Executing a library move; a planned approach to moving your library

Executing a library move; a planned approach to moving your library

Catherine Dimenstein

Out of Nowhere …

Nine times out of ten, it will catch you by surprise: an executive walks into your library and announces, “We need this space for something else; you have to move the library.” What do you do? How do you start such a monumental task?


In the 12 years I have been running the library at the Tucson site of IBM, I have moved it four times: twice into comparable space, and twice into significantly reduced space. Usually I get several months to plan; once I got less than two weeks. After four relocations, I have made an art of moving. Some of the things I learned along the way are peculiar to the corporation that owns the library, but many are not. This is especially true of the planning phase.

Before the Move: Planning Ahead

When faced with a library move, plan the components of the project ahead of time, step by logical step. Make a project plan; if an industrial engineer or move coordinator has been assigned to the project, work with that person on the plan. Think of all the tasks that have to be accomplished, put them in order, and assign target dates for the start and completion of each. Before you can do this, you will need to get certain information about your organization’s moving process. Who is paying to move the library? What resources will be provided in the way of labor, packing materials, and so on? What forms need to be processed to get your phone and data connections moved? Can you hire a contractor or other extra help to pack the collection? All this information will feed your project plan and its execution.

If you are fortunate, you will have some input in the selection of a new space for your library. If you are less fortunate, you will be handed a drawing of a space and told to make it work. In either case, the more you can learn about the new space, the better you can plan both the move out of your current location and the move into the new one.

Most likely you will have an architect or industrial engineer to work with in planning how to fit your library into its new space. I will not attempt to cover the ins and outs of library design here, but I do offer these tips:

1 Remind your architect/industrial engineer of unique considerations for library design. See the sidebar, “Things Your Designer May Not Know About Libraries.”

2 Use this opportunity to improve the layout of your facility. What in your current layout confuses or inhibits patrons? Do you have enough reading space? Display space? This is the time to make changes that improve access and efficiency.

3 Always approach library design from the customer’s point of view! What works best for your patrons? What will they see when they first walk in the door? Don’t hide popular items at the back of the library or in side alcoves.

4 It might be cost-effective for your company to invest in space-saving furniture and fixtures at this time. Is mobile shelving called for? Revolving magazine racks? Is there a better way to house your audiovisual collection?

5 Where are the utilities in the new space? The location of electrical outlets, phone and data ports, heating and cooling ducts all influence where you place furniture and fixtures. Windows and lighting are also a consideration: will tall bookstacks inhibit light distribution? In my last library move, I forgot to ask where the thermostat would be mounted. It turned up right where I planned to hang a bulletin board.

Designing the new space is my favorite part of moving a library. I experiment with layouts on paper, trying different arrangements to see how they work. Lacking a graphics program to do this on my computer, I use a sheet of graph paper with the footprint of the proposed space in a reasonable scale. (Your architect/industrial engineer can supply you with a scale drawing.) Next, I cut “paper doll” footprints of furniture and shuffle them around on the graph paper. When I get an arrangement I like, I tape down the pieces and make a photocopy. Then I unstick the footprints and start again.

Prepare Your Collection for Moving: Weeding

Libraries sometimes keep outdated and unused materials simply because it is cheaper to leave them there than to invest the time and thought in removing them. Now is the time to weed those things it doesn’t pay to take with you. An automated circulation system can help: run a shelf list sorted by last checkout date to target unused monographs. You may be able to recover some dollars by contacting a company that buys old textbooks, reference books, and indexes.

For serials, consider whether you get enough use out of those back issues to lug them to a new home, or whether it would be more efficient to rely on document delivery for access to archival journal articles. If you have a retention policy for serials that specifies the number of years they will be kept, do your end-of-year weeding before you move. If your organization has a recycling plan, ask if it will take your discarded serials.

Remember 16 mm films? Filmstrips? Are any media in your library obsolete, either because you don’t have the equipment to access the information, or because your patrons are no longer interested in using it? Donate it or dump it, but don’t plan to pack it.

Keep Your Patrons Informed

You and your staff are not the only ones disrupted by this move. Keep your patrons informed of impending changes in location, and in particular of any planned suspension of services. Put up signs in your current facility announcing the upcoming move. Leave signage after you have gone, directing people to your new location. Use your organization’s bulletin boards, website, newsletter, e-mail, and other forms of communication to get the word out about your move.

Packing the Collection

Librarians know that packing materials in order saves inordinate amounts of time and labor when you unpack; but surprisingly, this is not always obvious to people outside the profession. Explain to your management that packing a library is nothing like packing an office. There are professional library moving companies you can contract, if time and budget allow. If not, find out what other resources your organization will provide.

