Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Library Overdues

Yes, I've written a bit on national politics, and I'll probably do a fair amount in the future - it's of significant interest. However, I'm a professional librarian, and realized today I'd do well to blog librarianship. The first of many, I hope - overdues.

I think overdues are a rut - a habit that fails to accomplish its goals but is too ingrained to change. I'd like to recommend looking at them.

Now, the base reason we charge overdues it to make it more likely our collection is maximally available to all patrons. We hope to use a stick - the fines - to encourage the return of the item. In addition there's this bigger stick in most states that we hesitate to use. See, we can usually take legal action if the material is way overdue. The problem with these two sticks is that one's too small and the other, well, it's actually a double-edged blade and tends to cut us every time we try to use it. See, the little stick is still (in most communities) a dime a day per item, which means an item that's kept for an extra month costs less than a meal at a fastfood restaurant. The big stick, well, Denver went through that pleasure not so long ago. They charged a young lady - while the news called her a child, she was a teenager - for extraordinarily long overdues. Charged as in brought criminal charges - misdemeanor theft, as per state laws. Now, never mind that they'd sent multiple regular notices for more than six months (the mother said she just threw them away), and made attempts to call her by phone, (again, the family acted to ignore or otherwise avoid these), it did nothing to cope with the media headlines: "Library brings criminal charges against child for overdue books." And so the library was the bad guy.

I find it rather interesting that, in an informal survey of peers, it seems nobody analyzes their overdue statistics beyond, perhaps, identifying how many items are overdue, how many were recovered, and how much was collected in fines. We analyze many other things to try to do our jobs better - perhaps this is yet another opportunity.

I think that a surprisingly high proportion of overdues (if analyzed) would turn out to fall into one of two categories. Either a narrow few sections of the collection, and/or a relatively small handful of repeat offenders. Both invite tailored reactions, which in turn may reduce the overdue rates drastically.

In public relations terms the "few sections of the collection" is the best category. It gives a specific reason to adjust the collection - to increase those items. It's extremely useful to realize that probably, were you to add another dozen books to that particular section, they'd have high circulation rates as well.

More painful, however, is the discovery that the problem is a small section of our patrons - some habitual offenders. The reason is that we're not very good at confronting the difficult patron. Yet these individuals are being selfish and reducing our effective support of the rest of the community. There are two possible responses, and both have their difficulties - disregarding the "application to a child" PR difficulties.

The first solution is to adapt a "habitual offender" policy. It will require an automated system that allows the circulation desk to identify these individuals so the appropriate actions may be applied. What actions are appropriate? They could receive a reduction in how many items they are allowed to have out at a time, or in the number of renewals any item receives, or an increase in overdue fines. If they are overdue free for a sufficient period of time, their restoration to "normal" patrons could be granted.

The second solution is to change the overdue method so as to increase the likelihood that the items will be available for the rest of your patrons. I'll call this the "Blockbuster method", as it's how they now handle their overdue items. It's really quite simple. When an item is overdue there is a grace period. If the item is returned in this grace period there is no penalty. After this, the customer is billed the cost of replacing the item to include a processing fee. The patron has a reasonable time to return the item in lieu of paying the full price, though they still have to pay the processing fee. After that reasonable time it's too late - they've bought the item. Now, how long should the grace period and the "reasonable time" be? That's going to depend on your library's situation, but I've a couple of recommendations.

For the grace period, I'd recommend no less than a week and no more than 30 days. And I'd recommend no more than 30 days for the "reasonable time" during which return of the item means the bill is reduced to only processing fees. The reason is to avoid repeating the current problem - allowing the selfish to game the system for insignificant costs. Thus one week of grace (no penalties whatsoever), one month of opportunity to return the item and pay only the cost of processing (usually five dollars in most of the areas of which I'm aware), and then - one month and one week later - they pay to replace the item. Oh - and on that day the item or a newer edition or as close to a replacement as possible is added to the acquisitions queue. Because you know the item was desired by at least one patron, and you did obtain it originally in accordance with the collection policy, didn't you?

OK, what're the down sides of these patron systems? As already noted, there'll be the inevitable individuals who are good at the PR game of "I'm a victim" - first of circumstances beyond their control, then of the "mean library staff". The defense here is to prepare - to have a plan. Who grants exceptions and forgiveness? Where is this documented so these staff members can catch the ones that abuse the system? The director should prepare a basic set of both soundbites and statements for the ones that try to use the media against the library to redirect the public's fury. It won't be easy, and won't always be successful, but it will go a long way toward reducing the troubles as a whole.

