Saturday, December 13, 2008

Basic library procedures: Role of circulation services

The circulation services unit of a library fills two important roles. The first and perhaps most obvious role is that of circulation control. This is defined in a classic text as “that activity of the library, which, through personal contact and a system of records, supplies the reader with the books wanted.” (Jeannie M. Flexner, Circulation Work in Public Libraries (Chicago: American Libraries Association, 1927),1) Throughout history, people have had limited access to books and other forms of information. The primary reason for the existence of the library is its specialized service, which makes available to users a wider variety of information and ideas than they could otherwise obtain. This service is the foundation upon which the whole structure of the modern library rests. The use of modern reference tools, instruction and guidance in the use of the library, and readers’ advisory are unimportant if customers cannot obtain the information they want. Circulation routines are established, records maintained, and personnel employed and trained to make information efficiently available to borrowers or to explain why requested items cannot be immediately supplied.
A second and equally important role of circulation services is that of public relations. Often the first contact people make with a library is at the circulation desk, the centre of library activity for most customers. Public opinion of the value and usefulness of a library results from many personal contacts between individual users and the library staff. In many cases, circulation practices determine whether users continue to use the library or whether they become discouraged at failures to obtain desired information promptly. Whole library systems may be judged by the work of a single circulation assistant.
The library must properly train circulation staff to prepare them to give effective and efficient service. Staff members should be imbued with the service ideal of the library and taught the philosophy behind the routines they perform. In this way they may be expected to treat each user as an individual whose request is important and who is entitled to the full measure of services consistent with library policy.
Special libraries usually do not have a staff person devoted to circulation. Often check-out of library materials is done on a self-serve basis with instructions on how to fill out cards placed in plain sight. After use, materials may be deposited in the library, mailroom, or in-box of library staff. Checking in and reshelving materials may fall to the librarian, library clerk, or other office support staff.

Philosophy of circulation
The circulation philosophy of a library derives from the library’s mission and goals or from its governing body. Commonly, this philosophy involves guaranteeing to a library’s clientele equal and fair access to the library’s collection. Today this philosophy also includes a desire to deliver material into the hands of the users. This desire to provide access to library materials is expressed through the actions of staff and the existence of appropriate procedures.
These democratic ideals were not always the norm. For centuries libraries were more the preservers and guardians of knowledge than the purveyor of it. Until the invention of movable type in the fifteenth century, books were both scarce and valuable, and few people were literate. Libraries, whether government collections; religious collections attached to temples, churches, or monasteries; private collections; or academic collections, had very restrictive circulation policies. The generous circulation privileges we know today are of recent vintage. Indeed, the whole notion of a publicly supported lending library, whose purpose is to make books available to all, is a relatively new idea.
In the United States, public libraries as we now know them date from the mid-nineteenth century. Initially, public libraries performed an educational function. In the early 1800s, librarians argued over the question of open access to the bookshelves. Free access to the books first was conceived as a privilege for the scholarly researcher. Later, people advocated access to the collections of a basis of service to the needs of working people. Supporters of closed stacks maintained that unfettered access would lead to disorder on the shelves and decimation of the collection through theft. They also argued that the presence of intelligent desk attendants would be more helpful than stack access.
Recreational reading began to take on importance in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Emphasis on the use of books gradually increased and it was understood, even in the nineteenth century, that the card catalog did not provide sufficient across to the collection for most patrons. In response, library staff developed annotated book lists, subject lists, bulletins of recent acquisitions, and printed daily lists on subjects of current interest. The minimum age of borrowers were lowered, and children’s rooms were established. Hours were extended to cover nights and weekends.
Academic libraries lagged behind public libraries in emphasizing use. “In the old days at Columbia College, freshmen and sophomores were allowed to visit the library only once a month to gaze at the backs of books; the juniors were taken there once a week by a tutor who gave verbal information about the contents of the books, but only seniors were permitted to open the precious volumes, which they could draw from the library during one hour on Wednesday afternoons.” (T. W. Koch, "Some phases of the administrative history of college and university libraries," ALA Bulletin 6 (1912): 274). In 1893 Lodilla Ambrose wrote: “Several large institutions limit students to a reference use of the library...In a certain college a student may have only two books a week; one of these must be from the religious department, and these will only be given to him on presentation of a ticket signed by one of his professors.” (Lodilla Ambose, "A Study of college libraries," Library Journal 18 (1893): 116)
One does find exceptions to these limitations on student use of the library. However, before the first generation of the twentieth century, the traditions and the literature of collegfe libraries emphasized preservation rather than use.
Today, circulation staff find themselves with new formats aside from books, such as videos, CDs, laser disks, cassettes, and computer software. Libraries determine circulation policies and routines with the goal of providing maximum access to the materials. The circulation staff member sees their work through this ideal as it is expressed in library policies and individual attitudes. As the staff member becomes familiar with the rules and regulations, the policy of the library with regard to their role will be better understood. Although rules are generally enforced with impartial fairness, some circumstances require a literal interpretation while others call for a more liberal rendering: for example, staff at a library that requires a valid library card may overlook the occasional forgetfulness of a well-known borrower and allow the customer to check out books without the card, yet still require proof of eligibility from an unknown borrower. The more fully the circulation assistants understand the underlying philosophy of the institution, the more accurately they can determine which circumstances call for exceptions to the rules.