If temporary help is available, be sure to ask for specialized skills; being able to lift 40 pounds is not the only qualification. I had the greatest success when I hired library school students: not only did they understand organizational concepts, but they knew the classification system. If they couldn’t remember which handful of books went where, they just checked the call numbers. When I had to use unskilled temporary employees, I asked for people who could follow very specific directions. To my surprise, however, the packers had no notion of collection divisions such as reference, circulating, or audiovisual. They also had difficulty following the sequence of shelves: they started to pack all the top shelves first, then the second shelves. Explain your organizational system in detail, and check frequently to make sure your helpers haven’t gotten off track.

Most library services will have to be suspended during packing. You might be able to staff e-mail reference, and of course, online materials will be available unless the server is being moved. But at some point you need to lock the library doors to minimize disruptions. If you have interlibrary loan partners, notify them that you will be unable to fill loan requests for the duration.

Standard packing boxes are impractical for moving library collections, but the kinds of containers you use may depend on what your organization will supply. I use large cartons (four feet wide by two feet deep by two feet high) that sit on half pallets, putting in layers of books with flattened packing boxes as “shelves” between layers. If you do this, be careful of tall items that may get smashed by the weight of the layer above. Always put the lid on the carton! Otherwise, passersby may assume the contents are up for adoption. Be mindful of the weight of loaded cartons; even if you could fill a box to four feet deep, will you have a forklift to move it, or will a laborer with a pallet jack have to haul it away?

The most creative way I have ever encountered for transporting library material to a new location was in college. The entire student body (500 to 600 students) was lined up in a great chain. We entered the old library on a prescribed route, received an armful of books off the shelf from a librarian, kept our place in line as we followed the route to the new library, and handed our armful of books–still in order–to a librarian there who put them on the new shelves. Of course, this only works when your new library has all new shelving, and you have a large conscripted labor force.

Having determined the kinds of containers to pack your collection in, decide on subsections of materials for packing (e.g., reference, circulating monographs, serials, media, confidential materials, archives, etc.). This is best done based on their physical arrangement. Assign an identifying letter to each subcollection, such as R = Reference, B = Books, J = Journals. Use the letters to tag the containers of materials, along with a sequential number to keep the boxes in order.

To estimate how many containers it will take to pack each subsection of your collection, calculate how many shelves of material will fit into a single container, then divide the total number of shelves in use by this number. Also estimate how many and what kind of containers will be required to pack your supplies, small fixtures, files, and other items that cannot be handled easily without packaging. Find out if the movers will move fully-loaded desks and file cabinets, or if the contents must be boxed separately. Desks, credenzas, and other office furniture are sometimes turned on end when being moved, so you may need to empty them. I strongly recommend you get boxes sized specifically for files. When you have made all your estimates, order enough of the appropriate containers to meet your needs.

Consider where all these containers will be “staged” as they are filled. Do you have space inside the library? Will shelf units need to be taken down as you go to create enough space? Sometimes containers can be staged in a corridor outside the library, but be careful not to block emergency evacuation routes. You may have to find an area elsewhere to which containers can be transported as they are filled. Also consider staging areas on the receiving end: where will those containers be dropped for you to unpack, and will you be able to shuffle them around to get at them in sequence? Give some thought to the security of staging areas, so your materials don’t disappear in transit.

Congratulations! You are now ready to start packing.

The Mechanics: The Last Shall Be First

I recommend you start packing from the end of the collection toward the front. Place the last book in a subcollection in the upper right-hand corner of the bottom layer of the carton, then the next to last book on its left, and so on, in a row across the bottom of the container. Start the next row on the right and work toward the left. When you start to unpack a container, you will begin on the top layer with the book in the lower left-hand corner and work across to the right. This way, the books come out of the containers in correct sequence from right to left.

As you fill a container, be sure to tag it with the letter for that subcollection and a sequential number (e.g., R1, R2, R3, R4, J1, J2, J3, J4 etc.). When you finish a subcollection, record the final box number; when you unpack, you will start with that one and work back to Box 1. Do NOT mix subcollections in the same container.


Books are heavy. Journals are even heavier. When physically packing the collection, be careful how you use your body. Pulled back muscles are an obvious danger, especially if you are bending over the side of a container to load it. But in fact, hands and elbows will probably take the brunt of the abuse. Take breaks; shake out hands and arms frequently; don’t throw all your weight on the same foot as you bend and stretch.

