Back in late April of this year, the library staff at Newmarket Library, in Suffolk, England, returned to work after the building had been deep cleaned only to discover that the cleaning crew had reshelved the library’s books based on size. While James Powell of Suffolk Library, told the BBC that staff “saw the funny side” of the situation, it would still take a “bit of time” to correct. The story was shared on social media over 5,000 times and created a much-needed chuckle among most librarians, including staff here at the State Library.

Having worked in special collections for almost two decades, I had a different take on the story. In my mind, the cleaner’s actions were completely logical and in line with standard industry practice for materials found in our part of the library profession.  Unfortunately, the cleaners were working in a public library setting where such reorganization was not needed.

And the news story brought up a fundamental question: how does one arrange a library? One would think that the most-used books should be all placed together, like the modern-day reference collection. Other people would argue that the prettiest or most valuable books should all be in one place. Many would support storing similar formats together, so that all the DVDs are in one place for example.  While others advocate simply putting every item in Dewey Decimal System or Library of Congress call number order, like what you encounter in your public or university library. 

While all these approaches are correct and make sense, for a rare books/special collections library, shelving decisions are often driven by a range of factors, including fragility, rarity, size, format, ease of paging and protection of the item itself.  According to the Northeast Document Conservation Center, incorrectly storing rare materials can be just as damaging to the item as poor care and handling:

“Storage and handling methods have a direct impact on the useful life of collections and the accessibility of information. Damage to collections can be avoided by preventing overcrowded, careless, or haphazard storage conditions.”[i]

When I arrived at Sutro Library in early 2016, I noticed that the library’s established shelving practice for its rare books, archives, and ephemera was more in line with how public libraries shelve their circulating books rather than how special collections and archives store rare and unique items.

Almost all the rare items, with notable exceptions, were shelved without regard to any other criteria except call number order. This approach increased the likelihood of damage to many items of unusual formats (e.g. miniature and limp vellum bound books, ephemeral items, and manuscript materials):

“…books arranged strictly by LC call number would result in miniature books (under 2.5”) being placed between average-sized books, thus allowing a miniature to incur damage and possibly be pushed to the back of the shelf unseen. Pamphlets might sit between miniature books and face a similar situation.”[ii]

Shelving like-sized books and materials together is a common practice in special collections. For example, many libraries have a folio section where large books are stored together or map drawers where large, flat, single maps, blueprints, drawings and other oversize items are stored safely. The Northeast Document Conservation Center states, “As much as can be managed, shelve books by size since small volumes cannot adequately support larger ones.”[i] Following this practice prevents unnecessary damage and loss and is helpful to paging staff as well.

Since we already had an elephant folio and folio sections, we turned our attention to Sutro’s small books since they were frequently falling behind the gap between the shelving ranges. Additionally, they were hard to see and account for when reshelving a bigger book next to it.  Thus, in the fall of 2016, we made the decision to create a safe environment for our small books, and it would be the first step in bringing the Sutro Library’s shelving practices for rare materials back in line with professional standards.[ii]  We created a Tiny Town.

After: the same book safely lives among its peers in Tiny Town.

But first, we needed to establish some criteria. We researched the criteria other libraries used to classify their books as miniature or tiny. The National Library of Scotland for example, defined miniature books as, “by the generally accepted definition, a miniature book is one whose height and width do not exceed three inches, that is 7.5cm.”[iii] According to the Miniature Book Society, a miniature book in the United States is usually no more than three inches in height, width, or thickness. Outside of the United States, however, books up to four inches are often considered miniature.[iv]

When staff reviewed this information to see if it would help determine the project’s criteria, the 7.5 cm (three to four inches) height requirement for true miniature books would not achieve our primary goal of material safety. Thus, the staff made the decision to set the height limit for Sutro books at 12 cm (4.72 inches) but after a month staff soon realized that there were still too many books left behind in the stacks that needed protecting. The height limit was revised again and set at 13.99 cm (or 5.507 inches), which is where it remains today.

Next, we needed a location. Ever since the Sutro Library’s relocation into its current space in 2012, there has been an empty wall of shelves that would fit our needs perfectly. Additional shelves stored in Sacramento were brought back to San Francisco in early January 2017.

Additional shelves were brought in from Sacramento to create the new home for our tiny books.

Our former LTA, Daisy Ho, put the additional shelving in place, and she and a team of volunteers pulled all the books in the vault that were 13.99 cm and below, regardless of collection provenance.  Tiny Town rapidly took shape. By the end of May 2017, Tiny Town was complete, and a celebratory banner was hung at the entrance of the town.

Daisy Ho, our former Library Technical Assistant, stands in the completed Tiny Town.

The next stage of the project required us to make sure each book’s new location was recorded in the catalog. From May 2017 to September 2019, with the help of volunteer Isabel Breskin, Sutro Library librarians (first Colyn Wohlmut, then Jose Guerrero) worked on changing each book’s location.  Isabel handwrote in pencil a “[t]” on the book and on the book’s paper call slip, so that the book would always be returned to Tiny Town if it was paged. Additionally, items were reviewed for future conservation treatment if needed.

In total, 2,871 items were recorded as having been handled.

Adolph Sutro stands in Tiny Town reading one of his tiny books.

The next steps in our project surround activities that are housekeeping in nature. We need to conduct a shelf read to make sure all the books are in call number order, add barcodes to books that need them and then eventually convert the Dewey call number books into Library of Congress call number schema. The last step will take a few years to complete, but at least we know that our tiny books are safe in their new home. I would like to thank each person involved in this project, most especially Colyn Wohlmut, Jose Guerrero, Daisy Ho, and Isabel Breskin.

This post is by Mattie Taormina, Director, Sutro Library, with photographs provided by Sutro Library staff.


[i] https://www.nedcc.org/free-resources/preservation-leaflets/4.-storage-and-handling/4.1-storage-methods-and-handling-practices. Accessed May 18, 2020.

[iii] .” https://www.nls.uk/collections/rare-books/collections/miniature-books. Accessed May 12, 2020.

[iv] https://www.mbs.org/. Accessed May 11, 2020.


[i] https://www.nedcc.org/free-resources/preservation-leaflets/4.-storage-and-handling/4.1-storage-methods-and-handling-practices. Accessed May 12, 2020

[ii] Herlocker, p. 72

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