Roles of circulation
Most people who have used a library are familiar with the circulation desk. In a medium to large-sized library, the circulation desk is a hub of activity with people asking many questions and bringing up armloads of library materials. In fact, from the viewpoint of many library users, the circulation desk is the library. In order to use the library, they have to talk with the circulation desk staff and apply for a “library card”. Users have to “check out” materials at the circulation desk. And of course, if items become “overdue”, users can expect to receive some kind of “overdue notice” from the circulation desk requesting that the item be returned and a bill outlining the “overdue fines”. All of these procedures tend to lead to certain stereotypes about the library and library personnel. In fact, many people think librarians spend all day checking out books and putting them away. A number of cartoonists have entertained the public with visions of “Conan the Librarian” coming after hapless library users to claim overdue library items, extract overdue fines, and supply punishment for daring to bend, fold, spindle or mutilate library materials. These public perceptions point to the two important roles of library circulation services:
- Control and regulation of access to library materials
- Service and public relations.
In any size or type of library (public, school, academic, or special), the circulation department provides the library user with the means of utilizing materials housed in the library. The basic purpose of circulation is the control and regulation of library materials. We have come to assume that the use of library materials outside the library as standard operating procedure for most types of libraries. However the concept of freely circulating materials is an idea that only developed in the late 1800s as public libraries became recognized as places that could stimulate improvements in society by helping users to learn on their own.
Prior to 1900, the role of control of library materials was emphasized over use, service, or public relations. For example, a typical Victorian-age free library in Canada might include a grilled-in book stack room from which users requested library staff to retrieve materials that were then read under supervision in a secure reading room within the library. A more “modern” library would have a separate reading area for women. Children under 16 were less fortunate; generally, they w ere completely denied access to library materials. Such “closed stacks” (i.e. book stacks that are not freely accessible to patrons) arrangements emphasized the physical custody of library books – preservation and conservation – over use. These restrictions reflected a centuries long tradition of libraries as places to preserve and guard knowledge. Historically the use of books was restricted because they were very expensive and few people (mostly rich men) were literate. Library personnel were regarded as custodians of materials. Strict control on the circulation of materials was felt to be necessary because they were difficult and costly to replace.
Take a moment to reflect on the types of policies and procedures that might be in place in a Victorian-age Canadian public library. How would it be different from managing a collection that had book stacks that were open to the public and that could be borrowed and used outside the library? Some ideas include:
Library patrons/staff not general public could get access; less freedom/privacy over what could be read and for how long; segregation between males and females, young and old; more careful watching over users.
Service and public relations
The change from excessive conservation and protection to increased concern for public service mirrors the changing societal concept of libraries as places providing free and fair access to information for citizens. As emphasis on the use of books increased, public libraries established “open stacks” (book stacks that were freely available to patrons), allowed materials to be borrowed and used outside the library, lowered the minimum age of borrowers, and established children’s rooms. Academic libraries eventually followed this trend and established less restrictive circulation policies for students. With a greater emphasis on the needs of children, school libraries became much more common place.
A consequence of more liberal access to materials was that keeping track of the materials became much more difficult. Materials might be circulating outside the library, lost, or stolen. Individual users would be interested where a book might be and when they might expect to be able to read it. Policies had to be established for how long materials might be borrowed and procedures developed for dealing with library users who had kept materials beyond the loan period. As a result, circulation services became an important part of basic library functions and a key to good public relations. The following quotation from Mary Plummer, an American public librarian writing in 1893, quaintly sums up the shift to a service orientation that had occurred and the relative importance that circulation now played in this new model:
“The charging or loans system is part of a library’s administration by which
chiefly its communication with borrowers is carried on. The word ‘loan’ applies
to it because the books are lent, and the word charging because every library,
no matter how small, with any pretense at all at having a method, has some way
of keeping account of these loans.
The characteristic of a loan system best appreciated by the public is the speed with which it can receive and deliver books; and as a trifling annoyance, such as having to wait a few minutes for a book.
Another requisite is simplicity. The more complicated the system the greater the chance for error. The third thing to keep in mind is that the less the borrower’s part in the operation the better he likes the system. The library must ask of him only the fact that it is absolutely necessary to have to fill his order, and if there is any red tape it should be kept behind the desk.”
(Plummer, Mary W. Loan Systems. Library Journal 18 (1893): 242-246)
Circulation is one of the most visible jobs in the library and involves three sections of the library:
* The circulation desk or point of charging out library materials.
* The bookstacks (closed or open) where the library materials are housed.
* A circulation records section where clerical routines, such as filing, compiling statistical reports, preparing overdues, and computing fines, are carried out.
