What is inventory?
* a standard business procedure
* a survey of goods and materials in stock
In a library this primarily involves checking the library collection on the shelves against the catalogue records, but it could also involve an equipment and supplies inventory.
Why do libraries conduct inventories?
1. To ensure the accuracy of their catalogue records
Over time missing books, replacements, withdrawals, human error and changes in cataloguing practices contribute to inconsistencies between a library's actual holdings and its official records. Often theses inconsistencies are inconsequential. There are occasions, however, when a patron and/or staff member can spend a substantial amount of time searching for an item listed in the catalogue, which, in fact has been lost, misplaced or withdrawn from the collection. Not only do such instances cause frustration and confusion, they also erode library users' confidence to deliver information in a timely and efficient manner. If the number of searches for items not on shelves rises, this is a prime indicator that an inventory of the library's holdings is needed.
2. To estimate loss rates and costs in order to evaluate the success of current security systems and procedures, and if necessary, to make a business case for a new security system.
There are two types of losses, known and unknown. If a user tells you that they have lost or damaged an item, at least you are aware of the loss and can take immediate steps to replace it and recover its cost. If the item has been stolen, damaged or misplaced and you have not been informed, then the loss becomes a potential embarassment and frustration as well. It will not be there when you are asked for it. A well-run library or business needs to know the degree of such losses and an inventory is the only way to find out.
3. To replace or withdraw all missing items and to indicate such information on the catalogue record by withdrawing or flagging the record to alert the patron.
Libraries must not only discover the fact a loss has taken place. They must do something about it. At the very least the catalogue record must be flagged in some way to warn the user. Secondly a search or trace procedure should be initiated. Finally the library must decide whether to withdraw or replace the item in question, eitehr immediately or after a predetermined interval of searching for the item. Some libraries search for wayward items for up to three years.
4. To evaluate the condition of materials on the shelves.
Depending on the thoroughness of the invenetory and the skill level of the staff doing the inventory, libraries can also use the inventory to look for any damaged or worn items on the shelves at the same time as they are doing a simple inventory. If an item is obviously damaged and unusuable, it should be brought to the immediate attention of the person in the library who makes the decision to withdraw or replace missing items. Many damaged items can only be discovered by a more time consuming, evaluative process so some libraries will not perform this inventory function except for obvious candidates. The removal of damaged items is called weeding.
5. To evaluate the quality of the cataloguing record.
While comparing the item in hand to the cataloguing record, all kinds of discrepenancies and inconsistiences may be discovered, mostly due to human error (an error rate of 1-5% is typical), but also due to changing cataloguing rules over time. All such errors discovered in the process of inventorying should be reported and evaluated for possible remedial action. Most libraries will not spend the time or use the qualified saff to review the catalogue records during an inventory. However, accidental discoveries may be recorded to assess any cataloguing problem statistically and give feedback to the cataloguing staff or agency.
6. To analyze a collection's strengths and weaknesses
Libraries try to order quality materials by using various selection tools on a day to day basis. The inventory process offers the systematic opportunity to run some checks on how well this process is working. The analysis can be done at a minimal level by doing a statistical count of the number of items held under each call number level (e.g. 100's, 110's, 111's, etc.). Obvious gaps and over ordering in certain areas can be discovered in this way. At the next level, the circulation record of each item can be examined. How often did this item go out in the past year? Some items may never have circulated at all. At the very highest level of analysis, a thorough examination of each item will be done by a qualified or experienced selector to evaluate if the item is dated. The removal of any dated, underused or low value items is called weeding.
When to inventory?
How often, when and whether an inventory is conducted depends on the types and size of the library, the library's budget, and the nature of the collection. Taking inventory is not only time-consuming, but also detailed, involved and repetitious. Staff concerntration and enthuisasm wanes after more than two hours. The more thorough and analytical the inventory, the more staff time and expertise and expense is involved.
There are also logistical problems. If the library cannot be closed during the inventory, the materials on the shelves may change from day to day and hour to hour. The first priority of the staff is to serve the user. This will cause necessary interruptions in taking inventory. Staff may also feel that the inventory, being a special project, is taking them away from their more important regular duties.
The most important criterion in determining whether an inventory should be conducted is the magnitude of discrepencacies between the library's actual holdings and its official records and the cost in time and public relations, if an inventory is not done. The library may not be able to avoid delay and embarassment in serving the user when it does not inventory its collection regularly. Staff, in these circumstances should react quickly and strongly to reported incidents by either purchasing or borrowing a replacement copy from another library, or finding a suitable substitute to meet the client's information need.
Type and size of library
It is much easier to conduct an inventory in small libraries. Library staff working in teams of two may complete an inventory of an entire collection in one or two weeks. School and college libraries can use periods of low user demand and circulation during a semester break or during the summer. Most libraries have varying usage over the course of the year and they should choose the period of lowest usage/circulation to do their inventory. In this way, staff will have more free time and disruptions will be minimized.
