Thursday, December 18, 2008

Basic library procedures: Circulation functions

“For him that stealth a Book from this Library, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with Palsy, and his Members blasted. Let him languish in Pain crying aloud for Mercy and let there be no sur-cease to his Agony till he sink in
Dissolution. Let Bookworms gnaw his Entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final Punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever and aye.”
Curse Against Book Stealers,Monastery of San Pedro, Barcelona

Circulation functions, procedure and policy
No matter what types of material a library circulates, there are a number of questions that must first be answered:

  • What items circulate?
  • Who can check out items?
  • How long can they stay out?
  • Will fines be charged, and if so, how much?
  • Will a patron be able to check an item out if there is a fine?
  • How long will a fine continue on a particular item?

Most libraries develop policy and procedure manuals that outline in detail the way that various circulation functions (and other library functions) should be handled. An important first step for anyone who starts working in a library is to become familiar with the details of the circulation manual. You will want to be able to answer any questions that patrons might have about borrowing materials. If you become the manager of a library, an important first step would be determining if the library has a policy and then a procedure for each circulation function. If it does not, developing a manual would be an important first step.

Patron registration and verification
All types of libraries (public, school, special, and academic) need information about their borrower s. Patron registration facilitates the collection of basic information so that patrons do not have to provide this information every time they wish to borrow material. Libraries register patrons in order to:

  1. Identify those who have a right to borrow.
    In a public library most taxpayers and local residents in a city or town would have the right to borrow. Public libraries may also extend privileges to nonresident users. Usually this is because the library is part of larger public library system or network that enables a patron to charge materials from all libraries in a geographic region. This is referred to as reciprocal borrowing.School and academic libraries would be interested in ensuring that staff and student can borrow materials. It should be noted, however, that many academic libraries also permit users outside the university community to register, although, they may charge some kind of registration fee. Special libraries, such as a law library affiliated with a law firm, would restrict the right to borrow to lawyers and staff in the firm.

  2. Identify what their privileges are.In many cases various patrons are assigned particular privileges based on their status.
    For example, in an academic library, university faculty are usually permitted to borrow material for longer periods of time than students. Faculty may also be exempt from overdue fines. Patrons from outside the university may be limited in the amount of material they can borrow.

  3. Identify where patrons can be located.
    Location information is particularly crucial for a public library to obtain. Since public libraries serve a wide variety of people and people may move often, keeping the information up to date is critical. This may be less of a problem for academic, school, and special libraries because users can be tracked down within the institution or workplace.

  4. Give each eligible patron a special form of identification.
    A unique numerical (or alphanumeric) patron identification code is critical for tracking circulation records with most automated circulation systems. In a smaller library using a manual system and where library staff are completely familiar with their users, the patron’s name may be sufficient identification.

  5. Obtain statistical information.
    Patron registration can be used as an opportunity to collect some background information on users. For example, in a public library it may be useful to know occupations, ages, reading interests, geographic location, etc. This information can help the library determine who (or who is not) using the library, develop the collection, and plan services.
    Patron registration in a public library is usually done with a form. Registration with a school, university, or college usually constitutes registration. In a special library, employment in a company usually means that a per son can use the library. Once patrons are registered the method used to identify an authorized person include:
  • Borrower’s card

This would be a special card that include at a minimum the user’s name and identification number (represented both numerically and as a barcode for an automated system). Most public libraries issue a borrower’s card.

  • Identification card
    In an academic setting (or even some school settings), the multi-purpose student identification card (with photo and student identification number) will also serve as the library card. In a special library, the employee identification ca rd may serve as method of identifying authorized users.

