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Evaluating The Workflow of a Library

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About once a month, I volunteer at St. Anthony’s Padua Academy on the near east side of Indianapolis. Their elementary school library is a fantastic place to learn about workflow.

Of course, you already know the basics of a how a library operates. There are books on the shelves. Each book has a code printed on the spine, which is usually known as call numbers. All of the books throughout the library are referenced by a master index called a card catalog, which is a directory of all of the books and their individual call numbers. (Modern libraries have a computerized system but they basically work the same way.) It’s all based on the Dewey Decimal system, allowing numbers to stand for topics. Fiction books have a different system. Instead of using numbers, they’re labeled with the first three letters of the author’s last name.

Every library has the same set of basic activities. Workflow experts call these use cases, because they are particular scenarios which have utility. And again, you know what they are:

  1. Find a book so you can read it
  2. Re-shelve a book after you’re done with it

There’s also mechanisms for check-in/check-out procedures, managing reserve lists, ordering new books, processing library memberships, etc. But these are really just side tasks. The main purpose and value of a library is to ensure patrons have access to books.

Anyway, volunteering at the Padua Academy library has reminded me that one of the two above tasks is a ton of work. I spent most of my volunteering time helping the staff with this activity, and I barely make a dent. It’s not finding books on the shelves; it’s putting them back.

consultant volunteering at library

© Flickr user Jeffrey Beall

Libraries are optimized for task #1 (finding books) at the expense of task #2 (re-shelving books). It takes forever to do this. It can literally take hours to re-shelve just one cart of books, especially if they’re spread out through the library. Yet, if you think for a moment, there’s no reason why it has to be so time consuming to put the stock back into the stacks. In fact, with a simple change, you can make re-shelving almost totally painless without affecting task #1. Here’s the new system:

Instead of re-shelving books back in the “right” place; just stick them wherever is convenient. Then, record the new location in the master catalog so that the next person who wants to find the book will be able to do so.

This sounds like a brilliant solution. You don’t have to walk all over the library putting books away. You just need to go between the card catalog and the closest shelf with some leftover space. If you have a computer-based card catalog, the system is even faster. You don’t even have to write down the new spot. Just plug it into the computer!

And of course, if someone wants to find a book, they are going to start by looking up where to find it in the library. Perfect! No more spending countless hours carefully putting books back in the “right” place. Sure, the library will shuffle like a deck of cards, but you’ll be able to find anything just as fast.

However, this proposed solution has a terrible, enormous flaw. Can you see what it is? Sound off in the comments. We’ll reveal our viewpoint in a future post.

And if this post has made you think about workflow within your own organization, feel free to contact the business development consultants at AccelaWork. We can help you be mindful of the processes you’ve put in place.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


Troublemaker and productivity/workflow expert. Slightly more complex than 140 characters will permit.
@LaceyEverett @thenerdherd @naptownbri @indystar Well, when the original source doesn’t answer the questions, people start to speculate. - 3 weeks ago
Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter

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