The Wiley warehouse

by Clare Playforth

I’ve recently had an exciting visit to the Wiley European Distribution Centre with the Society of Indexers and because I am kind and you are lucky I’m going to share the experience here.

The Wiley warehouse is spread over a couple of units on an industrial estate in Bognor Regis and after arriving at this glamourous location we were treated to pastries and coffee and a chat about the history of the company: quite interesting. Then we donned our high vis and went on a 2.5 hour tour of the warehouse: very interesting.

For those of you who might have missed your August 2013 edition of Warehouse & Logistics News I found an excellent article where you can see some pictures and get a sense of the scale of the operation

Think of it as a massive version of our book sorter and trolley park plus the Content Delivery packing table and you will be about 1% of the way to imagining this “fully integrated solution for the picking, high-speed sortation, packing and despatch of books”

There are of course other parallels to be drawn between Wileys and library operations and it brought back a few happy memories of my time working in the East Sussex Bibliographic Services warehouse at Brooks Road in Lewes. Less happy was the reminder of how we later moved these offices and all the stock plus the shelves themselves *shudders* to reassemble it all in the huge unit on the Diplocks Estate in Hailsham which we shared with the Schools Library Service and East Sussex Records Office.

Whether we are talking about relocation, cleaning or collection development it’s easy to forget how all library logistics projects and stock moves are done under the umbrella of our classification schemes and the collections that we’ve curated. When planning the Bibliographic Services relocation I had to make sure the books went back on the shelves crate by crate in Dewey order because when they are requested by users out in the branch libraries it is the Dewey classification number that acts as the locator for the book.

So we know that in libraries the aboutness of the book is hugely important to its location and to be honest it was fairly disconcerting to be somewhere like Wileys where the contents of the books meant nothing. The ISBN is king here and it is a book’s ISBN, along with its physical characteristics, that determines its fate. When moving through the automated systems the massive chunky books will never drop on top of the flappy paperbacks lest they damage them. Colourful books or plastic wrapped books are separated from their friends by the machines as their barcodes trouble the scanners. The conveyer belts sort the items and allocate the correct size of box (either A,B,C or D) for the load. These boxes are fed flat packed into another machine which magically assembles them beforehand. As the books shuffle along the belts towards the human (yay!) packers, the first item covers a little sensor which tells the machine to stop moving lest the items spew out all over the floor.

The warehouse has a terminology all of its own too which I found weird and often charming. What I would call a crate in a library is a “tote” here. Where our books are “circulated” in a library, here they move in “waves”. Shelves are “bins” e.g. rolling stacks = “rolling bins” and best of all they have a name for those irritating books that need extra help passing through the system – the oversized ones, the ones in cardboard sleeves, multivolumes and the ones with CDs in them – these are called the “uglies”. I even saw a few copies of the behemoth that is Molecular Biology of the Cell on the uglies shelf and I thought how some books are just sent to try distributers and library workers alike. A couple more delightful terms I learned: “Little David” was a brand name for an automatic box taping machine, and “Ladypack” was a thing for shrink wrapping multivolume sets J

Everything is organised to make the operation function as efficiently as possible from receiving the cartons off the lorries to the packing of pallets for dispatch. Throughout the building on the shelves (sorry bins) the books are laid flat in piles ready for picking. There is not any order to the shelves, besides the least frequently picked items being on the bottom shelf. The lack of order is strange to me as a cataloguer and I think some of the other indexers found it conceptually weird too. There were people with hand held scanners collecting the books on trolleys and logging things on computer terminals at the end of the stacks. The system they were using looked like some kind of green screen that reminded me of an old LMS we used to run at East Sussex. This system linked the books to their locations, orders and invoices through their ISBNs with no need for the staff to read a word of text on the item (such as authors or titles) which means human error is minimal and also opens up the job to people who don’t have English as their first language. The various staff on duty rotate around the different tasks, some packing, some on quality control, some on returns – although women were notably absent from the fork lift area and all I could think about was Aliens and Ripley in her power loader suit.

The returns area had a load of books waiting to be pulped – standards are very high and they get all the amazon returns and damaged books through this area and, like a library, they have to weed out older editions of items when new ones are published. Sadly the pulping happens off site so I didn’t get to do an Alan Partridge “IT LOOKS LIKE PORRIDGE, WORD PORRIDGE!” shout, which of course was my main reason for attending.

Other reasons for attending were that I got to spend time with my lovely colleagues from the Society of Indexers and have a good chat to them about current projects and all the other things that cataloguers and indexers like to gas about such as controlled vocabularies, metadata and the structure of websites.

Our tour guide Dave (no relation to the tape machine) was very knowledgeable and had been there a long time so could explain what changes had happened over the years in the book packaging and publishing trade. We learnt a bit about print on demand and how there is nothing for people who like print books to fear as print and ebook industries continue to work alongside each other with no indication that the latter will replace the former.

Wiley have many different clients but the books I noticed most whilst we were on our tour were the O’Reilly ones and because I love them so much. I’ll leave you with a link to their menagerie…

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