  • Registration file
    Since formal registration is usually not required in school libraries and most do not issue student identification cards, registration information from school files is used. Students’ names, room numbers, addresses, and phone numbers can be kept on file by the library or readily accessed from the school’s main office.
  • Regardless of the way in which a patron is registered or the form of identification required, the patron’s first contact with a library is the circulation department. Library personnel should take advantage of this opportunity for creating positive public relations. For instance during borrower registration, information about library policies and services can be distributed. Staff should be prepared to give straightforward, friendly responses regarding a patron’s borrowing privileges and access to the collection. There should also be some room within the library’s patron registration policy for flexibility with regard to identification. For example, in a smaller library which requires a library card, circulation staff may still be able to check materials out without a card to a well-known borrower.

    Charging and discharging
    Procedures for charging and discharging materials will vary depending on the automated circulation system or manual circulation system.

    Whatever circulation system is used, when charging material circulation personnel should make sure that:

    1. The patron is registered with the library or is recognized as a legitimate user of the library.
    2. The materials that he/she wishes to borrow can circulate.
    3. Correct charge-out routines are followed according to a given library’s procedures manual.
    4. The date due is somehow indicated to the patron (e.g. by a stamp on a date due slip or a print-out of borrowed items from an automated circulation system).
    5. A hold is placed on an item if it is not available and the patron still wishes to eventually borrow the item.

    When discharging material circulation personnel should make sure that:

    1. Correct charge-in routines are being followed according to the library’s procedures manual.
    2. The material actually belongs to the library.
    3. Fines are collected, or a note is made that overdue material has been returned.
    4. Returned items are inspected for damage (torn pages, loose bindings, missing labels or cards).
    5. Hold requests are processed properly.

    Loan periods
    Loan periods establish the amount of time that a patron can borrow an item. The length of a loan period can have a big impact on staff workload and patron satisfaction with a library. For example, if loan periods are too long users may be frustrated that they can’t get the materials they want. If loan periods are too short, there will probably be a lot of overdues and staff will be frustrated by the burden of processing them. The length of a loan period depends on a number of factors:

    1. Type of library
    Most public libraries have a loan period from between two and four weeks. School libraries usually have a one or two week loan period. Academic and special libraries may permit longer loan periods for staff because the material is usually being used for work-related matters (e.g. teaching a class, special projects).
    Size of the collection
    A small collection typically means a shorter loan period so that more people can use the materials.
    Frequency with which particular materials circulate
    For instance, children’s books are read quickly and have high circulation demand and so a shorter loan period may be appropriate. Another example would be periodicals in an academic library. These usually are high demand items and lengthy loan periods will frustrate others who may need to consult a particular volume of a research journal.
    4. Purpose of lending materials
    If materials are being loaned for extensive research, longer loan periods may be necessary. Materials being loaned for recreational use, probably should have shorter loan periods.
    5. Clientele served
    Libraries serve a variety of clientele. A special library located in a workplace may choose to lend materials on a longer basis because the materials can be easily tracked down within the building. Public libraries may choose to have four week loan periods in recognition that their patrons do not live close to the library and only visit once a month.
    6. Type of materials
    Some materials are more fragile and require special treatment. For example, magazines, compact disks or videotapes may circulate on shorter loan periods. Other materials such as dictionaries, atlases, and handbooks of various types may not circulate at all because they are consulted by librarians and patrons on a regular basis. Circulating such reference materials will mean that they are not available when needed. As well, if materials are rare and need to be preserved (e.g. very old, rare books) they may not circulate.

    It is often easiest to have a single loan period for all items to provide for consistency in procedures. Other possibilities include: 1.) different loan periods for different collections (e.g. periodicals or audiovisuals); or 2.) a single day each week on which everything is due (e.g. Friday). The latter method may be useful in a smaller library with limited staff because it is easier to keep track of overdues, date s tamps change only one a week, and patrons will get used to everything being due at the same day each week.

    Loan periods are a matter of policy. There should always be some flexibility within the process so that the policy does not need to be changed for exceptions. The length of loan periods should be made very clear to patrons and any exceptions carefully noted.

