Sunday, December 28, 2008

Circulation of nonbook materials

Libraries with automated circulation systems tend to bar code nonbook materials and use the same procedures as they use for books to circulate for these items. Although the manual circulation control systems are capable of handling all kinds of library materials, many libraries choose to handle certain nonbook materials separately. The cost of controlling these special materials is often lower using a separate system because the frequency of special materials circulating is often too low to justify anything but the simplest and least costly system available. Borrower participation is usually required in circulating nonbook materials. Also, the loan periods for these materials may be different from those for books. Libraries develop their own special forms for charging out nonbook material. To charge out such materials, the borrower fills out a special charge card for whatever material is involved.

Borrower registration
Most libraries require customers to register and to obtain a special identification card to charge materials out to the library. Applying for this card is often the customer’s first contact with a library. This is especially true in a public library. In academic and special libraries a general identification card used for many purposes may also serve for a library card. School libraries often do not require students to register. When a library does require the borrower to register, the procedure should be simple and trouble free.

There are several important reasons for requiring borrowers to register:
  1. to identify persons who have the right to borrow materials, or in some cases the right to use a library;
  2. to give a borrower some special form of identification necessary to charge out material or use a library; and
  3. to obtain information on the ages, occupations, interests, and geographic location of a library’s clientele that would help plan for services and acquisition of materials
This last reason applies especially for public libraries. It is important for a library to know whom it is serving and, equally important, whom it is not serving.

Library personnel at the circulation desk must be familiar with registration procedures and be prepared to answer questions about the library’s services and resources. The importance of first impressions at the registration, or circulation, desk cannot be overstated. Staff who cannot answer simple directional or informational questions or whom seemed annoyed with customers’ requests create a negative impression of the library that is hard to overcome.
Borrower registration is usually handled by staff and, in academic libraries, by student workers, with overall supervision by a paraprofessional. The levels of personnel used for registration in a particular library will vary depending on the library’s size, the kind of library, and library policy. The rest of this section is an overview of user registration procedures. Because daily work details vary greatly among libraries we do not discuss them here but leave them to when they are best learned, that is, while working in a library.

Registration in public libraries
Public libraries have a prescribed registration procedure. Most public libraries include local residents and taxpayers among their primary clienteles. Many public libraries also grant borrowing privileges to non-resident users. Sometimes these non-resident circulation privileges are granted on a temporary basis, generally for a small fee or deposit. The privileges are good for a limited period of time, commonly between one and six months.

The prospective borrower is usually required to show proof of identity and eligibility (often a picture ID and proof of residency) and to fill out a library card application. Applications are often available in languages other than English, especially in libraries serving multicultural populations. Children and young adults usually must have the sponsorship of an adult to obtain a card and often have their application co-signed by their parent or guardian, especially if the child is to have full access to the library’s collection, including the Internet terminals. The information requested may include the borrower’s name, address, telephone number, and employer. Many libraries have joined library consortia or networks or have entered into cooperative agreements with other libraries (see figure). Some libraries extend borrowing privileges to cardholders from any public library in that state (called universal borrowing). Others have contractual agreements with other jurisdictions to serve their users without charge. Some libraries have begun to charge fees to non-residents, but the amounts are relatively low.

Libraries using automated circulation systems are able to register borrowers by entering information directly into the system computer. Staff then issue a borrower’s card with a unique bar code or OCR label used to identify the patron. These cards may be used immediately after they are issued.

A public library branch may keep its own file of registered borrowers or there may be a centralized file for an entire system. In either case, an important task is to keep these files current, eliminating inactive names and obsolete addresses. Most library cards expire at regular intervals so borrowers are required to register again. Staff update the files when they remove the records of those borrowers who do not register again. Some public libraries use cards with no expiration date and purge their patron database at regular intervals. Some libraries have eliminated file updating by using lists of registered voters instead of registration, and the latest list of voters is also the list of registered library borrowers.

Registration in academic libraries
The primary responsibility of the academic library is to provide service to the institution’s students, faculty, and staff. Faculty and staff receive identification cards when hired and have library privileges because they work for the institution. Students usually need one of three forms of identification to charge materials out of the library:

1. an institutional identification card issued or validated when the student registers for the academic term;
2. a receipt for fees paid for the academic term;
3. an identification card issued by the library.

As a backup, the library will often have a list or database of students issued by the school registrar’s office. The list or database is also helpful if a student forgets to bring or does not have a identification card.

Academic libraries often make provisions for circulation services to certain classes of noninstitutional borrowers. Alumni frequently have borrowing privileges. Publicly supported institutions usually allow members of the public to purchase a library card for a nominal fee while admitting them to the library free of charge. Even private institutions may make borrowing privileges available for visiting scholars and sell library cards to members of the local community in the interest of good customer relations. Unaffiliated borrowers are usually required to fill out an application form with their name, address, telephone number, and social security number, and present valid identification, after which they are issued a temporary library card.

Registration in special libraries
Registration of borrowers for special libraries can take a variety of forms. An identification card indicating employment with a company or government agency may give a person library privileges. Registration as a general library user in a public or academic library may also include privileges to use a special library that is part of the institution. A special borrower’s card may be issued for a limited time to persons needing to use a special library. Special libraries often issue temporary cards only to scholars and specialists in a special field. There are thousands of special libraries and, of course, many variations in the manner of patron registration. Frequently, there is no special registration because the office staff is small and the library staff is familiar with everyone on sight.

Registration in school libraries
School libraries have the most homogeneous clientele of the libraries examined. Eligible borrowers are generally the students enrolled in the school, although there are schools and districts that serve parents, student from other schools, or members of the community at large. This is especially true in the cases of school and public library partnerships, where schools or school districts share resources with public libraries.

