Physical processing, and realizing that It Is All Bigger Than Me

About three days into this project, I found myself staring at the spines of the books in bafflement. I’ve worked in libraries before, both public and technical services. Thousands of books have passed through my hands—for all intents and purposes, I thought, I was a pro! No sweat! Libraries? I can library the heck out of this library! I can… I can….

Not figure out how on earth they get the labels onto the books.

It’s embarrassingly basic, but it had never occurred to me before. The books I’d worked with in my past library jobs came already physically processed, either by an active preservation department or (as seems to be the increasing trend) by a vendor. By “physically processed,” I mean: the book cover was laminated (or transformed into that monolithic monochrome of which university libraries seem so fond); there was a spine label on the book’s side; stamps on the top and cover page; and a barcode on the back. In short: the book was physically ready to go; I just had to enter some information about it into the computer and it was basically shelf-ready.

But doing it myself! This was a new thing entirely. I crawled around on the internet a bit, found nothing expressly useful, and finally just got old-fashioned and pulled out a ruler, feeling like a veritable Laura Ingalls Wilder of the physical processing librarianship world. I measured the spine label of a nearby book, and placed an order for self-adhesive labels. (You can find the specifications for them in the RESOURCES entry. I also made a template for them, which I’m happy to share—shoot me a comment below.) Then I shot a bear, rendered the lard with Pa, and we all sat around the fire with our newly labeled books and prayed for good plowing weather.

Choosing a Font: In Which I Am the Invisible Hand

It’s startling to realize how many decisions influence every item you encounter, every day, that you completely take for granted. Look at the back of your shampoo bottle. Somebody chose the margins for the ingredients list. Somebody else put a lot of time and thought into the pattern on the box spring of your mattress. The human thought that has gone into every object you interact with every day is so baffling that it’s impossible to consider.

It’s even more shocking when you find yourself on the other side of that divide–which, in making a library, you will. Look around your space. You know all of those decisions that seem completely arbitrary? Somebody has to make them, and that somebody–dizzyingly, wonderfully–is you.

For me, this moment arrived when I sat down to type up my first(!) spine label and realized… I didn’t know what font it should be. And more than that, there was no font it “should be.” There was the font that I (not a graphic designer) was going to decide that it was, because I was the DIY librarian, and there was no one else to make this decision. It was stunning and beautiful and silly and a little heady. Because let’s be honest: is the shelf label font something that the students will care, or even think, about? No. But it is something that they’ll interact with every single day—and that will be, on a subconscious level, a small element in their greater conception of what a library is and how it should look and behave. It’s not just the difference between Times and Comic Sans. It’s the creation of the identity of something that will live (hopefully) far beyond you and (even more hopefully) lodge like a small tender seed in your students’ hearts.

(In the end, we went with Arial Bold, size 11.)

Using the call numbers generated by my catalog, I printed the labels and placed them on the books. Then I put the books in order, and….

(Insert angelic choir.)

(Insert the singing of an angelic choir.)

I am being real with you, future-librarians: this was a deeply emotional moment. Stepping back and looking at my first shelf of spine-labeled books, I had the sudden sense that there was an undercurrent in the library that hadn’t been there before. Not just a sense of authority or validity: a sense of belonging. Looking at these books, presented the way I’ve seen books presented in libraries my entire life, it felt suddenly like the books did not belong to me. Like, instead, they belonged to Libraries Generally: a sense of something greater, bigger, more active and vast and alive than just me and my little school on the edge of the Texas hill country.

Or maybe like this.  (image credit:

Or maybe like this. (image credit:

It’s very difficult to explain.


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