In larger libraries a full-time professional librarian may be in charge of circulation services and will have various library technicians and clerical support staff handling the day-to-day responsibilities of circulation. The librarian would take responsibility for developing policy and procedure, dealing with user complaints, and for compiling and analyzing statistical reports. The smaller the library the less clerical and professional duties are separated and the more all responsibilities fall on the person managing the library.
While open stacks are most typical in libraries, there are some situations that require closed stacks. For example, many academic libraries have rare book rooms that contain library materials that are irreplaceable and valuable. Such collections would be closed stacks as the emphasis is on conservation and preservation. As well, some collections within a given library may not circulate or circulate on a limited basis. Most libraries have “reference collections” containing items such as dictionaries, atlases, and handbooks that are regularly consulted by librarians and the public. Such collections usually do not circulate because it is more convenient to have them readily available for quick consultation. As well, many school, academic, and even public libraries have “reserve areas”. Material housed in reserve is typically set up so that students can borrow it for a couple of hours for use in relation to a class they are taking. Placing the item in the reserve areas with a time restriction on the length of time it can be borrowed ensures that all students in the class have access to the material for their class.
Components of an ideal circulation system
Although by 1900 a general shift had occurred in the philosophy of the library as a place to conserve and preserve materials to a place that emphasized access to information and service to the public, librarians had not abandoned the need to control and regulate materials. In the quest to keep accurate records of library materials (e.g. circulating, on the shelf, missing) various types of circulation systems have been developed. Many of these systems have focused on four objectives:
- To be easy for patrons to use and library personnel to operate.
- To save borrower time, to speed up the routine of checking in and out.
- To reduce costs.
- To relieve librarians for more professional work.
- Who has each item?
- When are items due?
- What items does each borrower have checked out?
- How many items were checked out?
|Category of Information or Service|
Borrower identification number
Category of borrower
Determines the patron's eligibility to borrow, his or her borrowing privileges and how to contact the batron
|Determines which items are in the library, where they are located and how many copies there are of each item|
|Loan information||Date due|
|Enables circulation staff to quickly and efficiently charge and discharge materials and to keep current and accurate records of circulation transactions|
|Collection management information||Combines the elements from the patron, material and loan files||Permits the production of various reports, such as, overdue, recall and hold notices, lists of materials charged out to patrons, calculations of fines|
|Statistical information||Reports generated by categorizing and tallying various types of circulation transactions||Staff can determine how many items circulate, the number of borrowers, or which areas of the collection receive the most|
The history of circulation systems reflects changes in technology over the past 100 years. While early circulation systems were manual requiring library staff to record and file information by hand, later systems began to take advantage of technologies such as photography and punch cards that automated some circulation functions. The advent of the computer and more recently the microcomputer has meant that libraries could develop fully automated circulation systems.
While automated systems have become very common in libraries, manual and semi-automated systems are still used. Primarily these systems continue to be used in small to medium-sized libraries where the cost of investing in a computer and the necessary software may not be justifiable, the number of library users is small enough that a manual system continues to be convenient for both staff and patrons. The most common manual system in use is the Newark System and its variations. The Gaylord system and Transaction Systems are further developments in manual systems that attempt to mechanize some steps of the circulation process.
Prior to the 1890s most libraries used a ledger system to record loans in consecutive order. In some libraries those journal entries were transferred into two ledgers: one a record of books by borrower and the other a record of borrowers of each book. Ledger systems were expensive and forced patrons to wait while information was recorded. By the turn of the century, ledger and other experimental manual systems had been almost uniformly replaced by the Newark System, developed in the Newark, New Jersey, Public Library around 1900.The Newark System involves the insertion of a circulation card with the call number, author and title in a paper pocket in each item. A date due slip is pasted on the pocket. Each patron may also be issued some kind of borrower’s identification card that gives them a library identification number.
Charging materials is a straightforward process with the following steps:
1. The patron presents the items they would like to borrow and their identification card at the circulation desk. Library staff verify that the call number on the circulation card and the pocket match.
2. The date material is due back in the library is stamped on the date due slip and on the book card.
3. The borrower’s name or identification number is entered on the circulation card. There are two variations on this step: a.) self-charge, where the borrower writes his/her own name and/or identification number on the first available blank line, b.) staff-charge, where a library staff member writes the borrower’s identification number on the circulation card.
4. The circulation card is placed in a tray for filing at the end of the day.
5. At the end of the day, all circulation cards are arranged in the desired order. The recommended order is first by date due, and then by author or numerically by call number.