Computers and Other Equipment

For your computer workstations and other electronic equipment, be sure you understand which wires connect where, or mark them clearly. Bind all cords with wire ties or rubber bands to keep them out of the way. If possible, pack computers and their peripherals inside sturdy cartons for moving, with plenty of padding all around. (I use empty magazine boxes.) Mark these containers FRAGILE. Do not allow electronic equipment to be staged or stored where heat can cause damage.

Checking Out Your New Space

Before you move your library fixtures into their new home, do a walk-through of the space, just as you would if moving into a new residence. Defects and flaws may be easier to fix before the shelving goes up. Be sure everything works: lights, outlets, heating and cooling. Be sure the footprint is not radically different from the drawing you have, and that phone and data ports are where they need to be.

Check with the people assembling your shelving to see if they are familiar with the units. If you have lived with these shelving units for some time, no doubt you have acquired knowledge of how they go together–and more important, what might make them fall apart. Share this information with the assemblers; they don’t want something to break or come crashing down any more than you do.

Put masking tape markings on the floor in the new space to guide the movers in placing the furniture and shelving. This will simplify their job and give you peace of mind that things won’t be set up with 34 inches of clearance between stacks when you need 36 to meet Americans with Disability Act (ADA) requirements. Then, be on hand as the furniture is going in and the shelving is going up. The movers should have a drawing of the space, but I’ve had crews show up with an outdated one. I’ve also had them “eyeball” placement of the bookstacks rather than measuring, so I got extra floorspace where I didn’t need it and not enough in the reading area.


If you packed by my method, everything now comes out of the containers in reverse order of the way it went in. Start with the highest-numbered container in the subcollection. Take materials from the lower left-hand corner of the top layer first. Once again, watch carefully if your assistants are not familiar with the classification system. Even when you are doing the work yourself, check call numbers frequently–you’d be amazed how easy it is to get a handful of books from the wrong row in the container. Leave enough growth room on each shelf that you won’t have to do a shelf shift in three months.

Have a Party!

After your library is up and running in its new location, do a big publicity push on the change. Use every form of communication your company offers: newsletter, posters, website, e-mail, PA announcement. I believe in finding every excuse to celebrate in the library, so I suggest having an Open House and inviting everyone to the new location. Have food and games, give away bookmarks and pencils, raffle off door prizes! The vendors you deal with may be able to supply promotional trinkets to pass out, even if your budget won’t allow it.

Send special invitations to senior executives in your organization, so they can see what you have accomplished. Have a guest book for people to sign, and be sure to leave a space for comments. Have fresh promotional literature with the library’s current contact information, and use this event to talk about your services. Demonstrate online information tools. Schmooze with your customers.

After the Ball

Library traffic may drop off dramatically after your move. It will take people a while to find you and to incorporate your new location into their traffic patterns. You may see an increase in traffic surrounding your Grand Opening, as the curious come to see the new facility, but very likely it will drop off again afterwards. Don’t be discouraged; any disruption in services and routines is apt to cause “avoidance” as people wait for things to settle down before coming to the library again. In the meantime, put your energies into making sure they know where to find you when they need you.

Moving a library is not easy, but it can be an exciting challenge. The opportunity to redesign for current needs and usage patterns can be a blessing in disguise. If you lose square footage in the process, take the hurdle boldly. Become a lean, mean information machine. After all, the collection is only one part of a library. The professional skills and creativity of the librarians are another essential part. Use them!


RELATED ARTICLE: Things Your Designer May Not Know About Libraries

Even an architect or industrial engineer who has designed many office spaces may not be aware of the special design considerations for libraries. Be sure to call the following to your designer’s attention:

* Books are heavy. Make sure the space you are moving into will bear the per square inch (psi) load of your bookstacks. If you use wall-mounted shelving, it must be anchored so that the weight of books does not pull mounting hardware out of the drywall.

* Ease of access, not how much stuff you can cram into a given space, drives library design. This includes specifications outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act: for instance, wheelchair access requires not only ramps, but 36 inches of clearance between shelving units. If your space is not on the ground floor, there must be an elevator to allow access to that level.

* Growth room is required in the bookstacks, not only for adding materials, but for shelving returned items. It’s a concept librarians take for granted, but one that may be foreign to your designer. Just because your shelves are only three-quarters full doesn’t mean you can get by with 25 percent less shelf space!

by Catherine Dimenstein, MLS

Catherine Dimenstein is an adjunct librarian at the University of Arizona, on contract to IBM. She can be reached at cdimenst@u.arizona.edu.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Special Libraries Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group