Managing Library Shelf Space

Bookshelves with plenty of space at the ends

Collection development is one of my favorite parts of being a librarian. Each year I place two large book orders, stocking up on the newest releases of every genre. When the shipments are delivered, it’s like I won the lottery. Unpacking the shiny new titles brings me endless joy. The frustration begins when I start to shelve them. Weeding old or moldy books frees up some space initially. After a while, though, empty space starts to disappear and the shelves become crowded. Then it’s time to assess the stacks and decide on a course of action. 

Shifting Methods

After receiving my latest book order, I realized that with so many new M authors (am I the only one whose M shelves are the fullest?) I had no choice but to do a large shift of all the fiction shelves. More than once I shifted an entire section only to find that I didn’t shift it enough and had to go back and redo the process. Some advice I came across from Rutgers University Libraries: “If space runs out on a shelf, the bookend should not be removed. Instead, a ‘mini-shift’ should be performed to re-allocate unoccupied space from nearby shelves to the shelf where it is needed” (n.d.). I wish I heeded this advice before getting rid of half of my bookends in order to fit more books on the shelves. I learned the hard way that cramming books in to the ends of the rows leads to problems in the future when checkouts are returned or new orders arrive. 

Not leaving enough space at the end of these shelves led to a reshifting of books

I have found that leaving space for at least four books is sufficient to prevent crowding. According to this study that analyzes the ideal amount of space to leave empty on a library book shelf, “increasing the initial free shelf space value from 3 inches up to 6 inches more than doubles the amount of time the library might expect to pass before being required to engage in a shelf shifting effort” (Bouquin, DeBlase, Topor 2016). This has proven to be the case in my library: the more space I leave, the easier it is to avoid a shelf shift in the future.

This guide from University of Florida libraries states that to help planning go more smoothly “you can estimate the amount of growth by noting the average width of books on that shelf and then counting the number of new books from the past 5 years and multiplying” (“Stack Management”). Spreadsheets like the one created by this librarian might also help librarians analyze shelf space and come up with a solution that works (Kelly 2020). If you have the mind power to follow these detailed instructions, go for it. For me, even during this unusual time without students in the library all day, I’m busy creating research presentations, curating book lists, filling out requisitions for orders, updating websites, answering copyright questions, and so much more, leaving little time to do these kinds of calculations. 

Nonfiction book cart

Getting Creative with Book Carts

Book carts are a staple of a librarian’s job. I often wonder if I’m wasting time when I pre-sort books on my library carts. According to this article on the website of Alexandria, a library automation company, I have the right idea (“7 Ways to Shelve Books” n.d.). Not only does grouping books on carts enable me to quickly shelve a few titles in between classes or other responsibilities, but it also allows me to see beforehand how many books of a certain cataloging number/letter I’m dealing with, which lets me anticipate shifting needs. Although I use book carts frequently, I hadn’t been creative with their purpose. After a recent conversation with the middle school librarian in my district, I realized that I can use book carts as extensions of my shelves or for display showcases. To try this out, I took two colorful carts, loaded one with fiction titles and the other with nonfiction ones, and parked them in front of the circulation desk. I then sent out photos of the carts through staff e-mail and our library Canvas page, encouraging people to digitally browse and e-mail us to arrange check outs. I’m hoping that going forward, adding a few carts to our usual book displays will enable me to keep our shelves comfortably stocked.

Fiction book cart

With most of my library science program curriculum spent on important issues such as cataloging, search tactics, literature, reading motivation, and research, shelf maintenance was not one of the main focus areas. As with anything else in life, I’m learning from experience. No matter how complex I find book shelving, I will always recognize what a privilege it is to be working among stacks of literature.

Works Cited:

“7 Ways to Shelve Books Faster at Your School Library.” n.d. Alexandria Library Automation Software. 

Bouquin, Daina, John DeBlase, and James Topor. 2016. Optimized Decision Making for Library Shelf Space through Simulation. 

Kelly, Mary. 2020. “Size Matters: Estimating Shelf Capacity.” Awful Library Books (July 1). 

Rutgers University Libraries. n.d. “Overview of Shelving.”

“Stack Management-Marston Science Library: Book Shifting.” Guides @ UF. 


Author: Karin Greenberg

Karin Greenberg is the librarian at Manhasset High School in Manhasset, New York. She is a former English teacher and writes book reviews for School Library Journal. In addition to reading, she enjoys animals, walking, hiking, and spending time with her family. Follow her book account on Instagram @bookswithkg.

Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development

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3 replies

  1. I always try to keep my shelves about 1/2 to 3/4 full, so that I have room to display a few books face out. I’ve found that the face out book displays draw students in and keep them interested. When the shelves are too full, they get overwhelmed.

  2. @Diana I always forget to try that! When I’m in a bookstore I love seeing books facing out. I’m going to start doing this as soon as the students are allowed back into my library. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. I love the idea of leaving shelves partly empty to be able to display certain books face-out, especially if we’re highlighting something for upcoming programming. These ideas are so great.

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