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The Big Shift finale: 1 million-plus items moved in prep for construction

June 5, 2014

If you've visited Cabell Library in the past 12 months, you've witnessed The Big Shift. You just didn’t know it.

It's been like a mammoth glacier that slowly but inexorably moves one book at a time, one shelf at a time, one full book cart at a time, pushed by one of some 80 staff, helpers and volunteers who since last June have reviewed, touched, moved and shelved or stored nearly 1.5 million volumes. This effort reshaped the library's active circulating collection and made room for construction.

This week, VCU Libraries staff celebrated The Big Shift. While some work remains, most of the, literally, heavy lifting is over.  

"A milestone has been reached. Literally every volume in the circulating collection, in the reference collection, and in the media collection had to be touched and moved, sometimes between floors," said John Duke, senior associate university librarian. He oversaw what Cabell's librarians came to call The Big Shift.

There was a cake. University Librarian John E. Ulmschneider ceremonially moved the last volume, aptly titled Building a Digital Library from a book cart to its new location in the stacks. “This is not only a celebration of a key moment in the construction of our new library,” Ulmschneider said. “It also celebrates the tremendous efforts of our staff in making this happen.

“John Duke and his colleagues showed themselves to be VCU’s finest from the start of this process in October 2013 right up to this very last book.  Never has a group of librarians and staff been more worthy of recognition and celebration than our colleagues who carried out this amazing effort and thereby ensured that construction of our new building could go forward on schedule.”  

To say this project required many hands does not do it justice. "The project required hands, sweat, and even a few tears. Volunteers came from all areas of both libraries, as well as from students, student groups, and the Friends of the Libraries. The empty stacks on the fourth floor are coming down now to make room for wonderful new space in Special Collections and Archives.”

Patrons will find many changes in the collection locations.  


  • Books: Call Numbers A-E
  • Current Periodicals
  • Bound Journals
  • Reference Collection
  • Government Document Collection
  • CD & DVD Collection


  • Books: Call Numbers F-N
  • Music Scores
  • Microforms: Collections & Reader/Printer/Scanners


  • Books: Call Numbers P-Z
  • Art Browsery
  • Children’s and Young Adult Literature
  • Special Collections and Archives

Moving materials was a critical component of planning for the new library on the Monroe Park Campus. As part of preparation for construction, which began in 2014, librarians analyzed the collection for essential de-accessioning and began working on The Big Shift in June, 2013. 

Today's academic libraries are no longer warehouses for books but workplaces for people. Construction will renovate some parts of the existing Cabell Library as well as add 93,000 square feet of new space. In order to meet the needs of the 32,000-member VCU academic community, 90 percent of the new space will be for researcher study space and workstations. This renovation reduced the library's capacity to house physical volumes, which even in the ebook age, are still growing by 20,000 to 25,000 volumes per year.

"VCU librarians carefully assessed the needs of the VCU community by analyzing use and circulation patterns and by studying how other research libraries manage their print collections in light of the burgeoning growth of e-resources," said Duke.

Books with a history of low use were moved to VCU Libraries' off-site compact shelving storage facility at 500 Academic Centre. 

VCU Libraries also reduced the size of the print collection in these five ways.

  1. The reference collection on Cabell's first floor was trimmed. Legal and reference sets and indexes that have been superseded by e-resources or that are no longer appropriate for VCU were withdrawn. Remaining volumes are now in general circulation.
  2. Government document use has been shrinking because most titles are available electronically. Obsolete volumes were withdrawn.
  3. JSTOR collections provide high-quality digital images to replace print journals. In the 2010 renovation, most printed bound volumes replaced by JSTOR were moved into storage. An analysis of use shows only two articles were requested over two years. Librarians have reviewed these print journals: About 860 were safely withdrawn without affecting scholarship or the classroom because the VCU Libraries holds the electronic version.
  4. Duplicate copies of books with low circulation and obsolete books without curricular or research value to VCU were withdrawn.
  5. In some cases, print volumes for which permanent ebook versions exist were withdrawn, especially when the print version is worn and at the end of its useful life. 

Have Questions?

Faculty or researchers who have questions about the collection calibration plan are invited to contact


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