Library student shelvers at Waterford Institute of Technology

The Authors

Helen Hayden, Waterford Institute of Technology, Waterford, Ireland

Clare Blount, Waterford Institute of Technology, Waterford, Ireland


Purpose – This paper traces the context of, and outlines the reasoning for, the use of student shelvers in an Irish higher education academic library (Waterford Institute of Technology).

Design/methodology/approach – The paper is a case study report on use of student assistants to carry out the shelving function at Waterford Institute of Technology Library Service. It describes the rationale behind the employment of student assistants, the evolution of their incorporation into the library and the management of this now vital element of the library service, and also includes a short survey on the use of student shelvers at other academic libraries in Ireland.

Findings – Student shelvers are an important resource in the WIT Library Service, freeing up staff time to concentrate on other projects. In order to make an effective contribution to the library service, the management of this resource is quite time-consuming.

Research limitations/implications – The review of available literature revealed little about the situation in Ireland. The survey of other Irish academic libraries was on a small scale. There is scope for further research on both an Irish and an international scale.

Practical implications – This account of one academic library's experience of using student shelvers to supplement regular library staff is of potential interest and help to other libraries embarking on or considering a similar initiative.

Originality/value – This paper is of potential value to other libraries considering embarking on a similar initiative, or indeed to libraries who already have such schemes in operation and who are interested in making comparisons with other institutions.

Article Type:

Case study


Students; Shelf space; Library management; Academic libraries; Ireland.


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Copyright ©

Emerald Group Publishing Limited




Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT), located in the Southeast of Ireland, has developed greatly in recent years. From a small college with only several hundred students, it has evolved into the leading institute of education in the region, with approximately 6,500 full-time students, 5,000 part-time students and over 300 academic staff. Subsequently, WIT Library Service has undergone many changes over the last number of years. It currently operates across two branches, with a state-of-the-art building at the main campus and a small branch library at the college's smaller campus. The new library building (Luke Wadding Library) was completed in 2000 and staff numbers were doubled to meet the changing needs of the new building and the evolving college. Full-time staff numbers now stand at 25.

Staff at WIT Library Service recognise that the role of a modern academic library reaches far beyond the housing, maintenance and issuing of collections. WIT Library Service has set goals for itself, which include its contribution to the teaching, learning and research activities of the institute. In keeping with the changing nature of library work and particularly since moving into a state-of-the-art building, WIT library staff are engaged in many projects, which are intrinsically linked to the achievement of strategic goals for the college. From creating and delivering courses in information literacy, both online and person-to-person, to the piloting of a training programme for WebCT, library staff are committed to innovation and progress. Information queries are met with a high level of personal service.

While the job function of library staff continues to change, the more traditional aspects of library work remain. One vital task is the maintenance of material in correct order on the shelves. This makes the location of material as easy and timely as possible, as well as presenting an attractive appearance. In the past, such work has been time-consuming and repetitive and its central importance in the library service has meant that it has diverted a lot of staff time and effort away from other tasks.

One way of ensuring that the job is carried out, but at the same time freeing up staff time, is to employ the services of student employees to supplement normal library staff numbers. This is a method that WIT libraries started to use a number of years ago and which has been developed into an integral part of the service.

Literature review

A review of the literature yields little which relates directly to the situation in Ireland. Indeed, most of what is available is based on the experiences of academic libraries in the USA. Johnson (1997), for example, says that student workers are an integral part of the library, while Wu (2003) points out that employing graduate assistants has been a time-honoured tradition of academic libraries. This literature is helpful from the point of view of developing an awareness of how things are done in other places, and is also potentially of use in terms of making comparisons and assimilating ideas which could be put into practice.

The websites of other academic libraries proved to be a source of information regarding their employment of external assistants. Many US libraries employ student assistants, although the range of responsibilities differs. Some libraries, such as the Rod Library, University of Northern Iowa, employ under-graduates as reference assistants. An article on this library by Neuhaus (2001) details how student assistants employed here split their time equally between working at the reference desk and shelving. Other libraries, for example the library at California State University, Los Angeles (see, employ students mainly to carry out shelving duties. In some cases, for example in Ryerson University, California (Briggs, 2001), students are employed as shelvers and also have added responsibilities in terms of reporting breaches of security and safety. Wendt Library in the University of Wisconsin employs students to carry out a variety of duties such as circulation, acquisitions and collection maintenance (see It is also common practice to employ graduates of library and information science to work in the area of reference (Wu, 2003).