Efforts to speed the process of transcribing borrower information have lead to various innovations in methods of recording borrower information. The Dickman Book Charging Machine, introduced in 1927, was a hand-operated imprinter that recorded the call number, borrower registration number, and date due from embossed metal tags. In 1932, Gaylord Brothers Incorporated took this idea a step further and introduced an electric book charging machine. The machine incorporates a date imprinter that can be easily changed. Embossed library identification cards are issued to each patron. To check out material the user presents the card. Library staff take the circulation card and patron identification card and insert them into slots on the machine. The machine imprints patron information and date due information onto the circulation card. As with the Newark system, date due information is provided to the patron and circulation cards are filed at the end of the day.
Another attempt at automating the process of charging and discharging material is the transaction system, first introduced in the 1930s. Although there are a number of versions, the one most often seen is photographic charging. At the point of charging, a camera is used to photograph the patron’s identification card (or other form of identification), the circulation card and a numbered and dated transaction card. The transaction card which also serves as the date due slip is inserted into the pocket and returned to the user. The photographic record of daily transactions is stored on microfilm. The beginning and finishing numeric sequences for the day are recorded. Although the microform provides a complete permanent record of all loans, it is very difficult to provide information on the status of any one item.
Limitations of manual systems
All of the above have a number of limitations:
- Limited information access points because creating duplicate records to increase access points is time consuming and costly.
- Slow and difficult processes for determining the circulation status of a given item.
- The potential for misfiled records.
- No means of easily providing users with a list of all items they have currently charged.
- No means by which library users can be informed of pending due dates.
- Provision of only the most rudimentary statistics because of the time involved in manually compiling detailed information.
- Difficulty in determining if a patron has overdues or other lost items which should prevent them from being able to borrow more material.
Although the previously mentioned circulation systems were a step above hand-written, chronologically arranged ledgers, their limitations still hampered the efficiency of circulation staff in completing day-to-day tasks, and severely limited the variety of services and information that staff were able to deliver. In the mid-1970s more and more libraries began using computers to handle various library functions. Circulation was an obvious first choice for automation in libraries because of the many efficiencies that could be achieved.
Early automated systems were developed in-house and used a batch processing method of processing circulation transactions. In present day circulation systems, all processing occurs in real time. Circulation systems that are purchased from a commercial vendor are often called “turnkey systems” because they are ready to be installed and operated. They do not require any debugging because they have already been tested and can function without the assistance of a systems specialist. The disadvantage over a system designed in-house is that the library cannot typically make any modifications to the system that may be required due to unique policy or procedure within the library. Larger libraries or library systems that purchase turnkey systems usually do some custom development so that the system meets local needs. This necessitates maintaining a staff of computer programmers and systems specialists.
Storage of automated circulation records
Circulation systems can be designed in one of two ways:
1. the absence reporting method (also called transaction systems)
2. the full database method
The absence reporting method tracks items in circulation only. Records are added and deleted constantly. As books are circulated, their titles and call numbers (or other identification codes) are entered in the system, and as they are returned, their records are deleted. Not much computer disk space is required to store circulation records. Those familiar with database software, such as Microsoft Access, could create a simple circulation system using the absences reporting method. The database would not be a substitute for a card catalogue but would provide basic information on circulating items.
The full database method involves the entire collection. Typically, the full cataloguing record for every item in the library is input into the database. Instead of adding and deleting records continually, records are permanently retained in the database and coded as they are checked out or in. A whole database system requires more computer space because records for the whole collection are included.
Systems that include full cataloguing records will typically also permit users to access this information. An online public or patron access catalogue (OPAC) enables patrons to search a library’s holdings from a computer terminal and also gives information on the circulation status of an item. Circulation functions would only be one part of a larger integrated automated system.
Besides circulation and the OPAC, most integrated online systems also includes acquisitions, serials and cataloguing modules.
Regardless of whether a system is developed in-house or purchased from a vendor, most libraries look for the following basic features:
1. Efficient and effective charge and discharge functions
2. Able to record and access pertinent user information
3. Automatic maintenance of accurate, up-to-date circulation records
4. Information detailing availability of individual items
5. Information that allows tracking of an item’s progress through its processing stages in the library
6. Efficient hold and recall functions
7. Automatic production of overdue, recall, and hold notices and bills
8. Automatic calculation of fines
9. Able to handle different loan periods, user categories, and item type categories
10. Able to handle course reserves
11. Provides a variety of statistical information
12. Flexibility in handling increases in collection size, number of users, and number of transactions.
In addition, the system might include additional features, such as various batch-processed reports, or flexibility in setting user categories and loan periods. Another desirable feature is permitting patrons to access their own circulation records so that they can review items that they have borrowed or place their own holds.
Information regarding a circulation transaction can be entered in one of two ways. The first way is to key in all information about a particular item or patron. Transaction systems typically work in this manner.
