It’s a familiar experience – you find yourself standing in between the shelves, scanning back and forth between PR2801 and PR 2801C only to find that although the book you’re looking for appears on the online map of the catalogue, it isn’t actually there. In the mean time, you couldn’t help but notice that Titus Andronicus was with Anthony and Cleopatra and not with other Titus Andronicus-es.
Although the University has made a growing effort to modernize the appearance of the library – from new tables with lockable drawers on the fifth floor of McLennan to the Yeats-quoting glass windows in the Cyberthèque – I wonder if the problem students face when it comes to physically accessing the library collection is ever going to go away.
Following recent changes in policy, the casual shelvers are hired to work after 4 p.m., though not between classes. Staffers have also reported that the stacks branch under Access Services – which had overseen the hiring of new shelvers and student navigators for the last 25 years – is no longer responsible for the task. Rather, Diane Koen, associate director of planning and resources for all 13 branch libraries, has been in charge of the process since September. The move, shelving staff believe, has produced results that are decreasingly attuned to students’ urgent needs. For example, experienced shelvers who had previously worked with the permanent staff – and thus would have been re-recruited quickly – were not hired when they reapplied this September.
“As you will appreciate, students graduate!” Koen wrote in an email. “They are no longer available. There is competition for all of the student employment and we try to share it around as equitably as possible. Our current cohort consists of experienced and new shelvers.”
The rows and many truckloads of unshelved books on each floor in McLennan are but one measure of how the McGill library has been unable to provide timely access to the collections. According to shelving staff, this past April saw a 50 per cent budget cut to stack services. McLennan now has five casual student shelvers, instead of the 15-20 it had before the cut. Meanwhile, the six permanent staff shelvers are stretched very thin over the six floors of the building, especially during exam time, when casual student workers find themselves torn between their commitment to the library and their studies.
Koen added that students had been hired to carry out many tasks: “You may not be aware that the library has significant cataloguing backlogs and it was agreed by everyone that reducing the cataloguing backlog was a priority several years ago. Students are being employed to do a variety of tasks, one of which is shelving, but the cataloguing priority has been an important area for student employment. Some of the funds for student employment are provided by the SSMU Library Improvement Fund, and its committee members are involved each and every year in various meetings to discuss how these funds are expended.”
Koen added that “the number of students we employ at any given time varies according to the workload; it goes up during the semester as exam time approaches.”
When asked if the library was aware of the build up of unshelved books, Janine Schmidt, the Trenholme Director of Libraries, responded that “there have been some recent issues with shelving in the Humanities and Social Sciences Library. The matter is in hand with our excellent staff in the Humanities and Social Sciences Library supported by student shelvers.”
In response to the claim made by shelving staff that the budget to the stack services had been cut by 50 per cent earlier this year, Schmidt and Koen stated in a jointly written email that, “In general, there has been no reduction in expenditure on shelving across the library. There has, however, been a considerable reduction in the amount of shelving – as you no doubt realize, there has been a huge swing to the use of online resources in all library branches. Our staffs perform many functions. We are shelving fewer items across the system, and our loans of physical materials are also going down.”
In light of the $32 million allocated to the University’s library system, I asked Schmidt and Koen to explain how the money had been spent this year. They responded that there have been challenging issues with this year’s budget since McGill libraries have also had to cope with a reduction in the University’s endowment, as well as a 1.5 per cent cut in the operating grant. Schmidt and Koen said that the library collection remained a priority.
“The University has made a commitment publicly at all budget presentations that the Collections budget is protected.”
They added that the bulk of funds are spent on the journal collection, and that much of the budget is spent on electronic collections; “We have been moving to e-collections in response to student demands. The Library spends almost $14 million on staff and the remaining funds are spent on refurbishment and facilities.”
When I asked if they would encourage students to learn about how the money is spent, both Schmidt and Koen explained that student representatives sit on both the Senate Committee on Libraries and the advisory committees for each branch library where the details of the budget are discussed.
Shelving staff have bemoaned the lack of funds allocated to their operations. “They spent that much money on things like the Cyberthèque and compact shelving,” one staff member complained, “but couldn’t get a handle on things as basic and simple as this,” gesturing toward the stacks of unshelved books in front of him.
And as the unshelved books in McLennan start to resemble a small library by themselves, students should know that a search through the sorting area may be the most fruitful method of finding the books required for their term papers.