Another downside is persuading the library board to approve these changes. It's quite likely they are not only suffering from inertia but also have a tendency to put themselves in the wrong patron shoes - picturing themselves buying a library of overdue items. The course here is to remind WHY the overdue fines. That is, the purpose of the library's collection is to be useful to and used by the community, and if one person is being selfish the community suffers.

Oh - there is a third possibility, that there really isn't a significant chunk of overdues from either a particular section of the collection or of the patrons. In this case there are two solutions remaining. Either the circulation window needs extended or the whole collection needs expanded. Extending the window is probably easier as most of us don't have the money to make large increases in our collections. It's not really "giving in to the offenders" in this case, it's matching our system to our community's needs. But you won't know what the best solution is until you take time to analyze your overdues.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Iraq elections and expectations

One of the things that has become apparent to me is that we in the US keep trying to describe the situation in Iraq in black and white terms - everyone on one or the other side with no extras or other conflicts. That tends to influence several expectations of what happens both for the vote and for after the vote come the end of this month. The problem for many casual forecasters, then, starts with the fact that the binary solution is wrong.

There are a multitude of groups with conflicting goals in a variety of areas. The groups are internal and external. Most of the goals deal with who will control Iraq in the future - and the goals are both trying to get "our" group in charge and ensuring "that" group does NOT have a voice. The groups are religious and sectarian; tribal and ethnic and multicultural; for and against the US, Iran, and Turkey (including voices directly from each of those groups) as well as other nations; and for and against al Qaeda and its ilk. Yes, this means there are groups that are pro-Iran, pro-Shia, anti-al Qaeda. Some - indeed, MOST - of the groups prefer words to bullets. Some, however, believe bullets more effective than words, and their effect has certainly not been invisible.

Now, one more thing to keep in mind about the situation is just what the vote is selecting. It is not, truly, the governing body of Iraq, though it will act as such for its duration. Instead, the gathering to be assembled has one primary mission - to write a constitution to be put before the people of the nation for ratification no later than October of this year. For the US folk, the best comparison is the Continental Congress of 1776 - the one that produced the articles of Confederation (or rather, which had Dickinson write the one they adopted in 1777). Except instead of getting ratification four or five years later after the war is complete, we're asking it to be ratified within a few months.

And all that leads to my expectations in regard to the elections.

First, there will not be comprehensive representation. Four of the 18 provinces are presently so disrupted that we (the US) do not expect to be able to get votes from those provinces. The fact that approximately 40% of the total population lives in those provinces, and that the near totality of two general interest groups (Baathist-related tribes and non-Kurdish Sunna religious interest) makes it highly unlikely those elements will get a voice in the process. Using US history as an example, a reasonable comparison would be to have had the Continental Congress not include the voices of New York, Maryland and Virginia.

This leads to the second expectation. As there will be a significant proportion of the population believing they are not represented, they will have little support for the process. With lack of support but desire of representation, they'll be more willing to support the agents who claim to be providing their voices. In short, I do not expect a decrease, and would be unsurprised to see an increase in insurgent violence. Now I can see this short-circuited -- Sistani appears to be trying to do so by insisting that even if Sunni and Baathist groups are not represented due to the elections their voices should still be heard. If he (and others making similar speeches) follows through with this in clear fashion, it will keep the disruption down.

My third expectation, however, is one many in the US will find difficult to swallow. I expect the government to ask the US to leave. I expect them to do so by speaking to the UN and making this request. There are a number of citizens of the US who would be willing to leave if Iraq asks who will find it difficult to accept the voice going through the UN. Oh, there'll be a fair number in the US willing to pull out regardless. And there are some who will be resistant to leaving regardless of who asks. But I expect much noise and yet another tension point if and when Iraq requests the departure through the rule of law. Yet it's a logical outgrowth of the elections if they succeed.

And I do expect the elections to succeed in producing a national assembly with the goal of producing a national constitution. I just don't see that becoming a magic wand that causes all to be well.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Why follow GC?

I see torture is the discussion of the day again. And once more the question arises, "Why should we follow the Geneva Conventions (henceforth GC) when the bad guys don't?" I'd like to answer that question.

First and most important, we do so for tactical reasons. Basically, we much prefer our enemy to surrender. Surrender comes into play when the options are die, surrender, or run away. Sometimes run away isn't an option, and it's just a choice of die or surrender.

What we do by upholding the GC is make surrendering more palatable. "Hmm," the foe says, "I can die, maybe killing one or two soldiers in the process, or I can surrender, get a hot meal, decent care, and eventually see my family again." The more miserable - the more demeaning, destructive, and dangerous we make the option of surrender, the more the idea of dying instead (and taking a few more foes along) becomes a good idea.

Think not? Consider the US western mythos of the Wild West and "fighting Apaches." Was surrender an option, or was the rule to fight to the last, saving one bullet for oneself? For every USian, the latter is obvious. And most of us can say why - because they'd "turn you over to the women" who would inflict on you torture that would make you wish you'd died.