Most libraries with automated circulation systems have increased efficiency in the circulation process through the use of barcode systems. Barcodes would be similar to those used in grocery stores. Each individual item in the library receives a barcode label. The barcode number corresponds to catalogue information about the item. Similarly, each patron is assigned an identification number that corresponds to the barcode placed on their card. This creates two computer files of information:
1. Patron information filed by identification number
2. Item information filed by the barcode number on the item
Information on the barcode label is read by projecting a beam of light from the barcode reader. Patterns of light and dark are read and translated into a digital number which can be utilized by the computer for processing. Barcode labels have a number of advantages over book cards including:
· the labels can be affixed to all types of items (e.g. videotapes, audiocassettes)
· the labels do not have to be removed in the charging and discharging process
· the labels are not as subject to mutilation or damage as book cards and pockets
· labels do not require book pockets
There are two main types of schemes for encoding information on barcodes:
This is the most frequently used scheme in libraries. The rectangle of lines and spaces translates into 14 digits which are displayed below the barcode. The first digit is used to identify whether the barcode is for a patron or for an item. Digits 2-5 identify the instituition. Digits 6-13 represent patron or item information. The final digit is an error checking digit.
2. Code 39
The rectangle of lines and spaces translates into 10 digits. The first digit is used to identify whether the barcode is for a patron or for an item. The next 2 digits identify the library. The last 7 digits are a unique code which represents either a patron or an item.
In addition to the numbers, barcodes also have small stop and start characters embedded into them. These characters inform the barcode reader that the beginning or the end of the barcode has been scanned. They also allow barcodes to be read from either direction (i.e., left to right or right to left).
Charging routines involve:
1. Running the barcode scanner over the patron’s barcode number on their identification card and over the barcode of each item that is being borrowed. This step is very important because it links the patron information file to the item information file.
2. Stamping due-date on a slip placed in book (or printing a transaction slip with items and due dates).
Discharging routines involve:
1. Running the pen or wand run across the item barcode label. This breaks the patron-item link and updates all appropriate files such as fine records, recalls, etc.
2. Removing due-date slips and reshelving the item.
Most online systems will permit you to do two types of inquiries: (1) item inquiry, (2) patron inquiry. With an item inquiry, it should be possible to search the item by title, author, or barcode label and answer the following questions:
1. Is the item on file?
2. Does the item circulate?
3. Does it circulate to this patron type?
4. Is the item available at this branch?
5. How many copies are there of this item?
6. Is the item charged out? If so, what is the due date?
7. Is the item on hold? If so, what kind of hold? Which patron is next in line?
8. Is the item overdue? If so, has it been recalled?
9. Is the item missing, withdrawn, on order, in process, or claimed returned by the patron?
It should be possible to search for patron information by name or bar code label. This information should display on screen with a list of all items currently charged, fines, payments, and any messages. Due to a concern for ensuing patron privacy most circulation systems do not keep records of all items which have ever been borrowed by a patron. Reasons for patrons block should be evident (e.g. has not paid overdue fines). As well, it should be a relatively easy matter to register a new patron including name, address, and borrower privileges.
Notices and reports
The system usually also permits various types of circulation notices to be generated including: overdues, recalls and holds. As well, the system should be able to produce reports on demand by: categories of items, patrons, call numbers and items added or withdrawn; by check-out date; by number of titles and copies owned by a branch; by copies currently missing or overdue; by list of titles with cumulative circulation per copy; by total number of patrons; by number of new patrons; by number of patrons registered by status, age, geographical location; and number of transactions by patron category, age, or residential location.
Vendors of automated systems
Although various automated circulation systems would have many similar features, they will vary in appearance and performance. Many vendors have homepages on the Internet where you can find out about the features of various systems that are available.
Cohn, John M., Kelsey, Ann L., and Fiels, Keith Michael. Planning for automation: a how-to-do-it manual for librarians. New York : Neal-Schumann Publishers, Inc., 1992.
Fouty, Kathleen G. Implementing an automated circulation system: a how-to-do-it manual. New York : Neal-Schumann Publishers, Inc., 1994.
Morris, Anne and Dyer, Hilary. Human aspects of library automation. Brookfield, VT : Gower, 1998.
Circulation systems Websites
LibraryLand: Resources for Librarians. Automation Vendors.
List of vendors of automated systems both multi-user operating systems and micro-computer based systems
BarCode1: A Web of Information about Barcode.
More than you ever wanted to know about barcodes. Includes specifications for various types of barcodes.
Appendix 1: Some sample information from automated circulation systems
Information on automated circulation modules from the Websites of the following vendors. The inclusion of this material is not an endorsement of any of these products and is merely provided to you for referral and to give you a feel for the differences that exist between various systems.
a) Follet Software Company http://www.follettsoftware.com
b) Winnibago CIRC/CAT http://www.follettsoftware.com/page/spectrum/
c) SIRS Mandarin