September 10, 2009

Things I Hate About Libraries

Well, it's one thing, really. But it's a doozy.

When I was in grade nine, one of the big projects for my art class was to find a painting -- I think it had to be by one of the Group of Seven -- and reproduce it with a graph scale. I chose Northern Lights, by Tom Thompson (below) which I found in an art book from the public libraryTom_Thomson_Northern_Lights_L.

And time went by, and I eventually finished the project (pencil crayon on sketch paper, slightly skewed) and handed it in, and that was that. Except, and there's always an "except", it had taken longer than I projected time allotment to finish the darn thing, and my library book -- my big, expensive-looking library book -- was now overdue.

And it was overdue, and then very overdue, and then crazy overdue. And it wouldn't have been so bad if I had been able to get it back to the library within the first week or two of it being past time. The fine would have been reasonable, but more to the point, the shame would be somewhat mitigated by the fact of its being so barely overdue. I mean, everyone is a few days late with a library book sometimes, right?

But it didn't work that way. I didn't get it back within a reasonable amount of time, and the phone calls from the library kept coming, and the book lay on my bedroom floor thinking nasty thoughts at me. After a time the thought of actually bringing the book back just made me writhe. What would they think of me, Book Thief, who had it out for so many extra months? How big would my fine be? Would the librarian glare? Would they restrict my card? I was mortified that I still had this book, but I was even more mortified at the thought of returning it.

(I did eventually return in; the fine was about $14 and the librarian was very nice. And it all would have turned out all right in the end, except for the fact that forgetting to bring library books is not, shall we say, a rare occurrence for me.)

Fast-forward nine years, and my copy of War and Peace is currently overdue. I know it's overdue. It's sitting right there on my desk, waiting patiently to be returned, should I ever get my butt in gear to actually do so. I do plan on returning it, but I feel I must at least make my case for why it's overdue: I simply had no idea of the due date.

I realize that this is a bit of a cop-out. I am a grown woman. I am able to look up due dates online. I know how to look at a calendar and figure out what day it is. And yet I can't keep a date in my head -- and especially not for this particular loan, which was quite a bit longer than usual, perhaps because War and Peace is a giant chunkster of a book, or perhaps because they figured nobody else would want it in the meantime. I don't know. So the first indication I had that a deadline was near or missed was that annoying computer voice on the telephone telling me that I blew it again.

What is the deal?

When I was in university, the library would automatically email you two days before an item became due. This is a fantastic system, my friends. Even if you can't keep your loans straight, it can, and two days is more than enough warning for a return or renewal.

Is there a reason that the public library can't do this? They certainly jump on it the moment you cross the line to overdue territory. If they can phone me then, why not two days before? Why can't I attach an email address to my library card, so that I can be sent the same sort of message in text form? Is the technology not there? Are they just trying to get more fine money? Or does it not matter, because everyone else on the planet is so much more diligent about these things?

Tell me. Does anybody''s public library offer this kind of service? Librarians, have you any yeas or nays? I want to know!*

*so I can wave it in my own library's face, obviously.


Eva said...

My public library e-mails me the day before anything is due with a link to renew it. :) My college library didn't.
.-= Eva´s last blog ..Phantoms in the Brain (thoughts) =-.

glumpuddle said...

The uni library that Christine mentions not only emailed 2 days before but also gave a grace day with no fine if returned in that day. That's three days warning to get books back without penalty. Its a good system. Hello public library.

Kristen M. said...

My public library system (King County, WA) notifies me ... well, I don't want to gloat but ... FOUR days before a book is due. So I can be good and take them back today, or forget and go tomorrow, or really forget and go the next day or freak out a couple of days later and realize that I'm still safe.

I think that your public library system needs to get with it!
.-= Kristen M.´s last blog ..All Sea Creatures Big and Small =-.

Emily said...

Yep, my library (Multnomah County, in Portland, Oregon) sends me an email a few days before things are due...and I STILL can't get my butt in gear to return them half the time. I am epically bad with library materials. Epically. It's actually true in many cases that it would have been cheaper just to buy the book in the first place, which is why I don't check many things out from the library these days.

But at least my library has the technology to help me, should I ever wish to acknowledge that I have a problem. :-)
.-= Emily´s last blog ..Sister Carrie =-.

kiirstin said...

The library that I work at (it's a public one) doesn't have the capability for automatic warnings, or even automatic fine notifications. We print out a list of people with fines (as soon as they have a fine, some internal software toggle switches and they go on the list) and then have to call everyone individually. Which sucks, believe you me -- I would far prefer to have a system that allowed us to let people know before they are overdue. Because I am one of those people who forgets when my books are due, too. And people get really, really angry about fines if they didn't know they had them, and calling them affords them the opportunity to blow off their steam. At me. Further, we only have time to do the overdue list once a week, so if their book goes overdue the day after we called, that sucks even worse.

It comes down to money and staff resources. Our library can't afford a library software system with all the capabilities we would like, and fine notifications, particularly pre-fine notifications, do not come standard. Academic libraries, by comparison, have so many resources my head spins just thinking about it.

With literally thousands of patrons and all the other things we do (there are four of us, three of us very part time), we can't spend our time looking through people's accounts just in case they have stuff coming due. We do warn people if they come in and they have things coming due that they have x days, when we remember. And we are very good about renewing things an extra time or two for a patron. If they ask. But they have to ask, because it's entirely possible I won't notice that their other twenty books are coming due if there are eight other people waiting to check out and the phone is ringing and someone wants me to help them use the photocopier and I have a program starting in ten minutes. I might just check out their books, print their slip, and move on to the next thing demanding my attention.

