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Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners Resource Guide Collection

Developing a Library Building Program: Shelving

The Good Old Days

Photo: Cincinnati Public Library

How much shelving do you need?

One of the most frequent questions librarians get these days is "aren't books going to disappear?" The reality of the situation is that print media is going to be around for the foreseeable future. Some collections, like Reference, are beginning to shrink; others are still growing with community size.

Every community is different, and local use must determine the size of the collection.

The following describes the calculation for linear feet of shelving. For the square footage you will need, including aisles, etc., see a resource such as LLAMA's Building Blocks for Planning Functional Library Space, found on our resources list.

  1. Conduct a thorough weeding of the current collection
  2. Count the number of shelves occupied by each collection & note the width of each section. Standard steel library shelves are 36" or sometimes 30" wide.
  3. Use your Collection Development policy to determine projected growth (or shrinkage) rates in each section. If you don't have a formal Collection Development policy, examine circulation and use statistics on a section by section basis and look for trends. For example, many Reference collections are shrinking, being incorporated into the main nonfiction areas, or disappearing altogether. By contrast, DVD or videogame collections are still growing in many communities.
  4. Determine collection growth (or negative growth) for each sub-collection as an average percentage over the last five years.
  5. Do the math

How much shelving do you need?

  • Although standard library shelves are most often 36" wide, with some measuring 30" wide, you must account for end panels and dividers. A cautious approach in calculating shelving needs is to reduce the overall shelf width by two inches in the formula and then convert the resulting value from inches to feet.
  • For example, you have three double-sided ranges of 36" shelves in your J nonfiction section, each four shelves high and eight shelves wide. To calculate the linear feet available in all three ranges, the formula is 34 x 2 x 4 x 8, which equals 2,176 linear inches. Divide 2,176 by 12, resulting in 181 linear feet.
  • Your statistics show that this collection has experienced steady growth averaging 3% per year, and population studies say that the k-12 population in your community will continue to grow at about the same rate for about nine years and then taper off
  • The numbers say you should plan for 181 + (181*0.03*10) = 235 linear feet of shelving for the J nonfiction area
  • Keep in mind that you should have 1/4 to 1/3 of each shelf empty to avoid the need for constant shifting -- if your current shelves are completely full, add 25% - 30% to your total
  • Taking into account the shift to more digital content, make a judgment about whether this number is realistic. If you decide to reduce your shelving and the community continues to prefer print format, the library will have to step up its weeding program. If you choose to put in 235 linear feet and the demand shrinks, you'll have empty shelves. This is a great case for mobile or flexible shelving units, which can be used wherever they are needed