Customer relations
Almost everything done in a library is an act of customer relations. Anything that affects the patron’s attitude toward the library, negatively or positively, is part of customer relations. How long it takes to catalogue books, how staff answer the telephone, the accuracy of the reshelving process, the inflection in one’s voice when answering an question, the presence and quality of signage, and the “warmth” or atmosphere of a library are only a few examples of things that have an impact on customer relations.
There are philosophical and practical reasons for a library to be concerned about customer relations. Good customer relations will stem from the delivery of quality service. Conversely, bad customer relations is a sign that the service philosophy of the library is defective in vision, execution, or both. Some libraries make formal attempts to assess user satisfaction to determine how well they are meeting and exceeding the needs of their customers.
From a practical standpoint, good customer relations is vital for the stability of a library’s financial base. Whether public, academic, special, or school, a library must depend on a parent agency for funding. Libraries are expensive yet low-profile institutions and in times of financial exigency (that is, most of the time) they are easy targets for budget slashing unless they can rally supporters. Good customer relations is essential in building this corps of advocates and thus helps to guarantee that a library will continue to have the resources it needs to fulfill its mission and goals.
Because of its central role in providing service to library users, a large share of the responsibility for good customer relations rests on the circulation staff. Increasingly in some libraries, working with culturally diverse groups presents a challenge to staff. There is a growing need to understand cultural differences and the needs of non-English speakers to provide good-quality service. If staff members apply rules and regulations with fairness and flexibility, each customer is treated as an individual with important needs, and if routines aimed at providing efficient service are accurately performed, positive customer relations will almost surely follow.
There are, however, a small number of library users who do not respond to courteous treatment and efficient service. These customers are sometimes categorized as “problem patrons”. The largest category of problem patrons is those individuals with contentious personalities or chronically bad attitudes. To these individuals, attempts at fair treatment are unappreciated and reasonable library service is insufficient. Nevertheless, library staff must make reasonable attempts to satisfy every customer’s library needs, even those of problem patrons.
Urban libraries, especially public libraries, are sometimes visited by individuals who are, for instance, intoxicated, or by homeless people seeking shelter. Latchkey children gather in many libraries after schools let out. Although these and other users may cause occasional problems for the staff, no class of users should be singled out for special treatment. The same policies should govern treatment of everyone. If certain behaviour problems are common at a particular library, a policy for handling individuals exhibiting this behaviour should be in writing and known to all library staff. Posting such a policy to make customers aware of it is also helpful.
It is important that circulation staff members do not get into the habit of considering all library customers with problems as problem patrons. Users often have valid criticisms and to treat them all as problem patrons is to reflect a negative service attitude on the part of the staff.
What sorts of problems are brought to the attention of a circulation staff member? Intner’s 1987 study of circulation policy asked librarians about users’ complaints. (Shelia Intner, Circulation policy in academic, public, and school libraries (New York: Greenwood, 1987)) In academic libraries the principal problems reported by borrowers were lack of information about materials they wanted to borrow and couldn’t find and lack of notification about overdue materials. Circulation limits on reserve items and restrictions on renewals were other problems, as well as dissatisfaction with the tedium of manual charging systems and strict application of circulation rules. The most frequent complaints of public library users were about insufficient numbers of desired titles and not being notified about their overdue materials. Borrowers were also unhappy about short loan periods, limited renewals, fines, and the use of collection agencies. The most frequent complaint of students using school libraries was that materials they wanted were not available. Students also wanted to be notified about their overdue materials and they disliked receiving overdue notices for materials they believed they had returned. Like other library users, students were annoyed at limited loan periods and restrictions on their library privileges.
Circulation staff should be aware of the most frequent complaints made by users of their library and should pass complaints on to their supervisors. Many libraries have manual or online suggestion boxes or complaint forms to document problem areas. Appropriate responses to complaints should be taught to all loan desk workers and the responses should be made with courtesy and tact. Some libraries have a response bulletin board, which allows staff members to post public responses to questions or complaints.

