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The Genius of Library Workflow

Wednesday, July 6, 2011 by Robby Slaughter

Robby Slaughter

About once a month, I volunteer at St. Anthony’s Padua Academy on the near east side of Indianapolis. Their elementary school library is a fantastic place to learn about workflow.

Of course, you already know the basics of a how a library operates. There are books on the shelves. Each book has a code printed on the spine, which is usually known as call numbers. All of the books throughout the library are referenced by a master index called a card catalog, which is a directory of all of the books and their individual call numbers. (Modern libraries have a computerized system but they basically work the same way.)

Every library has the same set of basic activities. Workflow experts call these use cases, because they are particular scenarios which have utility. And again, you know what they are:

  1. Find a book so you can read it
  2. Re-shelve a book after you’re done with it

There’s also mechanisms for check-in/check-out procedures, managing reserve lists, ordering new books, processing library memberships, etc. But these are really just side tasks. The main purpose and value of a library is to ensure patrons have access to books.

Anyway, volunteering at the Padua Academy library has reminded me that one of the two above tasks is a ton of work. I spent most of my volunteering time helping the staff with this activity, and I barely make a dent. It’s not finding books on the shelves; it’s putting them back.

Libraries are optimized for task #1 (finding books) at the expense of task #2 (re-shelving books). It takes forever to do this. Yet, if you think for a moment, there’s no reason why it has to be so time consuming to put the stock back into the stacks. In fact, with a simple change, you can make re-shelving almost totally painless without affecting task #1. Here’s the new system:

Instead of re-shelving books back in the “right” place; just stick them wherever is convenient. Then, record the new location in the master catalog so that the next person who wants to find the book will be able to do so.

This sounds like a brilliant solution. You don’t have to walk all over the library putting books away; you just need to go between the card catalog and the closest shelf with some leftover space. If you have a computer-based card catalog, the system is even faster.

And of course, if someone wants to find a book, they are going to start by looking up where to find it in the library. Perfect! No more spending countless hours carefully putting books back in the “right” place. Sure, the library will shuffle like a deck of cards, but you’ll be able to find anything just as fast.

However, this proposed solution has a terrible, enormous flaw. Can you see what it is? Sound off in the comments. We’ll reveal our viewpoint in a future post.

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Like this post? Here are some related entries from The Methodology Blog you might enjoy:

The Importance of Workflow - Improving workflow doesn’t require intimate knowledge of technical systems. As one blogger demonstrates, it simply requires keen observation. Read on »
Coffee and Donuts Workflow - On occasion I help out with one of the hospitality programs at our church: coffee and donuts after the service. You might be shocked just at the level of planning involved in such a simple task.
Read on »
The Ultimate Library Fine - The new Central Library in downtown Indianapolis ran two years and $50 million dollars over budget. Now, the courts will decide who is at fault and who has to pay.
Read on »

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4 Responses to “The Genius of Library Workflow”

  1. Tod Says:

    I like your solution!

    One problem I think of is the staff time required to update the catalog that reflects the book’s new location. Another problem is the people who look for books (patrons, customers, whatever you want to call them) move stuff around without telling anyone.

    If we could use RFID in conjunction with your idea, and have the chips update the location of the books automatically, THEN we’re talking!

    Tod, Librarian

  2. Robby Slaughter Says:

    Thanks Tod! Your comments DO illustrate the specific problem I will outline in the follow-up post.

  3. Kathy Says:

    What about people like me who often heads straight to various sections of the library to browse the material without looking anything up? Tod’s solution still wouldn’t address that problem.

  4. Michael Says:

    My S.O., a school media specialist, says: “for kids it would take away the fun of “shopping” - pointing them to a section of books about puppies/dogs and then letting them see several on the same topic and they can choose what works by looking at them. Grouping for grazing!!!”

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