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Friday Finds

Ready Reference and Other Empty Shelves

photo by Ken Simon, licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

One day long ago, ready reference shelves were full, bursting with directories, annuals, The New York Public Library Desk Reference, the current year’s course catalog, and more. But change was afoot. Now, many of those publications are only available online, or have ceased entirely. The shelves behind the reference desk in my library are now mostly bare — and empty shelves aren’t a good look. We’re in no position to remodel right now, so… what’s next?

A recent discussion in the CJCLS Community on ALA Connect, and on the LIBREF-L listserv, explored the dilemma of empty shelves, particularly those at ready reference. What do we do when a physical collection becomes obsolete? This is one area in which public and academic libraries can find inspiration from each other.

If you’re dealing with shelving with high visibility, Jozina Cappello of Gwinnett Technical College in Georgia has some display ideas:

  • Invite Design students to show off their work.
  • Highlight special make-up effects from Cosmetology students.
  • Partner with an instructor to have their class create a “history of” display for their subject area.
  • Encourage clubs and organizations to advertise and educate about what they do.

For shelving in easily browsable areas, Carol Beers of the Tulare County Library in California suggests rotating displays, highlighting “interesting collections of college staff, community members or students.” Why not add your institutional archives to the list of potential sources, too?

The ready reference shelves in my library are highly visible, but not easily browsable since they’re just behind the back of the reference librarian’s chair. What if the shelving is visible, but not easily perused up close? Sharon Blank, Assistant Director of the Screven-Jenkins Regional Library System in Georgia, suggests looking through common staff areas of the library building for items that would both be functional and look nice. For example, a glass punch bowl could be filled with library swag to hand out. “Our library system is small,” she writes, “and our budget for unnecessary stuff like decor items is even smaller, so we get lots of practice reworking whatever we happen to have on hand to meet whatever needs we might have.”

Maria Belvadi, Collections Librarian at the University of Prince Edward Island, turns to the broader (but also dwindling) entirety of the reference stacks: “One thing we’ve done is to use wooden dummy blocks with QR codes and printed spine labels with LC call numbers,” she says. The codes and labels bring attention – and access – to online resources that normally aren’t visible to those exploring the physical collection. With a little effort, those dummy blocks could be wrapped in pseudo-book covers to make their appearance more attractive and interesting.

Shelves could be filled using a seasonal approach, says Sarah Thogode of the Clay County Public Library. She’s thinking not of holiday seasons, but “seasons as seen by what the students/professors would be experiencing in the classroom.”

  • At the beginning of the fall semester, put out material to welcome incoming students – think titles about beginnings and fresh starts.
  • Homecoming season? Why not show off titles related to family traditions across the world, or race relations in divided nations?
  • In the spring, material on climate and gardening could be appropriate and eye-catching.

Sarah continues: “We would put the Reference material for those items on the Ready Reference shelves and let the professors know what we were doing so they could plan accordingly.”

Not all libraries have called it a day for the traditional ready reference collection. One responder, who chose to remain anonymous, says that their ready reference shelves continue to house dictionaries for all the primary languages taught at their institution, style manuals, the Statistical Abstract of the United States, writing handbooks, and (being a denominational university library) directories of churches and various versions of the Bible.

Sharon Blank sums it up best when it comes to bringing empty shelving back to life: “Don’t be afraid to mix it up. Don’t be afraid to put it to uses that it wasn’t intended for, and think outside the box!”

What’s your take on ready reference? How has your library made creative use of empty shelves?


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