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.


Post a Comment

<< Home