Library Shelvers Deserve Better Treatment
The Herald should be applauded for its coverage of the difficulty Brown’s under-appreciated library shelvers have had getting adequate compensation for their work-related injuries (“Library shelvers suffer from repetitive stress injuries, Oct. 24”). Having worked part time this past summer as a student shelving assistant, I can testify to the strenuousness of the job and the professionalism of the library shelvers.
Shelving books may seem like an easy job, but hours and hours of repeating the same simple movements can create real wear on the body, and the monotony of the work can leave you feeling mentally fried. If the soles of your shoes are wearing thin (as mine were), or if you’re not careful about how your move your body, you end up sore at the end of just a single day of work. All the little exceptions to the rules—say, every once and a while you forget to take a break, or you bend down to shelf a book instead of squatting down—begin to add up. Though I am a healthy young person, I found myself experiencing mild foot and lower back pain after half a summer of 20 to 30 hours weeks at the job. I can only imagine the toll that decades of full-time shelving work must take on a body twice as old as mine.
It must be added to the Herald’s coverage of the shelving staff’s injuries that the library shelvers are not just suffering bodies, but dynamic individuals who manage to stay upbeat despite their less than ideal working conditions. The shelving staff is a vibrant and friendly bunch who made me, a temporary worker, feel at home even in the windowless basement of the Rock. Their personalities make an otherwise dreary and monotonous job enjoyable at a human level. They are also very professional. They taught me how to do my job and gave me tasks without ever being bossy, unctuous, or otherwise compromising the comfortable workplace rapport. Most importantly, they did not just look after the quality of my work, but also after my physical welfare, making sure that I knew how to shelve books without hurting myself and that I took adequate breaks.
After all the concern that the library shelvers showed me, I cannot believe that the reason library shelvers are incurring injuries is that they are not applying the safety techniques taught in training workshops, as head of Preservation Eric Shoaf suggested to the Herald. Shoaf’s remarks, as well as those of Director of Environmental Health and Safety Stephen Morin, whom the Herald paraphrased as saying that that “shelving is not an area that jumps out as having a high occurrence of injuries”, seem to intentionally downplay the health risks of being a long-term library shelver. The University’s position seems to be that the shelvers’ injuries are not inevitable results of their job for which the University must take responsibility, but rather are the shelvers’ own faults. This attitude is symptomatic of a broader devaluing of physical labor in today’s economy, a trend that is all the more pronounced at institutions of higher learning, which valorize and reward the intellectual and clerical labor over the physical labor.
The truth is this: that repetitive physical labor, even labor as seemingly low-intensity as shelving books, breaks the body down, and that the people who make their living through such work must be fully compensated for the physical deterioration they will inevitably incur as part of their job. To say that there are health “risks” associated with a career as a library shelver is misleading. It is almost certain that doing shelving for years will result, if not in a dramatic physical injury, then generally accelerated physical strain. Shelving may not be as immediately dangerous as other forms of manual labor, and shelving-related injuries may be less dramatic than life-threatening construction accidents, but the certainty of long-term physical damage is no less real.
Brown can make changes both big and small to treat its shelvers more fairly. Starting small, the library should stop putting books on the bottom shelf of the stacks in the library, which are the most straining on shelvers’ backs and knees to reach. This has already been done in some sections of the library, and should continue to be implemented throughout the library as over-stocked stacks are reorganized. The library should also increase pay for student shelving assistants to better reflect the physically demanding nature of their work relative to other student jobs. Student shelvers currently make a quarter less per hour than students working in the book bindery, for example. Ultimately, however, Brown has to be more responsive to the needs of its employees and the judgments of employees’ doctors pertaining to work-related injuries. It is disgraceful that Brown employees should have to resort to lawsuits to claim fair compensation for their hard work. The Herald’s must continue its critical coverage of the University’s labor practices. Finally, Brown students and alum should support University workers’ efforts for fair compensation and safe labor practices. After all, student tuition and alumni donations contribute to the salaries of the Universities physical workers. If we alumni and students are not a part of the solution, then we are part of the problem.
Former Herald Opinions Editor Patrick Harrison ’08 misses the shelf life.