The blonde factor

Moving from the Library of Doom to a state of the art learning centre has been an interesting, exciting, tiring and sometimes frustrating experience.  The new building has been open for 10 weeks now and everything is beginning to settle down.  We understand the technology, we no longer forget which floor everything is on and we are adjusting to the open plan office etiquette rules and the students’ newfound freedom to talk, eat and drink almost anywhere in the learning centre.  One thing, however, has not settled down, and that is shelving.  In any library (sorry, learning centre), shelving is a major logistical issue involving more trolleys and members of staff than you could ever imagine.  In fact, the task seems to consume as many trolleys as are available – you can purchase a couple of dozen extra trolleys, but within a week you will find yourself needing more.

Inevitably, moving from a cramped rabbit warren on one floor to a spacious glass and steel affair over four floors has necessitated some changes to the shelving routines, as have the nature of the shelves themselves.  Some of the stock is on open, traditional shelves like so (note the lack of photographic prowess!):

Other items are shelved on the less traditional compact shelving, which looks like this:

It is fairly evident, even at first encounter, that not all the books on the compact shelving are immediately accessible.  Some of the shelves are sat immediately next to each other, and in order to access the books on them, some of the shelves will have to move.  This is achieved electronically and under ideal circumstances, it takes only three button pushes.  Over the past few months, we have spent a lot of our time showing people how to move the shelves (and demonstrating the safety features which make it impossible for the students to squash each other), and we don’t really mind this at all. Some compact shelving encounters, however, are just plain infuriating. Picture the scene…

The Singing Librarian is not singing, but is happily shelving some books on American literature, when he senses a presence at the end of the aisle where he is shelving. Looking up, he sees a worried-looking female student and asks if he can help her. He is unsurprised to learn that she doesn’t know how to use the compact shelving, but is slightly surprised that he hasn’t heard any of the beeping noises that accompany attempts (successful or otherwise) to move the shelves. Asking her which shelves it is that she needs to move, he accompanies her to the section she requires and explains the button-pushing sequence while moving the shelves for her. She thanks him, and he returns to his task. A few minutes later, now in a different aisle, shelving books on English poetry, he senses a presence again, and looks up to see the same lady standing there. Once again, he heads for the area she is working in and, without touching any of the buttons, reminds her which ones she’ll need to press. Mid-sentence, he is interrupted. “You could tell me a hundred times, but I’ll never get it…” A quick flick of the head. “I’m blonde…” The tone of voice indicates that she means it.

Well, really. The Singing Librarian had noticed this, of course, but had not attached any particular importance to it, let alone considered that it might somehow impair her ability to move the shelves. Would the way that light reflected from her hair perhaps interfere with her ability to see which buttons were flashing, perchance? Choosing not to voice this question, as Words From Management would doubtless ensue, he was nonetheless quite clear in his mind that he was not going to allow the student’s hair colour to interfere with this important “teachable moment” – she would learn how to deal with the compact shelving, blonde hair or no. So, explaining each step as he went, the Singing Librarian pressed the flashing red buttons on each side of the aisle, then pressed the arrow button to move the shelf. And, oh calamity! Somehow, he pressed the wrong button, and the wrong shelves became accessible. “Never mind,” he said, and gallantly offered to stay while the student moved the shelves to the correct position. After a slight pout and eyelash flutter, which achieved absolutely nothing, she proceeded to press the buttons and gained access to the books she needed.

I could, of course, have just moved the shelves for her the second time. However, I am very much convinced that an important part of my interaction with students is to teach them skills.  Normally, these are information skills – teaching them how to use the library catalogue, log in to various services, access e-journals or (on occasion) reminding them how alphabetical order works.  But moving these shelves was a skill the student would need to learn if she happened to require a book when there was no member of library staff in the immediate vicinity.  Plus, I did not want her to think that she could manipulate any of us for such a ludicrous reason.  We have all heard blonde jokes, no doubt, but the colour of your hair (or your ability to flutter your eyelashes and look bewildered) should not be used as an excuse in order to get your own way or to reduce the amount of work you will have to do yourself.  I will quite happily spend as much time as it takes with a student for them to get to grips with the compact shelves, the catalogue or the fancy new printer-copier-scanners, but I will not do the moving, searching or copying for them without a genuine reason.  Hair colour is not a reason.

Retrieve a book for a student and they will read for a day, teach them how to retrieve their books and they will  read for the lifetime of their course.


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  1. Well, if you ask me, I think you’ve pulled. 😉



  2. When I was at the University of Pittsburgh during library school, I worked in the government documents section as a part time referenc librarian. We used to have compact shelving with bumpers that would automatically stop when they hit you. They were operated manually. It was a bit scary. The electronic movable shelving sounds much better.

    Congratulations on the modernization.

  3. Lucky me, AB. How…thrilling?

    We did have some manually-operated compact shelving in the old library, but it wasn’t open to the students. I can imagine how scary those shelves could have been! Eep.

  4. I shouldn’t laugh, there are girls out there who have turned dumb into an art form, (probably should not say that out loud), my teenage daughter is herself endlessly annoyed by girls who behave like that, she has a name for them; Barbies.

    • Bunny McLeod
    • January 12th, 2010

    Sounds like an updated version of ‘Marian the Librarian’ (great number).

  1. September 27th, 2010

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