And it's a pretty simple fact that a US soldier or marine having to dig the enemy out of every crevice is more likely to die than one who is taking surrendering prisoners - even when he has to watch out for those using the flag of truce as a ruse. It means he spends less blood, less time, and less ammo winning the battles. Tactically, an enemy willing to surrender is a far easier foe to defeat than one willing to die first.

Operationally, the logistics of this becomes a bit of a wash. On the one hand, increasing the will to surrender results in a reduction in logistic requirements for bullets and medical supplies and bodybags. On the other hand, it's a huge increase in needs for processing prisoners, which includes food and fuel requirements above and beyond that merely for your own forces.

On the other hand, there's the operational question of intel - interrogation of prisoners. By using means that are questionable if not outright in violation of the GC, it's quite possible you'll get answers to your questions - you can break almost anyone given time and will. However, there's a tendency for the broken to tell the interrogators what they think those interrogators want to hear, not what the broken truly know. And equally bad, the likelihood you'll get more prisoners with more current intel gets reduced - they're not surrendering if that is a fate "worse than death". So your choice at the operational level becomes: a) More prisoners, but less willing to tell all; b) fewer prisoners more willing to tell all. Neither "all" is completely trustworthy, of course, so it's got to be doublechecked. And that last is the real operational reason you want more prisoners. The more prisoners you have - the more individuals to be questioned - the more crosschecking is available, and the more trustworthy the information you DO get becomes.

Finally, there's the strategic reasoning. And at the strategic level there are two considerations. The first is the fighting and winning of the war. The second is the issue of what happens after the war.

In many ways, fighting and winning the war is a reflection of the tactical issue of surrender. It's worth recalling that winning a war is in the end a matter of convincing the people of the nation that they've lost. There is no set number of casualties or economic hardship that guarantees the losers will consider themselves to have lost. In fact, history is full of examples where minimal damage resulted in collapse, and by the same token where the nation continued despite extraordinary damage, even "returning from the dead". A nation - not the government, but the people - who believe that their surrender will result in things being at least the same if not better are much more willing to yield than those who believe that things will be worse. And the GC is intended to ensure things are better more than they are worse. In the end it is the will of the people whether a nation fights or yields. In today's world, if on one side those captured are treated honorably and decently, and on the other they are not, then the people of the other nation are eventually going to wonder about the treatment THEY receive from their government, and how it would be under that honorable and decent nation.

Another advantage to followers of the GC while fighting and winning the war is the gain of trustworthy and trusting allies. A nation that treats its enemies nobly is always perceived as willing to do moreso for its allies. On the other hand, if the allied nation degrades and abuses its foes, its allies will always wonder if they're next. The ally of the former is always more willing to provide - and to provide more - than the latter's allies, who must always wonder if they need to keep a reserve.

It is after the war where the strategic advantages of following the GC comes into play. Quite simply, following the GC reduces resentments. The more resentment, the more difficult it will be for the victor to make a useful nation out of the loser - whether that nation is intended to be subordinate or ally matters not. In the US's case, the desired endstate of conquered enemies is that the resulting government be stable and supportive of US philosophies and goals. This is much easier when the nation isn't filled with people who suffered degradation and torture at the hands of the US. That's because people in most cultures tend to have a few similarities - in particular, a desire to retaliate for wrongs received. The desire for such can never be eliminated in war, but by following the GC they can be significantly reduced. This increases the speed and ease with which a stable and friendly government of the conquered nation can be emplaced, and works to the benefit of the victor.

I was dismayed when the President of the US basically said that we could treat the terrorists and the Iraqi prisoners however we wanted because they weren't followers of the GC. Oh, I recall him saying that we'd still follow the GC, but I also recall many documents saying this and that procedure wasn't really a violation - even though they had been before when done to our military over the years. Bluntly, when we had memos produced that split hairs, we were no longer in the right. A guideline we used to teach soldiers - I was taught so, anyway - was to consider whether we'd issue complaints if the process was used on our soldiers. And as a whole (and in some cases without a doubt), we would AND HAVE issued such complaints. But I digress.

I was dismayed at the decision for tactical, operational and strategic reasons. I have seen no evidence that the gain - strategic or operational - in the occupation and rehabilitation of Iraq OR the war on terror has outweighted the benefit to our foes. Indeed, there are indications that our foes have gained significantly more. And even if we stopped it right now - moving almost as far the other direction (which would be as bad) - it's too late for Iraq. And it'd be too late for the US for at least the next decade.

We have soiled our reputation, and will spend sweat and blood because of it whether we clean it or not.