Shelf-ready books – listening to experiences

On Monday of this week myself and two colleagues travelled to London to attend the Cilip Cataloguing & Indexing Group (CIG) event on “Shelf-ready in libraries“.  It is an issue that has vaguely raised its head where I work and we wanted to hear more about it from people who had been through the process.  The structure of the day meant that there were three presentations in the morning from an academic perspective, then after lunch we heard about the public library viewpoint and from a vendor (Ingram Coutts, who had also sponsored the event).  Due to the vagaries of train travel we did however arrive late (a 25 min delay around Stroud, pushed our tight schedule to the limit), so unfortunately we missed Katrina Clifford’s introduction to the event, and the very beginning of the first speaker.  We also had that embarassing hot and bothered feeling as we disturbed everyone, and had to go and sit right at the front!

The following comments are my impression of what the speakers were talking about, and my own thoughts and feelings about the issues – so apologies if I accidentally misrepresent anyone.

The three speakers from academic libraries in the morning curiously enough had in common that none of them were in post when ‘Shelf-ready’ began to be introduced at their institution, though to be fair Janet Pryce-Jones, chief cataloguer at Birmingham City University had been in her current job since 2005, and David Baron, Bibliographic Services Manager at Leeds Metropolitan University in his job for the last four years.  Not that this matters, but I had wanted to hear from people who had been through a potentially disrupting process from the beginning (especially if jobs were lost, or people redeployed).  In many respects though, the first question should be, just what is ‘shelf-ready’ exactly?

I think many (most? all?) academic libraries today probably have many of the initial processes of ‘shelf-ready’ already operating.  We have date labels, book plates, barcodes, library stamps and non-activated RFID tags added to our books by our primary book supplier, and when most of the speakers were listing what ‘shelf-ready’ meant, these are the things they included.  But of course all these current additions still don’t actually make our books ‘shelf-ready’ – its the final stages that (in my head at least) really count – having your books arrive with the spine label  – because they have been classified by the supplier.  This to me is the crux on the matter, whilst we may have been outsourcing aspects of the processing to make our internal processes less fiddly/speedier – outsourcing the cat and class is a whole different matter.

So when some of the speakers mentioned that they had invested in the shelf-ready concept for many years, even as early as the 1990s, I interpreted this to mean that they had been out-sourcing processes, rather than out-sourcing cataloguing, in the early stages.  But isn’t this just the next logical step you may cry?  Isn’t this what we/they have been working towards?  I’m afraid, as a cataloguer, I shudder that this indeed may have been the long term plan.

BCU has in some way addressed this issue, unwilling to lose complete control over classification and record selection, they now do this at the point of ordering.  Anything they cannot classify from the record, they flag up, and classify when it arrives instead.  In many ways I admire this approach, good for them, I thought – however on longer reflection it still saddened me – classifying from a record instead of an actual item in your hands?

Listening to the morning speakers it became apparent that the relationship between you (the library) and the vendor/supplier, was what you could make it.  The main supplier mentioned was Ingram Coutts, who also presented in the afternoon, but I am sure there are corresponding points with other vendors.  You need to fill in exact details of what you require, certain things can be accommodated, certain things can’t (don’t expect them to ship shelf-ready books to all 23 of your libraries with their 23 different classification schemes, multi-coloured labels and large AV collections).  Indeed as Andrew Coburn pointed out in the afternoon, you have a responsibility to sort out your own processes.  But you can tailor arrangements to a certain degree – as we saw with BCU classifying at point of order.

It was also apparent that the implementation of EDI makes a big difference too.

The main positives appeared to be: a speeding up of through-put, books reaching the shelves quicker, and a reduction in backlogs.

The main negatives appeared to be: loss of control over classification, loss of control over bibliographic records/lowering of standards of bib records (unless following the BCU route), not everything can be done (AV, special collections etc), authority control problems, returns (can’t really return a fully processed book), additional costs.

As one speaker (David Baron) put it: “When it works well, it works very well…but when it goes wrong it can be horrible”

Whilst Janet -Pryce Jones noted a personal drawback:  “We spend most of our time at computers and don’t see many books.”

As a cataloguer I am very concerned about this loss of control over classification and bibliographical standards, which I was sad to see didn’t seem to matter to some people at this event.  One speaker admitted they didn’t really check the records when the books arrived, and that they weren’t particularly bothered if details such as pagination or authors/editors were correct.  I was too stunned at this point to comment on the day!  My colleagues were equally horrified.  One conclusion that we came to was that there wasn’t really a comparative institution to ours at the event, we are a Russell Group University with a strong emphasis on research, as well as undergraduate courses; and frankly it does matter if pagination details are wrong, or if subject headings are missed off a record.  If students are taught properly to search on a library opac, they will get better results with a more accurate and detailed record.

In the afternoon we heard from Andrew Coburn, Acquisitions and Cataloguing Manager for Essex County Council.  From this presentation I gained a new perspective on ‘shelf-ready’, as it worked for public libraries.  He provided two definitions of ‘shelf-ready’ which rang true to how I was thinking about the issue earlier –

Then: “Stock that arrived so that you just had to fit a security tag and add it to the catalogue before sending it to the branch.”

Now: “Stock that arrives in the branch and is put straight on the shelves.”

As I thought, our concept of ‘shelf-ready’ has changed over the last decade, and for public libraries at least I could see how it made a lot more sense.  In general I would say their classification schemes are probably a lot simpler that in an academic research library.  You certainly wouldn’t have a Dewey class mark that ran to 20 numbers after the decimal point (Not saying that we would either!!! However we don’t truncate as many places do). 

They can also order in advance and can have a book on the shelves on the day of publication; which is a big plus point for popular items such as Harry Potter books and Terry Pratchet novels.  Something which they would be unable to do if processes and cataloguing was done in-house.

The so called idealised process of having books go straight to the shelves, has also taken a leap further at the University of Central Lancashire who have just won the BIC/CILIP RFID Innovation Award 2011.  Basically their ‘shelf-ready’ RFID tagged books arrive at the library, get put into their sorting machine which automatically updates their catalogue  to show them available for loan, and sorts them for shelving.  They claim a student can get a book within an hour of it arriving at the library.  The machines are taking over…

So, for some institutions, public libraries in particular, I can see the benefits.  Many of us probably need to look at our processes in general, whether going down the route of full ‘shelf-ready’ or not, and bringing in standardisation across libraries within an institution is useful too (though not always completely possible).  However, as a cataloguer at a research University I still have many concerns over standards; and believe that with the right processes in place internally we can get books on the shelves within comparable time-frames to some libraries using ‘shelf-ready’.

If everywhere gets rid of their cataloguers, there will be less records available, a potential lowering of standards, and a general deskilling in this area of the profession.

I’d like to say a big thank  you to Katrina and CIG for putting on this event, to the speakers for presenting,  and allowing me the chance to hear about how ‘shelf-ready’ has been implemented at several places.  I still have lots of worries and queries (none of which I could adequately formulate in my mind to ask on the day!), but hope I am a few steps further to understanding what is at stake here.

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1 Comment

Filed under Cataloguing, Librarianship

One response to “Shelf-ready books – listening to experiences

  1. Stephen Gregory

    Thanks, a really helpful summary! Stephen

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