Academic library websites in Australia and the United Kingdom also indicate that student shelvers are part of their operations, and some of these give accounts of the recruitment, training and supervision of these vital additions to library staff. For example, the library at Royal Holloway, University of London, employs students as shelving assistants and also as student library assistants (see The University of Sussex Library has employed students for several years, and it is their university policy to attempt to increase the employment of students. They have been employed at public service-points (see It is clear from studying the available literature and library websites that, while student assistants are an important resource, the exact nature and conditions of their employment vary across libraries.

At this point in time, WIT Library Service sees a continuing role for student assistants to work as shelvers in both Luke Wadding Library and in the smaller College Street Library. These students are usually undergraduates, as postgraduates at Waterford Institute of Technology are frequently employed in lecturing or research work. As the number of colleges in Ireland that offer a library and information science course is very small, the US practice of employing LIS graduates on a wide scale is not feasible. However, WIT Library Service has, on occasion, employed graduates during the summer months as part of their work experience. This is also common practice in other Irish academic libraries. While some of the benefits and challenges are the same as those experienced by any academic library when employing students as library shelvers, the context at WIT is different and the employment of student shelvers warrants some research in its own right.


Due to the lack of relevant literature on student assistants and the shelving process in third-level education in Ireland, an informal survey of several third-level institutes was carried out in order to establish a broad framework of processes and procedures that could be compared and contrasted to those used in Waterford Institute of Technology.

The main areas of interest were:

Research findings

All information in this section was sourced by telephone by Jean Collins, Library Assistant, in 2005.

University College Galway

The system currently in use is that of contract workers. This system was embarked upon as a result of the perceived unreliability of student shelvers. The return time of the books to the shelves was quite poor at examination times and, even though dedicated porters assisted with the shelving, there was still an obvious need for a different system. The contract shelvers are employed for the academic year and work during the morning period. These employees have proved to be extremely dependable.

College of Surgeons, Dublin

Contract workers who work at the library desk in the evenings spend one hour of their time shelving. It is usual to have two people at the desk and they take turns to complete the shelving task.

National University of Ireland Maynooth

Maynooth library service changed a number of years ago from the employment of student shelvers to the employment of external assistants, largely due to the fact that many students tended to resign as examinations approached. The library currently employs five shelvers and a shelving supervisor, all of whom are employed at Library Assistant level. These employees work from 9.00 am to 1.00 pm five days a week during the academic year. In the event that extra work is available during the summer due to moving, for example, they may be offered extra work. Library staff find that this system is very satisfactory.

University College Dublin

Permanent part-time staff are employed specifically for the task of shelving. The shift system is from 8.00 am to 12.00 pm and from 12.30 pm to 4.30 pm. During the academic term, a few casual shelvers are employed to do extra hours and Saturdays. A Senior Library Assistant is responsible for these employees and for ensuring that the system works well. The library employs 20 shelvers to keep up with the turnover of books.

University College Cork

Part-time shelving assistants are employed on a contract basis for the duration of the academic year to complete the task of shelving. There are six shelvers who work 20 hours a week, in groups of three. Student help exists during the academic year – these students are usually completing Master's programmes and the library staff are very flexible about the working conditions of these students. The responsibility for the shelvers falls to the Head of Information Services, who completes the rosters, organises rotations and time off and generally ensures that the system works effectively.

Dublin City University

The shelving is undertaken by employing local people. Each person is responsible for a specific area of the library but is also required to help out in other areas when necessary, for example when one of the other shelvers is on leave or is ill. The majority of the shelvers work in the mornings but there are a few who work at night. A Senior Library Assistant is responsible for the shelvers and keeps their relevant records.