Large libraries can seldom afford to inventory their entire collection at one time. They have to decide whether to do a rotating inventory over a span of three to five years or to do a partial inventory of those sections which receive the greatest use or wrhere the losses are particularly accute, e.g. videos. Libraries may also decide to conduct randomly generated periodic sample inventories.
Some libraries may not do an inventory at all. They may only have enough staff to perform regular day to day functions. The number of users and volumes and the constant circulation can make an inventory too daunting and expensive to justify. These libraries should, at the very least, have strong procedures in place for investigating and remedying all missing item incident reports. The volume and type of material should be monitored as well, in order to detect any patterns of loss and the degree of loss. Patterns may indicate a change in security procedures. Certain items or classes of items may need to be protected in closed stacks or reserve collections.
Nature of the collection
If the collection is secure and well protected and preserved, the need for an inventory will be far less. If the collection dates quickly and the users focus on more recent acquisitions, the loss of older items may not be a problem.
Incident report/search/trace procedures
The minute an item is reported missing a search procedure should be initiated by an experienced staff using a form to check for all the likely places/files that an missing item may be. Automated libraries will have a lot fewer files to check as most of this information can be flagged on the on-line catalogue record.
Here is a list of the most likely possibiliites to check:
1) Does the catalogue record (in automated systems) or the circulation file (in manual systems) show it to as circulating to someone else? Offer to put it on hold.
2) Is it in process or transit somewhere (in bindery, in repair, waiting to be shelved/discharged, on display, on reserve, in cataloguing, in storage, on ome staff member's office or in use in the library)?
3) Is the item misshelved in any other collection that the library has: Reference, Rare Books, Reserve, Oversize Books, Juvenile/Young Adult/Adult, etc.?
If an item still cannot be found a trace procedure may be initiated to search for the item again at intervals in case it turns up. In a manual environment, a special search form/file will have to be created or the shelf list card flagged in some way. In an automated library a missing items list can probably be generated on demand. For critical items, the library may search more diligently but missing items are usually checked for at monthly, quarterly or even yearly intervals until such time as the library decides to give up.
Since this process is so labor intensive and since materials vary widely in demand and value, the library may decide to abort the trace procedure and simply replace the item if it is still in print and not too expensive, or interlibrary loan it for the patron. If it is not a valuable item, the library may simply decide to witihdraw the item and remove all cataloguing records. This decision is usually made by the head of the library or the person(s) in charge of selecting library materials. They may decide to replace the item exactly or to purchase a newer item. In a manual catalogue card environmentn, the decision to withdraw the last copy of an item or give up the search for it also involves pulling all catalogue cards in the set: author(s), title(s), series and subject. The shelf list or main entry cards lists all the other added entries in the card catalogue. In an automated item, the record can be deleted in one step.
Conducting an inventory
Each library will follow most of the steps below but each inventory will be unique to its own environment in some way.
Notify your staff and users so that as many materials as possible can be returned and the users are forewarned of possible disruptions. Decide whether the library is to be closed temporarily or a specified range of stacks will be unavailable.
Schedule and train the necessary staff. The collection can be apportioned according to staff interest, time and expertise. Unless goals and responsibilities are assigned the inventory will not be completed. If the library uses volunteers or hires staff for the project, training and supervision will have to be provided. A systematic project like this is an ideal introduction for new staff to a library.
Before you start, make sure all materials are shelved, not waiting on carts or lying on desks and tables in the library.
"Read" the shelves to make sure the section to be inventoried is in correct call number order.
5. Inventory/shelf list
Prepare an inventory list for the section to be inventoried. The library may already have a shelf list created as a byproduct of the cataloguing process. It is a file of cards or slips containing a catalogue record for each item in the collection. At a minimum the shelflist record must contain enough information to uniquely identify the item including:
* the call number, title
* first author of the item, and
* a brief physical description of the item catalogued (e.g. number of pages, volumes, pieces, etc.)
* If there is more than one copy this should be indicated by a copy or accession number.
* If there is more than one edition or version (paperback, hardcover, large print, audio), there should be a separate shelf list card or listing for each version/edition with distinguishing edition, features and physical description noted sufficient enough to distingush one from another.
Make sure the shelf list is arranged in exact call number order so that an efficient comparison can be made to the same order on the shelves. Most automated systems can generate an inventory list for a designated call number range. In fact large libraries may wish to further refine this list to show only those items which have not circulated in the last year or so. Such items may be missing. If not, they are prime candidates for weeding.