    Renewals are one way of giving some flexibility in loan periods. As with establishing policies on length of loan, policies must be set regarding renewals. Some of the issues to be resolved are:

    • Should renewals be allowed on all materials or only certain types of materials (e.g. no renewals on audiovisual materials or periodicals)?
    • How many times can items be renewed?
    • Will renewals have to be done in person or can they be done by phone, fax, or e-mail?
    • Will renewals only be permitted to certain types of borrowers (e.g. staff or faculty)?

    In general, most libraries set limits on the number of renewals (two or three) and do not allow books to be renewed more than three or four days in advance of the due date. Overdue items usually cannot be renewed without paying the appropriate fine. With automated systems, patrons may be able to renew items on their own. If there are overdues, the computer system will “block” the user from renewing items. The user will be forced to talk to library staff about the overdues so that the block can be removed.

    Reserve collections are usually found in most school and academic libraries. They address the problem of what to do when a group of students all need to consult materials for a class within a limited period of time for an assignment. Regular loan periods would mean that students would be frustrated because the material would always be circulating and library staff would be annoyed because students would be demanding holds or recalls on material. Public libraries might also need to establish reserve collections in support of school libraries with a “hot” research topic or community continuing education (e.g. cookbooks for a cooking class).

    Both the access and the loan period are usually restricted in a reserve collection. The area where reserve materials are kept are closed to patrons. Staff members retrieve the items at the request of the user. In a school or academic library, the responsibility for placing titles on reserve fall on the instructors. Instructors fill out forms indicating the title, author, and call number of each title they want placed on reserve. The library staff will need to know: how long the material should be kept on reserve; the loan period (2 hours, 2 days, 1 week); whether the material can leave the library, and who can use the material.

    Policies regarding access to reserve collections are changing in some libraries. For example, the University of British Columbia libraries has an open stack reserve area. The reserve area is secure and students cannot leave the area with materials. Additional shelvers are required in the reserve area to keep it organized. However, less staff time is spent on retrieving materials.

    Another option that larger university libraries are exploring is electronic reserves. Instead of storing the physical item on a shelf in the reserve area, an electronic copy is stored on a computer. Students can access the reserve item and print a copy as needed for their own reference. One of the biggest problems is resolving copyright issues.

    Usually titles should be placed on reserve well in advance of the class they are intended for because it takes time to process the material and it might be necessary to recall material to place it on reserve. However, in some instances the library staff only becomes aware that material should be placed on reserve after three or four students come in and request the same material.

    Reserve materials should be easily identified so that they are not accidentally returned to the main circulating collection. Easy methods of identification include applying stickers to book cards, pockets, or spines. As well, patrons using the library should be able to determine that materials are on reserve. In an automated circulation system this can be indicated as part of the circulation status of an item (e.g. charged to reserve). In a manual system, card catalogues can be marked with dots, stars, or paperclips. Alternatively, lists of reserve materials can be posted.

    Recalls and holds
    Library materials are usually either on the shelves or circulating. Recalls and holds are services offered to patrons so that they can obtain materials that are checked out to another user. In the case of recalls, patrons are sent a notification requesting the return of material for another user prior to the date it is due. If the patron does not respond to the recall notice, they may be subject to fines. A hold (sometimes call a reservation) puts a patron on a waiting list for a particular item. The person who currently has the item is permitted to keep the material for the full loan period. However, when he/she returns the item, it cannot be renewed but will go to the next patron on the hold list.

    Patrons who have placed holds are notified that the item is waiting for them in the library.
    Notification may be by postcard, e-mail, phone, or bulletin boards. If that patron does not borrow the recall or hold item within a certain time period (e.g. two weeks) it can be checked out to another patron.

    Materials in heavy demand will place a strain on the recall or hold service. In public libraries, bestsellers may have lengthy hold lists. It can be a public relations nightmare if the waiting period is too long. Public libraries may respond by purchasing multiple copies of a best sellers and limiting loan periods. Academic and special libraries can attempt to overcome demand by placing materials on reserve.