Dublin Institute of Technology

Library Assistants complete all shelving tasks themselves. The shelving is rostered from 9.30 to 10.30 each morning; in the evening, part-time Library Assistants shelve from 5.30 to 6.30. Outside this rostered time, the Library Assistants may be asked to shelve during the day if necessary. There are limitations to this system as it takes up a lot of the Library Assistants' time and the return of books to the shelves can be quite slow. Extra transfer trolleys at the end of every section are used to deal with the return of books. This system helps greatly as the students are made aware of it and so they know where to look for the books. The use of student shelvers is an aspiration at this library, but has not as yet become a reality due to budgetary constraints.

Limerick Institute of Technology

Shelving is done by each member of library staff at Library Assistant, Senior Library Assistant and Assistant Librarian level, and is organised at the beginning of the academic year. Each staff member is given a designated area and is responsible for the organisation of that area. The general shelving is completed throughout the day by the staff. The Librarian is responsible for this system and carries out the tasks of scheduling, organising and supervision of the shelving slots.

Letterkenny Institute of Technology

Library Assistants conduct all shelving tasks. The book collection is divided into eight sections, each Library Assistant and Senior Library Assistant being responsible for a different section every month. The sections are rotated at the end of each month. The reason for this is that some sections are busier than others and rotation ensures that an undue burden does not fall onto any one staff member. A Senior Library Assistant is responsible for organising the rota.

Dundalk Institute of Technology

Shelving is the responsibility of the Library Assistants, who are each allocated a section. The sections had been fixed but the system has recently been amended to rotate the sections instead. A “floater” was introduced also to allow for covering those who are on leave or out sick. This person is responsible for shelving but not for maintaining the good order of the sections. This particular system is currently being reviewed and an application has been made by the Institute Librarian for the introduction of student shelvers, as this method was used a number of years ago and was found to be very successful.

The proposed student shelver system will consist of about three shelvers for the academic year. Each shelver will be expected to work for ten hours a week and would fit their hours around their lectures. They will sign in and out with Issue Desk staff.

Cork Institute of Technology

The task of shelving is given to the library staff, who are each assigned a specific section to tidy. It is usual to tidy the books in the morning and then another check is conducted in the afternoon, depending on the volume of material awaiting shelving. The Senior Library Assistant supervises the return of the books and the adherence to the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system on a daily basis. This person is also responsible for the assigning of various sections to staff members. Each staff member is assigned a new section at the beginning of the academic year. This is found to be fair and it also ensures that all staff become familiar with the library stock quite quickly.

Student shelvers had been used in the past, but it was found that there was unsatisfactory adherence to the DDC system and the time that it was taking to return material to the shelves was not acceptable. The situation has improved almost 100 per cent since library staff themselves have been doing the shelving.

In summary, the majority of third-level colleges questioned employ some sort of external staff to assist with shelving duties. The main reason for non-use is financial constraint, suggesting that external shelving assistance is seen as a useful if not essential complement to library staff. Universities appear to have the capacity to employ a greater level of external assistance than Institutes of Technology. One point of interest is that several colleges have made the decision to change from the employment of students as shelvers to the employment of other external staff. This is also something which has been done in British libraries such as the library at Aston University in Birmingham, whose Strategic Plan indicates that casual student shelvers have been replaced by shelving assistants (see The information gained from this survey is very useful in terms of finding out what other colleges do in regard to shelving, learning from their experiences and planning for the future.

Student shelvers at WIT Libraries

Up to 1997, student assistants were not employed by the WIT Library Service. All shelving and related duties were carried out by library staff. However, the institute expanded greatly during the 1990s and there was an ever-increasing variety of courses being offered. This created an expansion in the number of both full-time and part-time students attending the college and availing of the services provided. From a student body of just 200 when the college opened in 1970, the numbers had grown to over 5,000 in the mid-1990s. This naturally meant that WIT Library Service was being more heavily used and the turnover of books needing to be shelved increased. By 1997, it became clear that if the library service was to continue to provide timely access to information resources, the material would have to be returned more speedily to the shelves. This aspect of the job was taking up a lot of staff time and as other parts of the service, such as User Education, began to develop, it became clear that the more routine tasks needed to be made less staff-intensive. A student assistant scheme was therefore established.

