Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How to reduce the number of missing books on my library lists

We all look at problems from different distances. For me, I tend to look at library things from the network level (far away) or at the user level (close up, but not too close up) and then I try to fit the two perspectives together.

Even though I blather on about grandiose big-picture library ideas in this blog, my library thoughts are also consumed by the minutia of the library experience. For example, it still grates me that its so very hard to create a simple 'shopping list' of titles, call numbers, and floor numbers (!) from the library catalogue that I can print out at home to take with me to the library.

My other complaint I have is that (at least at the libraries that I have recently visited) there is a disturbing number of books on my home-made cobbled book list that should be on the shelf but can't be found. What's particularly troubling, is that I haven't even bothered to approach library staff to fill out the requisite 'Item Missing' forms, and I'm a librarian. Just imagine what percentage of our users take this extra and effort to fix a problem that won't help them with their own immediate needs.

So here's my wish.

I would like a library catalogue to effortlessly let the user create a list of items for retrieval from the library shelves (this will come in handy in the future when our libraries become closed-stacks again, but that topic is another post). AND on this list, I would like a checkbox beside each item that reads something along the lines of "couldn't find this on the shelf". Now the user can check off the items she couldn't find and drop off the list at the front desk (with or without a contact email address for follow-up) and the cycle of missing books on the shelf is closer to closing.


Blog Owner said...

An interesting idea, but only if the ratio of "really missing" to "patron doesn't know how to find" is high. I wonder if there are any studies on the percentage of times that a "normal" patron (not library staff) report a book as missing that it really is not where it belongs. If this is a low percent, then your suggestion will lead staff into a lot of unnecessary extra work. Of course, if patrons do have that much trouble, then maybe we ought to be discussing why. We spend a lot of time analyzing why patrons have trouble finding things in our virtual spaces (web site usability studies, for instance) but we don't seem willing to touch the issue of our shelving practices.

Mita said...

Thanks for your thoughts. I think you are right that the viability of such a process should be assessed and monitored if attempted.

But I would suggest that the "patron doesn't know how to find" should not absolve us from this problem. It's difficult to measure how much something doesn't happen but I have a gut feeling that many books sit on our shelves because our users don't know how to find the books they want or are too intimidated by the library's system to even try.

Chicago State's Library's robot can retrieve 5 books in 2.5 minutes. It takes a student 2 hours to retrieve 5 books.

I'm not suggesting that we upgrade our libraries with robots but I am thinking that an academic library that would hire trained student pages to retrieve books for its users would have a well-used and well-loved service on their hands.

Faith said...

I'd say about half the time a patron comes to me and says they can't find something, it's mis-shelved or they didn't look in the right place. I def. don't mind helping someone find something; it's part of my job. Better than hiring/training student pages (which I see as problematic for a couple of reasons), it would make more sense to educate the patron/page/shelver so they can find it/put it away on their own.

pzed said...

Is it possible that some patrons would figure out that they could use the "can't find it" link as a type of hold function? Would this be a problem? We could consider going one further and simply offer a hold function, which again will be necessary if your closed-stack prediction comes true (is that a comment for another post?).

Conifer/Evergreen has such a hold option, but we're suppressing it for now (we being the Conifer consortium). It would be a policy change that might need significant staff support if we were to start pulling books for patrons.

Evergreen's bookbag feature might someday function to create the kind of patron-generated lists you're thinking of, but right now it's a little too primitive and not as easy to use as I would like.

Mita said...

It's possible that a "item not found on the shelf" feature could be used as a de facto hold function but such abuse could be easily mitigated. For example, a staff member could stop retrieving a list of items after the 2nd consecutive book was found and an invitation be given to the user to shadow the process of retrieving the rest of the books.

Holds are an interesting feature that our users overwhelmingly want (our chat transcripts bear this out) and that librarians mightily resist. We justify suppressing this feature usually in the language of fairness: first come, first serve. However, to the user it is simply not fair that the first one at the shelf can borrow up to 25 books on a subject and leave sometimes up to a 100 classmates without any on the topic being studied. With subtle implementation, it might be possible to use a hold function to trigger a 3-day course reserve status for books that suddenly are flooded with demand.

In librarianship, we often interpret design failures as teaching opportunities and as such, we are often reluctant to improve the situation at hand.

Mita said...

Oh and I had a follow-up thought about: "It's difficult to measure how much something doesn't happen but I have a gut feeling that many books sit on our shelves because our users don't know how to find the books they want or are too intimidated by the library's system to even try."

We *should* be able to figure out with our ILS reporting software what percentage of our user base has taken out at least one item from the library. What do you think this percentage is?

And at what percentage point do we re-consider the process by which our users discover and borrow books from our collection?