Circulation control systems
Characteristics of circulation control systems

In theory, a circulation control system allows staff to determine, at a minimum, the location of each book in the collection and to administer the circulation policy fairly. Each system has unique characteristics that determine its value to a library. The traits discussed below occur, in varying degrees, in all circulation systems. When a system is studied, the importance of each characteristic for a particular library’s operation must be considered.
First, the system must be easy for borrowers to use and for library personnel to operate. A complex or cumbersome system may result in poor service and customer relations if borrowers view it as an obstacle to their needs, rather than as an aid. Simplicity and ease of use might be the most important qualities of any circulation control system.
Second, the system must be reliable. It must accurately record transactions with little opportunity for user or staff error.
Third, the system should allow library staff to identify the borrower, the material borrowed, and the date material is due. All systems provide this information, but differ in the speed with which it is retrieved. In some libraries this information may not be needed instantly. In school and academic libraries, however, where class assignment deadlines are important determinants of circulation demand, one requirement is that the borrower’s name and the due dates of materials must be available immediately so staff members can recall materials for use by other students.
Fourth, the system must provide a record of overdue materials. This information is needed to send overdue notice, provide a record for fines, and develop a list of materials for possible replacement. Some libraries identify overdue material daily, while other libraries do it less often.
Fifth, the system should provide easy and accurate retrieval of requested materials when they are checked in. Borrowers often request materials already on loan. The borrower should be able to request notification when materials are returned and available for further use. This request is called reserving a book, or a hold request. The system must allow for returned materials to be checked against hold requests and held for the next borrower.
Sixth, the system should allow for easy retrieval of statistics required by the library. For some libraries a manual system provides enough statistics with minimal effort. Other libraries may need sophisticated records on reading patterns or collection use, requiring a computerized system.
And finally, the system must be cost effective. The system must not make an undue claim upon the staff, material, or financial resources of a library in proportion to the benefits received from the system and the rest of the library budget.

Selection of a circulation control system
Selecting a circulation control system is one of the first decisions made when establishing a library. The system selected affects how materials are prepared for use: It must be known whether the circulation control system will require a book pocket and book card, a date due slip, a punch card, or a bar code before material is processed. The method of circulating books affects other library operations as well. Careful study is needed to select a circulation system. Once it is in operation any change or major modification will be costly and time consuming. Many considerations are involved in the selection of a circulation system.
The first most common consideration is the quality of service given to the customer. To some degree all of the following factors must be balanced with the library’s standard of good service. The circulation control system must be compatible with the needs of the library’s users and the overall purpose of the library.
The second factor is the size of the library collection and the expected volume of circulation. Some systems, well suited to a small volume of circulation, would be inadequate in a larger library. The opposite is, of course, also true: An automated system is needed in a library circulating 500,000 items a year, but may be unnecessary in a library circulating 5,000 volumes a year.
The third consideration is the cost of the system. Three elements pertain here:
1. the initial cost of processing and equipment;
2. the cost of ongoing processing; equipment maintenance, and supplies;
3. the cost of personnel needed to operate the system.
This kind of analysis is complex and requires detailed research. A carefully selected circulation system may save many thousands of dollars in unnecessary expenses each year.
A fourth consideration is the type of customer the library serves and the kind and amount of borrower participation built into the system. Some systems require that the borrower merely hand the material to library personnel, who do everything necessary to charge it out. Other systems require that the borrower fill out cards with the author and title of the book and the borrower’s name and identification number. Still other systems allow customers to self-charge materials out to themselves. In a public library, the circulation control system must accommodate a wide range of customers and abilities. To avoid errors, a public library might use a system in which the patron hands the material to library personnel who handle the entire processing. At the other end of the spectrum is the academic or special library. Because these libraries serve a select clientele from whom relatively error-free participation is expected, the library can save personnel by letting the borrower do as much as possible. There are still a number of small institutional libraries (for example, corporate and seminary libraries) where the honor system serves as the only circulation control.