And after a year of working in this library, I'll also admit I've come to the conclusion that the responsibility does lie with the patron. We do what we can with the resources we have, and we're very, very lenient a lot of the time because all of us are patrons too, but ultimately the patron does have a contract (it's on the back of their library cards, and they all sign to it) to take care of our books and return them on time. We call, we renew when we can, we cap fines per item at $5, we print off a receipt that tells them when their books are due and I usually ask people to put it on the calendar or stick it on the fridge. The patron is the one who took the book out -- they bear a certain responsibility for keeping track of it. We cannot do anything more because we simply can't afford it.
.-= kiirstin´s last blog ..Teaser Tuesday: The Crow =-.

karen @ morsiereads said...

One of the joys of working for a university (and a university library) is just this. I don't even use the public library these days.

raych said...

My public library emails me 2 days before so that I can go online and renew them and then forget that I have them and then freak out 3 weeks later and then do it all again and then freak out HARD 3 weeks later, because you can only renew online twice. It is for this reason that I consider making out with my library.
.-= raych´s last blog ..I have a franken-neck! =-.

Molly @ bookhopping said...

I get emails two or three days in advance, which I love. Plus, we can renew up to 5 times online, even if an item's already overdue. You would think with all of these conveniences, I'd never have fines. Not so much. But I do imagine I've paid far fewer than would be the case without these options.
.-= Molly @ bookhopping´s last blog ..this week =-.

Mrs. Micah said...

Kiirsten, I agree 100% that the end responsibility lies with the patron, BUT even my very financially-strapped local library system has a due date notification built into its software. 3 days warning. I don't think anyone is asking you to personally look through their accounts--it's the same sort of standard feature that should be implemented by library systems as soon as possible, like being able to check one's account online in the first place. One could say that even that's not necessary if you still want to stamp people's books (date stamps are cheaper than online access), or if you print receipts, but it encourages people to bring back their materials on time and creates a better relationship with their library, since they can stress less about missing due dates.

If patrons complained that they didn't get the e-mail, we still charged them, checked the e-mail on the account, and told them (info they'd gotten when they signed up) the e-mail address to make sure is in their contacts so it won't be spam-blocked.
.-= Mrs. Micah´s last blog ..No More Paper Paychecks at Walmart =-.

kevin said...

We, too, don't do emails because we couldn't afford the add-on to our library management system (and don't get me on the subject of whether or not our corporate IT guys would have allowed it to be implemented in the event anyway!) I'm hoping our net system will have that built-in. If we ever get one.

Having said that, there is a danger of our infantalising our patrons. We have a set loan period. We tell our customers how long they've got. We spend money on date stamp labels that we should really spend on books and we stamp on the due date. If they can't physically get to the library they can renew their loans over the 'phone or online. And if there's an oversight they can still renew the loans to make sure they don't get any further overdue. I seriously don't think it's too much to ask.

I don't like overdue fines in principle (and I think it's scandalous that many, if not most, UK library services have fines income targets imposed on them by their councils). But there are times when we have to have some way to remind ourselves and our customers that this is common public property that we're dealing with here, not something we've bought them for a present.
.-= kevin´s last blog ..Not in the mood =-.

LR said...

Here's a system that works for us:
1. We go to the library on Saturdays. All books are checked out on Saturdays.
2. Every Saturday, before physically going to the library, we go online and renew everything that needs to be renewed.
3. Items that can't be renewed don't actually need to be returned on the Saturday. Because of library closing hours, the library gives you a grace period. If it's in the bin before the library opens the next library opening day (usually Monday, some libraries Tuesday), it is not counted as overdue.
So, bingo, there's your two-day notification!

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

My library e-mails which is a life saver. I check out books sort of randomly, so I'd never keep track of them effectively. I like LR's suggestion about going on certain days, and I wish that would work for me! But, I do a lot of ILL books, and you have to go pick those up pretty close to when they come in -- if I always waited until Saturday they'd send my book back which is lame!
.-= Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness)´s last blog ..Some Philosophy of Reviewing (Weekly Geeks 2009.34) =-.

Chixmum said...

My local library offers the few days before due email notification service. However, you must have an email address--a valid one. The library clerk serving you at the time of check out or updated information (once yearly renewal check of phone number, email address, mail address, surname, pin number) offers email notification. However, sometimes even with all that, the patron brings the book back so seriously late, he or she has been charged for it. Our email notification is a courtesy NOT a right!!!!! One still has to take responsibility and look at the due date on the slip that is given at checkout. Lastly, the clerk also tells you when the books or items are due and reminds you of the fee or fine you owe. All this in a very courteous tone or way.

Petunia said...

My library only recently started sending emails 2 days before a book is due back. I find it very helpful. But until this started there was nothing. No notice that a book was due or overdue or VERY overdue. That was not so helpful. Especially when someone stole my son's card and took 4 books and never returned them and we didn't find out until 2 months later. The library paid for half but we still had to pay a $14. fee.
.-= Petunia´s last blog ..Adventures in French Cooking =-.

Tina Kubala said...

I consider my library fines well spent. When hubby and I go, we check out the limit on my card - we share for simplicities sake - ten books. Figure an average book at ten bucks full price, so I save a hundred dollars by checking them out instead. My currently library in rural Missouri has cheap fines, so I'll have a buck or two. No big deal.

Also, I think some books should automatically have longer check out times. War & Peace, of course. I read The Fountainhead earlier this year. 800 pages. Three or four weeks for most people. I did it in two and a half weeks, but I don't have a life so I simply cut some TV time.
.-= Tina Kubala´s last blog ..Lying About Reading? =-.

Joelle Biele said...

The Howard County (MD) library system emails--they give three notices & you can renew on-line--very helpful!