Adventures in Shelving

by Bill Peak

I work at the Talbot County Free Library as a “shelver.” It’s my job to see that the books you return to the Library are restored quickly and properly to their places on the shelves. As a shelver, I’m pretty much low-man on the totem pole. But I’m also essential. Without me, the library’s bookcases would soon be bare.

Of all the different kinds of books I work with—novels, oversize books, biographies, garden books, large-print books—I find children’s books the most difficult to shelve, so I like to begin my day with a cart full of these while I’m still feeling fresh and alert. But starting with children’s books also gives me a reason to look forward to work, because ... well ... children’s books mean the children’s section of the library.

I’ll never forget the first time I worked in the children’s section. I was busy trying to figure out where the “Easy Reading” books belonged when I noticed a tiny head bobbing along beside me at about knee-level. Fearful lest I tread upon a patron, I knelt down and found myself still towering over a child so small she was at the stage where she didn’t so much walk as teeter. Rocking unsteadily back and forth, clearly as surprised by my appearance as I had been by hers, she frowned and then, as if to introduce herself, held a board book up for my inspection. For the uninitiated, “board books” are books designed with thick cardboard pages for toddlers that really like to chew over anything they read.

Uncertain as to what was expected of a shelver in such a situation, I assumed a scholarly air, nodding to show I approved of her taste in literature. The little girl looked up at me as one might a distant, foreboding sky; then, quite suddenly, broke into a big, gummy smile. And from that point forward I knew I was going to love working in the children’s section.

Adult, non-fiction books come next. Working my way through a cart full of these, I sometimes find myself connecting unexpectedly with unknown and entirely absent patrons. Re-shelving a book called A Neiman Marcus Wedding on a Wal-Mart Budget, for instance, will make me feel big-hearted and hopeful, wishing the young couple a great day regardless of cost. While a book on some disease I’ve never heard of inevitably leaves me thinking about fate and how, even as I wander up and down the library’s aisles, somewhere out there someone in our community is struggling with something awful.

Once, I remember, very sadly, I found two books on my cart about how to deal with the death of a child. For the rest of the day I found myself anguishing over some mother and father whose names I will never know.

Thankfully though, most of the time, the books I shelve in non-fiction involve fairly innocent, everyday subjects. Still, even here, there’s the sense of a common experience, a shared humanity ... someone’s learning how to re-finish their furniture ... someone else wants to know how to train their puppy ... while still someone else is planning the perfect meal!

Among my favorite non-fiction books are those providing prospective parents with lists of names for their child. I once watched a family of immigrants with a decidedly Incan cast to their features pore over such a book as one might some ancient, indecipherable text. And doubtless today, somewhere in Talbot County, a child of the Altiplano is walking around with a name like “Herbert” or “Suzanne.”

These then are the musings, the findings, of a shelver. For me, the Talbot County Free Library is a very special place. Within its walls, from every walk of life, we come together as equals to study, to learn and advance as our founding fathers dreamed we would, to pursue our personal and very private notions of happiness.

With your indulgence then, I will be reporting from time to time over the coming year on some of the perfectly ordinary, perfectly extraordinary things it has been my privilege to see and experience as a shelver at the Talbot County Free Library.