Help! My Assistant Doesn’t Like to Shelve Books!

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This column by Mary Keeling from the latest issue of School Library Connection has been getting some buzz. Happy reading, and remember: “Everyone is a volunteer!”

Keeling_MaryAt a recent meeting of new elementary librarians and their mentors, someone asked, “What is my assistant supposed to do? She doesn’t like to shelve books!”

A paradox of school library management is that the librarian is in charge of the library program, but a school administrator evaluates support staff performance. Without clear lines of authority, supervision experience, or detailed descriptions of successful task performance, the new librarian may feel it would be easier to have no help at all.

A school librarian depends on help from up to three main sources: paid support staff, if provided by the local school district; volunteers; and students. While each group needs something different, some general principles apply to all three groups.

1. The librarian is in charge of all that takes place in the library. The librarian leads by connecting the work to a worthwhile purpose.

2. Each position has a job description and clearly defined roles, routines, and objectives.

3. Everyone is a volunteer.

Be in Charge 

Develop and communicate an aspirational vision for the library program, including the “why” behind each task (Sinek 2013). Face it, much of the day-to-day work in libraries is tedious, repetitive, and dull. In my first library job out of college, I despaired that I would ever finish. To me, library work was like a mis-remembered task from a fairy tale. To save her brothers, a girl had to sort feathers by size. As soon as she finished, the wind scattered her piles and she would have to start all over again. The tedium was worth it, because she was motivated to save her brother (Grimm 1884).

Never-ending library tasks such as shelving and shelf-reading have meaning and urgency when connected to a larger purpose. For example, an orderly, well-maintained collection enables students to navigate the library to use resources independently, whereas a chaotic, unmaintained space frustrates and confuses everyone. Library staff work toward the desired outcome of literate adults by facilitating self-selected reading. Student choice leads to more reading, bigger vocabulary, and better academic achievement. For this system to work, materials must be accessible and easily found. Therefore, we shelve everything within a day of its return to the library. The outcome—literate students—is worth the effort.

Define Tasks and Routines

Create checklists for each recurring task in consultation with the people who do the work. Observe the work, if possible, and ask questions about the steps involved. Negotiate to simplify the procedures. Agree on the essential elements of a task, write the steps in order, and illustrate with photographs or screen shots for clarity. Ideally, a checklist is brief, uses direct language in an active voice, and includes critical steps. Keep checklists in a central location where all staff members can find and use them.

Checklists have many benefits. Atul Gawande has written about improving surgical outcomes with checklists and points to their use in other enterprises which are complex (e.g., aircraft safety, building construction) or which involve many people or many interactions (Gawande 2010).


• document agreed-upon procedures and timelines.

• remind workers of things that might be forgotten or overlooked.

• coordinate the work of people who come and go throughout the day, such as part-time assistants, volunteers, or student helpers.

• can be used to train or reinforce training of volunteers or student helpers.

• save time.

Erica uses this one-page checklist to coordinate the work of her part-time assistant, parent volunteers, and student workers:

Keeling checklist Capture

Set timelines

Determine which tasks must be completed daily, weekly, and at other intervals. Create checklists for tasks that employees, students, or volunteers can date and sign to indicate task completion. For example, interlibrary loan transactions can be easily overlooked. A daily timeline could include:

• print out interlibrary loan requests and holds

• find materials for ILL/holds

• process holds/ ILL requests

• place ILL/holds notices in teachers’ boxes

• pack shipments for other schools

Everyone Is a volunteer

Whether professional, hourly, or unpaid, each of us contributes the amount of effort we choose. Consider how librarians can learn and use strategies that lead people to bring their best.


Works Cited:

Gawande, Atul. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Metropolitan Books, 2010.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. “The Six Swans.” Household Tales with the authors’ notes, translated by Margaret Hunt, 1884. Part of the SurLaLune Fairy Tale Pages by Heidi Anne Heiner. accessed December 9, 2015 from

Sinek, Simon. “Start with Why.” TED Talk, September 29, 2013. (accessed December 9, 2015).

Keeling_MaryMary Keeling, MSLS, is supervisor of library media services at Newport News (VA) Public Schools. Keeling earned her master’s degree from the Catholic University of America and has written for Library Media Connection, School Library Monthly, and Knowledge Quest. She is a past president of the Virginia Association of School Librarians, a Lilead Fellow, and the chair of AASL’s Standards and Guidelines Implementation Task Force (2015–2017).

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