When the scheme started, there were five students employed to work ten hours every week, under the supervision of two library staff. There were initial misgivings among library staff, including fears that perhaps jobs would be lost or that some positions could become obsolete. This, allied to the fact that the concept of employing students in this capacity was only in its initial stages at WIT, meant that the scheme was less structured and less visible than it was later to become. There was little interaction between library staff and the student assistants, as the students did not need to report to the Circulation Desk to sign in. Any problems which arose were handled by whoever happened to be available at the time. This was somewhat ad hoc and although the work carried out by the shelvers was beneficial to the library, there was a lot of scope for change in the way in which they were managed. Throughout the remainder of this decade, the library itself was still very small in size but the resources and services being offered to users were being developed all the time.

Prior to the construction of the Luke Wadding Library building in 2000, the main branch of WIT Library Service was located in a much smaller space. At this time the book stock was on a far smaller scale. The short loan collection was a fraction of what it is today and there was no theses collection. The reference collection was also considerably smaller. The journal collection was not available on open access and it had significantly fewer titles than it does today. Within this library there were fewer than one hundred study spaces and only three OPAC computer stations, with no open access computers.

The relocation of the library service to a brand new building in 2000 meant that the demands on staff time and expertise became greater than ever. The new building is over ten times the size of the previous library building, has over 1,200 reader spaces and houses 200 open access computers. The collection has grown from about 35,000 items to over 165,000. Print journals are now on open access and are heavily consulted. Full-time staff numbers were doubled when the move to the new facility was made. In selecting new staff, heavy emphasis was placed on educational attainment and special skills, which would enhance the reputation and quality of service of the now prestigious library service. During this time, College Street Library has also been required to cope with growing student numbers and the increasing variety of courses being offered at the college's second campus. In addition to keeping up with developments in the profession and in trying to meet the increasingly sophisticated demands of users, staff at WIT Library Service are also very aware that the basic provision of a physical location, conducive to research and study, is hugely important to many users. This fact is reflected in a recent comprehensive survey undertaken by the library service at Waterford Institute of Technology (Hayden et al., 2005). This includes ensuring that material must be kept tidy and easy to locate.

With this in mind, the need to utilise student shelvers as effectively as possible has never been more important. The move to a new library building did not immediately result in improved management of shelvers, however, as new staff and new levels of service took priority at first. In 2002, it was decided to designate one person at Senior Library Assistant level to take overall charge of this important aspect of the service. This person is separate from the Head of Reader Services, who is responsible for overall running of the circulation aspect of the library. Since this change was made, the system has become more formalised and, while other staff are willing to assist where required, there is one supervisor to whom the shelvers are accountable in the main library. Library staff still have a responsibility for picking up books in the evenings to ensure that they are ready for shelving the next morning. They also do some shelving and tidying during the day, particularly during peak times of the year. However, they are able to spend far more time on other work than they could in the past.


Recruitment for student assistants for both the main and branch libraries begins during the last term of each academic year. The websites of other libraries reveal that sometimes recruitment of student assistants takes place through the placement of advertisements on their website (for example, Wendt Library, Wisconsin; see At WIT, there is usually no need to advertise as many students find out about positions by word of mouth. Students enquire at the Circulation Desk about a post and their details are recorded. At the beginning of the first term each year, students are contacted from this waiting list on a first come, first served basis. However, preference tends to be given to students in their second year of study. The reason for this is that second-year students tend to be more settled, reliable and focused than first years and their time is less pressured than that of final-year students. A prerequisite of the post is that students are available for work for ten hours each week and these hours must be worked unless a valid reason is supplied to the supervisor, such as an illness certificate. Another requirement of the post is that students dedicate themselves to working one three-hour period during an evening each week. This ensures a consistent presence of assistants throughout the entire day, maintaining the regular turnover of books and preventing a build-up of books to be shelved the following morning.


The primary duty of the student assistant is to shelve books. The procedure is as follows: once the student has signed in for work, he/she is required to empty the book bins at the Circulation Desk. These books are transferred to the transitory shelves and then placed in order onto book trolleys. They are then shelved and, as the student assistants are shelving, they are required to ensure that the shelves are in good order, returning any misplaced books to their proper place. In the evenings, assigned student assistants are required to aid staff in collecting books and journals from the study desks and place them in order on the transitory shelves. Student assistants are expected to aid other students in locating books on the shelves, if asked to do so.