    What happens when a patron is looking for an item that is apparently not in its proper location on the shelf and according to circulation records not checked out? Most libraries then initiate a “search” (or trace) on the item. In a busy library, it is usually impossible to stop what you’re doing to look for a book. The patron is usually asked to fill out a “search form “ that asks for the author, title and call number of the missing item. Later when it may be less busy or, at a certain time each day, staff will search for the missing item(s).

    The usual procedure is to:
    1. Recheck the circulation files (in a manual sys tem where the book card may have been misfiled).
    2. Recheck the shelves to see if the item has been mishelved or, to see if the patron made a mistake in where they were looking for the item.
    3. Look on the bookcarts of materials to be shelved.
    4. Check to see if the book is being mended or bound.
    5. Check library staff offices.
    6. Check the book return slot to see if it has become stuck somewhere in the bin.

    If after this effort, the item still cannot be found then the search form should be put aside and on a regular basis, searched. After a certain time period (three to six months) if the item cannot be found then the cataloguing record should be withdrawn or reordered. In the meantime, the patron should be notified about the status of the search and if necessary, another copy of the item might be requested from another library through interlibrary loan for the patron.

    Overdues, fines, and fees
    Well, you knew we would get here sooner or later! Perhaps no policy and procedure causes as much controversy as overdues and fines. Overdue materials are a problem because they are not available to other library users. Of course, if no one has recalled or put a hold on an item, library patrons may wonder why all the fuss? Fines lead to the public perception that libraries are able to function and buy materials because of the vast quantities of money collected in overdue fines. Why, the public may wonders does the library need more tax money to function? Would that library fines could support a library! Most libraries spend a significant amount of time and money attempting to retrieve overdue materials and collect various fines. Overdue fines represent a drop in the bucket for library revenues and may, or may not, be worth the effort depending on the size and type of library.

    The theory behind fines for overdue material is that they provide an incentive for patrons to return materials on time. Responsible citizens and library users should respect library property and other users’ rights. As well, the return of library materials means that the library will not have to use the acquisition budget to repurchase materials (that may or may not still be in print) but can use it for new acquisitions.

    Many libraries, especially public libraries, have responded to high overdue rates by: increasing fines, imposing service charges, and taking legal action against the worst offenders. Certainly, overdue fines may provide some incentive for returning materials. They also show that the library is serious about the policies that have been established returning loan periods. To a certain extent, fines do provide a source of income for libraries. On the other hand, a number of studies have shown that overdue fines are not a significant deterrent to the ultimate return of items (Patsy Hansel and Robert Burgin, “Hard Facts About Overdues”, Library Journal 108 (February 15, 1983), pg. 350). Hansel and Burgin conducted a survey of North Carolina public libraries in 1981 concerning overdue library materials. They found that most overdue materials are returned within one year and concluded that since most library procedures involving overdues have little or no effect on the return rate, most need not be done. Most overdue materials are returned regardless of what steps libraries take.

    Fines may also have the opposite effect from what they intended. They are certainly a hardship for children, students, the poor and the disadvantage (those who may most need access to a library). Parents may discourage children from using the library if they are constantly paying overdue fines. Pursuing overdue fines may cost more in administration than the revenue they bring to the library. Sometimes excessive fines may result in lower circulation or, result in more theft and mutilation.

    In response to the negative reaction to fines, many libraries (especially public libraries) have tried alternate methods such as amnesty weeks or “fine free days”. During amnesty weeks users can return items without fear of being fined. Response to such efforts is usually quite good and demonstrates that the library is interested in the timely return of materials rather than punishment or revenue generation. Overdues and fines may be avoided if the library has an appropriate loan period for its clientele. As well, if patrons can drop materials outside of regular hours (e.g. evenings or weekends) there may be fewer problems with overdues.

