” What type of material do you want to move? Do your materials and shelves follow standard dimensions? Take into account the measurements of both where the materials sit now and their future location. You don’t want to get halfway through a move only to find that a collection won’t fit in its new destination (i.e., those art books that are too tall and/or too deep) which would require reducing the number of shelves. Be prepared with signage to alert patrons about temporary locations until the dust settles.

Don’t be afraid to make major changes or be daunted by major moves. With a little pre-planning, shifting projects and relocating other materials can progress smoothly and manageably. And your collections can meet traditional expectations while embracing current usage.

Here are some resources to help you with measurements and standards:



Stephanie Campbell has worked for more than 20 years in public, academic, and special libraries. She is an avid gardener, bicyclist, and kayaker. Click here for more.

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