Training consists of a general orientation of the library with a detailed explanation of the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system and how books are shelved using this system. Students are shown the procedure of emptying the book returns bins, sorting books in the transitory area and on the trolleys. They are also instructed on shelving the journals, both current and archived. Students are then required to sort a trolley-load of books into order to ensure full understanding of the shelving system. This type of exercise is often used in training student assistants to ensure that the task in hand has been correctly understood. The student supervisor gives further training to those student assistants returning for their second year on assisting in the book pick-up before the library closes each evening; this involves collecting books and journals left on study desks and placing them in order on the transitory shelves. This procedure is an important aspect of the shelving process, as it ensures that study desks are cleared for the next morning and that all books are in order on the transitory shelves in preparation for shelving the next day. This ensures that available books are back in their proper location as quickly as possible and are available to library users.

A perusal of library websites shows that some libraries produce detailed documents on training. WIT Library Service plans to use this idea in the coming year and to give the new recruits a written outline of their responsibilities and how to meet them, in addition to details of their working conditions.


This is one area which has particularly improved over the years. Student assistants are now required to sign in at the Circulation Desk when they commence their shift. This results in Circulation staff being aware of which students are working and how long they will be present. Assistants report to the designated supervisor, whose duty it is to recruit and train new assistants, and to devise a weekly work timetable ensuring that the hours worked by the student assistants are evenly spread throughout the week. This ensures that the transitory shelves are emptied periodically during the day and no available item is away from its assigned location for too long. The supervisor assigns to student assistants any specific duties that may arise on a day-to-day basis, such as tidying the theses room or straightening out disordered shelves. Supervision of daily work in the College Street branch library is done by the staff on duty, as normally there is a far smaller number of staff on each shift. It is the overall supervisor who is responsible for organising the payment of the student assistants. Funding for library shelvers comes from the main library budget[1]. Student assistants are required to sign in for each hour they work every week. The sign-in sheet is then transferred to a payment form, which is approved by the librarian before being sent on to the Finance Department for processing. Students are only paid for the hours that they are signed in for. It is accepted by library staff that the student assistants' hours may vary, due to the fact that the students' main focus is not on shelving, but on their course work. It has been found that the number of student assistants can fluctuate during certain times of the year, such as examinations and assignment deadlines. During these crucial times the shelving process tends to slow down dramatically. In order to minimise this problem, it is periodically stressed to students to notify their supervisor if they will not be reporting for work at any time. Once the supervisor is aware of the numbers of assistants who will be reporting for work during the day, it is possible to call on library staff to aid in the shelving process and to prevent the backlog of transitory books from becoming too critical.

Type of employee

Due to the nature of the employee currently employed, there is a high turnover of student assistants each year. As seen in the survey, this is a common problem when student shelvers are employed. In general, students start work in the second year of their course and may continue working until their final year, giving a time span of three years for each student, at the most. However, experience has shown that most student assistants do not remain in the post for this length of time. A large number of student assistants find that they are unable to cope with both working and studying as the examinations approach. This results in the number of student assistants, both employed or working their full hours, decreasing drastically during the last term and at examination time when they are most needed. A solution to this issue has been found through liaising with a local employment agency, the Waterford Employment Support Agency (WESA). This agency operates under the umbrella of the National Training and Development Institute, which is a non-government training organisation involved in assisting people in the labour market to join the workplace. Currently, 30 per cent of shelving assistants at WIT Library Service are employed through this scheme and it is proving to be very successful. Each of these employees works ten hours during the week, ensuring that there is a guaranteed presence of shelvers in the library, even during examination periods. In fact, this solution has been so successful that it was possible during a period of budget cutbacks in 2003/2004 to reduce the number of shelving assistants from ten to six without affecting the general work output.

The future

Type of employee

Although the trend in some colleges is to employ contract staff rather than students to help with shelving, it is planned that Waterford Institute of Technology Library Service will continue to use the current combination of students and other workers for the foreseeable future. Waterford is the largest Institute of Technology in Ireland outside of Dublin and therefore is in a financial position to be able to afford outside shelving help. However, it is not a university and therefore does not have the budget available to recruit the numbers and manpower hours that colleges in this category have. It is necessary to make the most of the resources available and to use them in the most appropriate way. There are currently nine external shelvers employed at the main library, each working for ten hours per week; there are three shelvers working at the College Street branch library.