Selected circulation control systems
Automated circulation control systems

The newer circulation control systems are computerized. Not all libraries possess an automated system, although the number of libraries with automated circulation control systems has greatly multiplied since the first systems were installed in the mid-1970s. As early as 1989, a survey of public and academic libraries suggested that more than 60 percent enjoyed some level of automation. ("Upgrading systems, softwarem and microcomputers: the state of automation in 1,003 libraries," Library Journal 114 (September 15, 1989):56) This has increased to nearly 100 percent as of 1999.
In 1998, 10 of the top 12 automated library systems offered circulation modules, and a number of PC based systems are also available for smaller libraries. (Leigh Watson Healy, Library systems: current developments and future directions (Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources, 1998). Systems vary from a single PC based system in a small library to a mini-server in larger libraries with multiple PCs. Each system operates in the same general manner but with certain unique features. The description that follows covers only the basic characteristics common to most computer-based systems.
Automated circulation systems generally require little or no patron participation. Each library user is assigned a unique identification number that appears as a bar code (also called a zebra number or optical character recognition or OCR label). These bar codes are attached to the user’s library card, and staff scan (or “read”) them with a light pen or optical scanner. Anyone who shops in a grocery store will recognize the bar codes, which are similar to those that appear on most food packaging. Staff also apply a unique bar code to each item in the library’s collection. The item’s bar code number is linked to the item’s bibliographic record in the online catalogue.
To charge out an item, the customer presents the bar-coded identification card to the circulation attendant together with the material to charge out. The clerk scans the bar code on the identification card with a light pen or optical scanner, or may enter patron and item data via a keyboard. The computer automatically retrieves the patron record and checks the borrower’s eligibility to borrow materials (for example, no current excessive overdue fines is enrolled in school, and so forth). If the patron’s status report is satisfactory, the attendant scans in the bar code on each item to be charged out. Each item charged out is automatically linked to the patron’s record in the computer’s memory. The attendant returns the identification card and completes the transaction by placing a pre-printed date-due notice in the book or stamping the date-due slip in the book to remind the borrower of the items’ due dates.
To check in returned material, the staff member places the system in the discharge, or check-in mode. When the system reads the bar code on the item it clears the record from the computer’s memory unless the item is overdue, in which case the system automatically generates a fine notice. The borrower’s record is either cleared or attached to the overdue information. If another borrower has a reservation (hold) on the item the system displays this on the monitor and the clerk takes appropriate action to notify the requesting borrower.
At least one automated system has a portable unit with an independent power source. This allows staff to charge material out at remote locations, such as on a bookmobile, or use it as a backup system during a power failure. The unit can also be used to compile records of in-house use of reference and other materials.
Increasingly, computer-based circulation systems are linked with the library’s automated catalog in integrated systems. This allows customers to determine the circulation status of catalogued materials directly from the public terminals. It also allows customers to determine the circulation status of materials in the collections of other libraries with integrated systems. This is a valuable enhancement of service and is especially useful information for interlibrary loans and interlibrary referral.
Automated systems can also facilitate self-charging for library customers. Permitting borrowers to check out their own items frees circulation staff to perform other service functions. This service may also improve productivity and efficiency, reduce expenses, and allow libraries to handle increasing circulation activity without increasing staff while affording customers an option for self-service. The technologu is similar to that used in automatic teller machines. The borrower places a library card in the system. If the card is approved, instructions appear on how to position the item and scan the bar code. The system then verifies the circulation status of the item, checks it out, and desensitizes the security device. Date-due slips can be printed, and if a problem is encountered the customer is prompted to inquire at the circulation desk.
There is a list of tasks most computerized circulation systems can be programmed to perform. Each of these jobs is labour intensive and costly with a manual system. If a computer performs these tasks a library can improve service, and, perhaps, even save money:

1. identifies delinquent borrowers who have overdue materials and/or owe fines;
2. displays the reason for the delinquency;
3. alerts staff to lost or stolen identification cards when one is presented;
4. indicates when a reserve (hold) has been placed on an item;
5. displays all items currently checked out to a borrower and eliminates any record
of past circulation activity;
6. allows placement and notification of reserves (holds);
7. calculates fines and fees for overdue items;
8. prints recall notices;
9. automatically prints overdue and fee statements;
10. indicates whether a particular item is already checked out or is temporarily unavailable, for example at the bindery;
11. records and prints a variety of statistical information concerning collection use and circulation activities.
Automated systems are flexible and a library may tailor the functions cited above to meet its specific needs. The only way to understand an automated circulation system is to see one in operation or, better yet, use one in person. A visit to a successful operational system is far more useful than reading a description.