    Libraries that have gone the complete “no fines” route report that the number of overdue notices increase considerably. The trick is to achieve some kind of balance. Fees must not be so high to financially discourage users from returning material. However, they should be high enough to reflect the library’s concern regarding the rights of all library patrons. If a library chooses to go wit h fines, the schedule of fines must be well advertised and there must be a reasonable cycle of notices requesting the return of the material. Given the negative nature of fines, the library should also be very sure of the amount of fines owning. The usual cycle is:
    1. First notice – a card or letter one or two weeks past the due date informing the user that the item is overdue. Studies have indicated that approximately 90-95% of all library materials are returned within four weeks, whether or not overdue notices are sent.
    2. Second notice – a card or letter three weeks past the due date informing the user that they will be billed for replacing the item.

    3. Third notice – a bill sent six to eight weeks past the due date outlining the replacement costs for the items that are overdue. Final notices may be referred to an outside collection agency. In a public library the final recourse may be court action. In an academic library, the library works with the registrar or business office withholding transcripts and degrees from students. In a school library the library staff will contact parents. In fact, in all types of libraries suspension of library privileges may be a very effective last stage in the overdue process.

    The process of sending notifications is easier with an automated system. As well, an automated system can readily be set up to block patrons from borrowing additional items until they have returned the overdue items and paid fines.

    In addition to overdue fines, libraries may also collect fines for damaged materials, lost materials, or lost library identification cards. The fee is designed to replace or repair the material (either fixed in advance or calculated costs of purchasing from a publisher) plus a processing fee. Libraries may also collect fees for the use of certain collections in the library. For example, some libraries have rental collections of audiovisual materials. Regardless of whether a fine or a fee is being collected, a proper receipt should be issued to the patron. Monetary transactions must be tracked with some type of accounting system and cash should be kept in register, locked cash box, or safe.

    There should be some flexibility with overdue policies. For the patron with a good reason for overdues, policies need to be in place that permit staff to waive fines. It is also not a good idea to pursue payment of overdues from the families of patrons who have died. This leads to bad publicity and more negative stereotypes about crazy librarians.

    Security and theft
    Because the circulation desk is typically the last stop that patrons make before they leave the library, circulation desk staff usually have a role to play in library security. Theft is a problem facing all libraries. Missing material is frustrating for both patrons and library staff. Stolen material limits access to information and is a drain on collection development funds. Staff time will have to be spent to reacquire and reprocess the stolen items. If a book is no longer in print, it may not be possible to replace at all.

    To combat theft problems many libraries have purchased and installed theft detection systems. The basic purpose of any surveillance or theft detection system is to prevent materials from being removed from the library without being charged out. Theft detection systems operate on the common principle: electromagnetism. Systems usually interact with detection metal strips hidden in the spines of books, between pages or in the gutters of periodicals. A special detection screen is set up by the library exit. If a patron attempts to leave the library with an item without going through the check-out procedure at the circulation desk, an audible and sometimes, visible alarm (flashing light) is triggered. The exit gate or turnstile locks so that the patron cannot leave.

    Theft detection systems can be set up in one of two ways: 1.) by-pass method and 2.) full-circulating method. In the by-pass method, library materials are permanently activated. They are never “demagnetized” or “desensitized”. Patrons walk through the security gate and circulation staff take the responsibility of passing the items around the gate and giving them to the patron. These systems are less expensive than full-circulation systems because the library does not have to purchase an activate/deactivate unit. They do require more staff time because all items have to be handed to the patron around the security gate.

    The full-circulating method usually involves the use of a special activate/deactivate unit purchased from the manufacturer. During the check-out procedure, staff run items across the units to desensitize them. During the check-in procedure, a switch is flipped on the unit and all items are re-sensitized.

    Theft detection puts the circulation staff in the position of security guard. When an alarm goes off many patrons are surprised and quickly surrender the item they have. In many cases, they have absentmindedly walked off without going to the circulation desk. Sometimes circulation staff are put into the uncomfortable position of having to search a patron’s bag, backpack, or briefcase. In the event that a patron runs away with an item (by jumping the turnstile), a call to the police or security guard is the best solution. Many libraries have special procedures for handling patrons when the alarm goes off. This ensures that patrons are handled consistently with respect and tact.