For the actual matching of the inventory list against the shelves, a team of two is most efficient and effective. One member of the team concerntrates on the inventory list while the other looks for the item on the shelves. They must be careful not to lose their place. Two pairs of eyes are more likely to notice errors while one individual alone must move back and forth from one file to another and this can break concerntration. If a library is performing an analytical inventory involving the evaluation of materials, one of the team members need to be qualified or trained in making the evaluative judgments involved ias to the quality and condition of the material and the cataloguing record. The team will need a library truck to provide a working surface to make any notes on the inventory list or to hold items designated for repair, correction, weeding, etc.
Each item inventoried that presents no problem should be ticked/checked and/or dated in pencil on the inventory list and in manual environments the item itself should be ticked and/or dated on the circulation card and/or its pocket. Some libraries may use a stamp to save time on the dating process but the humble light lead pencil enables the user to quickly erase any mistakes. Some libraries may use a coloured pen to tick each year (e.g. blue 1996, yellow 1997, etc.)
If a library is fully automated and uses barcodes for circulation, the inventory may be taken with a portable barcode scanner. Each item on the shelf can then be scanned and then the information scanned can be run against the library holdings file in the main database to generate missing item lists, error lists and statistical reports.
7. Missing items
For any item not found on the shelf, the inventory list is marked and dated in pencil with an M or some other appropriate symbol. If it is in shelf list format, the card/slip may be upended or paper clipped or flagged in some way for later review. If the missing item is one of several copies, it is important to mark the appropriate copy and/or accession number.
8. Condition check
While handling the item on the shelf, the condition of the material is examined in at least a cursory fashion. Does the item just need mending? Obviously defective or damaged items should be pulled for evaluation. Should the item be replaced or discarded? The more a library wants to keep its stock in good condition, the more thorough the revie of the physical condition will be and the more trained to spot common condition errors the staff must be. A mending slip/form for such evaluation greatly helps this procedure.
9. Catalogue record check
If there are any discrepencacies between the catalogue record and the item in hand, the staff should flag the item or the record for correction. Common errors, usually of a clerical nature, are:
* call numbers
* accession numbers
* copy numbers
A correction slip for such minor errors greatly helps this procedure. The mending and corrections slip/form are often combined.
10. Circulation check
If either the catalogue record or the item itself (circulation card, due date slip) indicates that the item itself has not circulated in over a year, the library may decide to weed the item, especially if there are many copies of the same item. Public libraries often have multiple copies of best sellers to meet the initial demand and then are stuck with too many copies to keep permanently. School libraries may be driven by similar curriculum and assignment fashions that change from year to year. If there are too many items on the same subject already on the shelves, the decision to weed is reinforced, especially if the library has a space problem.
11. Quality check
The easiest quality check to make is to check the date of the item. Many fields of knowledge are quickly outdated and dated items may contain misinformation rather than quality information. Sophiscated library users should know enough to be wary of the currency of the material. Some library material is classic and should be kept indefinitely. You would not weed the Bible or the Consitituiton of the country. The ultimate judgement to weed or not to weed is based on a high level of knowledge of the collection, the library clientele, and the state of knowledge and publishing in that particular field so it is not easy for junior level staff to do but a library may set guidelines for the staff to execute during the inventorying process, e.g. in the computer science field, pull all books more than three years old for consideration for weeding. A weeding consideration form greatly expedites and guides this process.
12. Statistical analysis
A library may just keep gross inventory statistics:
* number of bays/items inventoried
* number of items misshelved or misplaced
* number of items missing
* number of missing items subsequently located and why/how
* number of missing items replaced
* number of items mended
* number of items corrected
* number of items weeded/discarded and reason
* time spent
A more detailed multi-factor analysis including comparisions with automated system reports on circulation may reveal the cause of the problems identified so remedial procedures can be put in place. A cost analysis shows the Library whether the time spent in inventorying is justified for the benefit created. Junior library staff will just be trained and required to fill out the statistical forms provided by the library. Inventories are primarilly designed to check the stock in hand but any systematic evaluation may have side benefits. If the library refines its statistical analysis to identify inventory at a more detialed level of classification in the call number (analyze the above factors in the statisical analysis by each ten numbers in the Dewey Classification (e.g. 110's, 120's, 130's, etc.)), patterns of usage and gaps in holdings may be revealed.
To some people, inventories are pure drudge work and not worth the effort. To others, inventories are wonderful learning and evaluation tools. The truth probably lies between these two extremes and each library must decide whether to do a systematic, partial, selective or sample inventory depending on their own unique situation. How great is the problem and are the resources available to do the job? Even if your library does not do a full inventory, it must maintain minimal inventory control by tracking all missing, lost, misplaced, and damaged library materials through an incident reporting trace system. Library staff can help greatly by remaining alert to the problems discussed in this list and applying such inventory control checks as they work in the library.