Manual circulation control systems
In a landmark 1961 study, George Fry & Associates identified 28 different circulation control study systems employed in American libraries (George Fry & Associates, Study of Circulation Control Systems: Public Libraries, College and University Libraries, Special Libraries (Chicago: Library Technology Project of the American Library Association, 1961). Most of them, however, are not widely used, and only two manual systems prevail today. They are the Gaylord system and the Newark system. Because computerised circulation systems are now the norm, the general descriptions of the Gaylord and Newark systems will be discussed only.

The Newark system
The Newark circulation control system is the most widely used manual system in the United States. It is simple to use for both borrowers and staff and is suitable for both small and medium-sized libraries. The system requires no expensive equipment. There are two variations of the system: (1) self-charge, which requires borrower participation; and (2) staff-charge, with no borrower participation.
When a library uses a the self-charge method, borrowers remove the book card from the book pocket and write their names and identification numbers or other required information on the first available blank line. The borrower gives the book and book card to the circulation attendant, along with a library card or other form of identification. The staff member verifies the identity of the borrower and stamps the due date in the book and on the book card. The book card is then ready to be filed, by date due and the call number or simply by call number. In this case it is necessary to have the call number, author’s name, and title on the book card and book pocket to verify that the book card pertains to a particular book.
In the staff-charge method, a circulation staff member, not the borrower, fills out the information on the book card. Borrowers give the attendant the material to be charged out and their library cards. In this method each library card has an identification number, and the staff member writes this number on the book card instead of the borrower’s name. The staff member does not sign the patron’s name, or the borrower could later claim the signature was forged. The remaining steps are the same as in the self-charge method. Staff-charge is more expensive to operate because of increased staff time, but it generally reduces the number of errors.
In both of the above methods, when material is returned a staff member removes the book card from the file. This ends the borrower’s responsibility, and staff cancel the borrower’s record on the book card. the book card is placed back into the book pocket and the material is ready for reshelving.
A library using the self-charge system maintains a file of registered borrowers by name; however, libraries maintain two registration files for the staff-charge version, one filed by identification number and one filed by borrower’s name. Because only the borrower’s identification number is on the card, staff use the second file to identify the borrower if material is overdue or if other problems arise.

The Gaylord System
This circulation control system is named for the manufacturer of the electric book charger staff use to charge out materials. It is similar to the Newark system except that a machine fills in the information on the book card. This frees both the borrower and library personnel from this time-consuming task. The system requires no borrower participation. When borrowers register with the library, they receive library identification cards with an identification number embossed on a metal plate. One variation of the charging machine allows the use of a plastic identification card, which can be used to print directly onto the book card.
If an identification card with the embossed plate is used, registration files of borrowers by name and identification number are needed, because only the identification number appears on the book card. With the plastic identification card, the borrower’s name can be printed on the book card, eliminating the need for a registration file by identification number.
To charge out material the borrower presents the material and identification card to the circulation attendant. The staff member removes the book card from the book pocket and inserts it into a slot in the charging machine, then inserts the identification card into another slot. The machine automatically prints the borrower’s name or identification number and a due date on the book card. The attendant places a predated date-due card in the book pocket. The book card is now ready to be filed by due date and in order by call number or author.
Evans, G. Edward; Amodeo, Anthony J.; and Carter, Thomas L. Introduction to Library Public Services. 6th ed. Greenwood Village, Colorado : Libraries Unlimited, 1999.


Unknown said...

WOW. Thanks. I know this is several years old, but it is still useful information for a current LIS student.

_"Christy"_ said...

thanks a lot. this really help me in my thesis proposal.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this information about circulation service. Im a LIS student from Cebu, Philippines, this information would really help me as a guide in making my thesis.. thank you.

winfrey nantambi said...

thanks for this information it has really helped me as a LIS student from Makerere university,uganda

Unknown said...

this information is highly appreciated. tnx alot