    Problem patrons
    Having touched on the theft detection role that is involved with circulation, a few words also need to be said about “problem patrons”. Unfortunately, circulation desk staff are often on the frontlines with regard to dissatisfied library users. Circulation staff are responsible for explaining overdue policies, collecting fines, and catching thieves. As well, if a library is open in the evenings and on the weekend, limited staffing is usually provided. Thus, the job of clearing out the library often falls on circulation (which has to be staffed all the hours that a library is open).

    Faced with an upset and angry patron, circulation desk staff need to be prepared to be courteous and calm. Most patrons will eventually calm down. For those, who are out of control, a policy needs to be in place that protects staff. Often, a good strategy is to refer the patron to the head of the library. This will give the individual a feeling that their complaint is being heard by someone else who may be in the position to change things. If no one else is around, staff should not hesitate to call the police or building security if they feel threatened. Such incidents should always be described in writing so that a record is on hand if there are any further problems from the individual.

    Patron confidentiality
    All patrons, whether they are difficult or not, deserve the right to privacy. In establishing charging and reserve procedures, the library staff must be conscientious about patron privacy. It is really no one else’s business what anyone is reading.

    Patron privacy is a sensitive issue. People read for pleasure, but also for self-education in dealing with issues concerning themselves and their families. It is their right to have their privacy protected and library staff should be aware of protecting this right for their patrons. There are legal and ethical considerations regarding patron confidentiality. Canadian implications are similar to those in the United States.

    Through the use of barcodes on library cards or identification cards, some patron protection is built into a circulation system. A very frequent occurrence, especially in a small library, is a patron who is looking for an item and finds that it is checked out to someone else. Patrons will often approach the circulation desk wanting to know who has borrowed the item. They believe they probably know the patron and would like to get them to give the material up. Circulation staff should be very clear with patrons that they cannot give out any kind of patron information. Recalls and holds offer solutions to these individuals. Although they may not get their hands on the material as quickly as they like, patrons will be more satisfied if they believe they can borrow material and use it privately.

    Circulation statistics
    To close, a few words on circulation statistics. At the end of the day after all the various circulation functions have come to a close, circulation statistics tell part of the story about what happened in a library in a given day, month, or year. The purpose of gathering statistics is to provide management with information on how the collection is used and to indicate need for changes in:

    staff scheduling
    collection weeding
    reserve practices
    duplication practices
    selection based on use of various classification schemes

    Library personnel may require the following statistical information:

    · number of items loaned
    · subject classes of items
    · circulation by format type
    · peak/low times of day/year
    · circulations per volume owned
    · circulations per capita
    · proportion of circulated to uncirculated items in total collection
    · attendance figures

    As previously noted, many automated circulation systems can provide a variety of statistical reports. Although it is more time consuming, in most libraries with manual circulation systems also keep track of the number of books that were circulated each day by various categories (e.g. adult and juvenile) and by classification. These statistics are kept by counting book cards and recording information on statistics sheets.

    Additional references
    Battaile, Connie. Circulation serves in a small academic library. Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1992.
    Burgin, Robert and Hansel, Pansy. Library overdues: analysis, strategies and solutions to the problem. New York : Haworth Press, 1984.
    Manitoba. School Library Curriculum Services. Circulation manual: a guide for school libraries. Winnipeg : Manitoba Education and Training, 1992.
    Burnaby Public Library. Membership and Policies. Sample of circulation policies of a public library.
    University of Alberta. Circulation policies and procedures. Sample of circulation policies of an academic library.
    Winnipeg Public Library. Library cards and borrowing information.
    Electronic Reserves Clearinghouse: Links and Materials on the WebSite providing information about setting up electronic reserve systems

    Sample patron registration form from the Winnipeg Public Library

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