Shelf straightening

During various times of the year, books are heavily consulted, resulting in an increased disorder of the shelves. In response to this, WIT Library Service is this year piloting a possible solution by assigning responsibility for particular areas to each student assistant. The student assistants will then be required to dedicate a certain number of their hours to straightening the books on the shelves in their assigned area. They will also be instructed to remove any books that are badly out of sequence and give them to circulation staff in order to check them against the lost books and claimed returned books records. This responsibility will require student assistants to report overcrowding of shelves and general maintenance problems, thus ensuring that library staff are aware of any problems immediately.


A perusal of college websites reveals that other academic libraries have created policy documents dealing with various aspects of the employment of student shelvers. The library at the University of Berkeley, for example, has produced a Student Library Employee Handbook, which details work hours, pay and conditions and safety information (see A similar initiative has been undertaken at St Philip's College Library in San Antonio (see Their student worker handbook not only outlines the skills required to work at the library, but also emphasises the value of student assistants' contribution to the library. A very detailed guide is prepared by the Libraries of Clemson University (see These policy documents give student employees a sense of belonging to the organisation and also help to clarify exactly what their role is and what their terms of employment are. WIT Library Service plans to put in place an official written policy on the employment of shelving assistants. It is also intended to supplement the training given to shelvers by compiling a written guide, which will be given to the new recruits at the start of each academic year.


The use of shelving assistants at WIT Library Service is proving to be a successful undertaking. The effective use of shelvers requires a lot of time and effort on the part of the supervisor. Also, the employment of shelving assistants does not completely free up the library employees from the task of shelving, as they normally do some shelving and tidying during the course of their daily routine. The combination of 70 per cent student assistants and 30 per cent employees from the Waterford Employment Support Agency combats some of the problems with retention of student assistants and with lack of availability around the time of examinations. As the library profession is constantly changing and, indeed, as Waterford Institute of Technology is an educational institution that is evolving quickly, it is unlikely that the exact situation in operation today will continue without amendment over the coming years. As with every other aspect of WIT Library Service, the employment of student shelvers will be reviewed regularly and appropriate changes will be effected as and when the situation demands it.


Briggs, N. (2001), "Stacking the odds in your favour", Nexus: A Ryerson University Newsletter produced by the Library, No.13, December, .

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Hayden, H., O'Brien, T., O'Rathaille, M. (2005), "User survey at Waterford Institute of Technology Libraries: how a traditional approach to surveys can inform library service delivery", New Library World, Vol. 106 No.1/2, pp.43-57.

[Manual request] [Infotrieve]

Johnson, L. (1997), "Student employment in Portland Area Academic Libraries: a preliminary report", OLA Quarterly, available at:, Vol. 3 No.1, .

[Manual request] [Infotrieve]

Neuhaus, C. (2001), "Flexibility and feedback: a new approach to ongoing training for reference student assistants", Reference Services Review, Vol. 29 No.1, pp.53-64.

[Manual request] [Infotrieve]

Wu, Q. (2003), "Win-win strategy for the employment of reference graduate assistants in academic libraries", Reference Services Review, Vol. 31 No.2, pp.141-53.

[Manual request] [Infotrieve]

Further Reading

Black, W.K. (2000), "Effective management of student employment: organizing for student employment in academic libraries", The Journal of Academic Librarianship, Vol. 26 No.6, pp.439-40.

[Manual request] [Infotrieve]

Curtis, S., Williams, J. (2002), "The reluctant workforce: undergraduates' part-time employment", Education+Training, Vol. 44 No.1, pp.5-10.

[Manual request] [Infotrieve]

Kathman, J.M., Kathman, M.C. (2000), "Training student employees for quality service", The Journal of Academic Librarianship, Vol. 26 No.3, pp.176-82.

[Manual request] [Infotrieve]

Stuemke, R. (1997), "From the bottom shelf up: a personal view of stacks management in an academic library", Associates, available at:, Vol. 3 No.3, .

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