Because of the limited clientele, few school libraries issue library cards to users. Proof of eligibility is less problematic than in other types of libraries. It can easily be established by personal recognition, school identification cards, and class registers. For those libraries that grant privileges to nonstudents, forms of identification other than library cards are the norm. Where partnerships or alliances exist with public libraries, students often have library cards so they can use the public library resources.

Check-out and check-in
Libraries establish limits on the length of time a borrower may keep library materials. The limits are set so borrowers will return items within a reasonable time, making them available to other users. The length of the loan period depends on the size of the collection, amount of circulation, purpose of lending materials, the clientele served, and sometimes the nature of the material loaned. For most items, loan periods are typically from one to four weeks. Certain materials (such as periodicals, pamphlets, CDs, or videotapes) are usually lent for periods of one to seven days. In some libraries certain borrowers are permitted longer loan periods than others. Academic libraries, for example, usually permit faculty and graduate students, because of their more scholarly research needs, to check out materials for longer periods than undergraduates. These periods vary depending on the library.

Libraries with smaller collections or higher circulation rates tend to have shorter loan periods in order to make material available to as many customers as possible. Libraries with larger collections may allow longer loan periods. Library staff will take all of these factors into consideration when establishing loan policies.

Some libraries limit the number of items a borrower may check out at one time or the number of items that one may borrow on a particular topic. This is common in smaller libraries where one borrower could deplete an entire subject area. The larger the collection the less need there may be to limit borrowing.

The various ways to discharge (check in) borrowed materials were discussed previously. Regardless of the system used, the result of discharging is the same: the record of a loan is cancelled and the borrower’s responsibility ends.

As staff discharge material, they inspect it for wear or damage. This is the point at which injury is most easily spotted. If material is badly damaged, the borrower may be charged for a fee. Missing call number labels can be replaced. Torn pages or loose binding must be repaired before the material circulates again or the item may be damaged beyond repair. This is a serious problem because many items are out of print (that is, the publisher has no copies available for purchase) and cannot be replaced. When repairs are needed, a mending slip with appropriate information is inserted in the item and the material is taken to the bindery area for repairs. A circulation record is created to indicate the location of the item.

Search and hold procedures
Circulation systems are, essentially, inventory control systems. The goal of an inventory control system is to be able to locate any item in the system at any time. Patrons often ask circulation staff to find material that the library owns but which is not on the shelf. One of the measures of a good circulation control system is how well it allows staff to locate materials when they are shelved improperly, not filed in their proper location, or checked out. Procedures for locating requested materials and notifying the requester that materials are available are often called “search and hold” procedures.

To initiate the procedure, the customer fills out a search request form. (Staff use the same search procedure if the borrower claims to have returned an item that library records show as still on loan.) Sometimes, most often in public libraries, there is a small fee for holding an item. The customer or staff member writes the call number, author, and title on the search form, as well as the requester’s name and address so that the patron can be notified if the material is found. Staff begin the search by checking the circulation records and the shelves. Approximately half the items customers are unable to locate are actually in their proper location. If the material is not located, an extended and standard search procedure is followed. Staff look in all possible locations. These include book carts, sorting shelves, missing files, mending areas, and other locations where materials might be found. Because of the library’s emphasis on providing access to information, this is an important service, and libraries make every effort to locate missing items for their customers.

Borrowers often request that charged-out materials be held for them when they are found or returned. Another characteristic of a good circulation system is its ability to identify holds, also known as reserve requests, when material is returned. Patrons usually fill out a hold or reserve request form (see figure), although many online systems allow customers to place their own holds at the catalog terminals. Staff attach the hold or reservation card to the charge-out record so the reserved material can be identified in the discharging process. With an automated system, a staff member or the borrower enters the hold information in the system and the information automatically displays when the item is returned and discharged. When reserved material is identified, staff mail notification to the requester (or, in some cases, telephone the patron). The library holds the material for only a limited time, usually a few days. If the patron does not check out the item, staff notify the next person wanting the material or they return it to the shelves. Some libraries mail the material directly to the borrower who requested it instead of sending a notice and requiring the customer to come to the library.

Overdues, fines, and billing
Overdue materials are a problem because they are not available to other borrowers. Fines are levied and billing performed to encourage borrowers to return materials on time so they are available to others. Libraries handle overdues and fine procedures in a variety of ways.

In recent years there has been a trend to lower or eliminate fines in some libraries, while other libraries have raised fines to try to improve timely return of materials. Some libraries have tried alternate methods of collecting fines to make the process less onerous; for example, the Cleveland Public Library accepts Visa and MasterCard, and a number of libraries accept food donations for the needy in lieu of cash, especially around holidays. While there is a lack of confirming evidence in the literature, most libraries believe some form of a fines and billing system is an effective means for convincing borrowers to return books on time. Some libraries even use fines to raise revenue.

Libraries that levy fines should inform borrowers about fines and fine schedules before any materials are loaned. Some libraries print the fine schedule on the transaction card inserted in the book pocket, on the pocket itself, or in the library handbook. There may also be a sign posted at the circulation desk.

Few libraries have complete freedom to set the fine policy; instead, they must conform to the desires of their governing bodies. In a public library the librarian may make recommendations on a fine policy, but the library board has the legal authority to establish the policy. In a college or university the librarian makes recommendations to the president or the administrative body with authority over the library.

Fine rates vary for different types of loans; for example, fines for short-term loans are often higher than for long-term loans. Fine amounts may also vary according to type of item, for example, higher fines for videos or books on tape. There may be a different fine schedule for children or juvenile borrowers (usually lower than the rate used for adults). Some libraries do not charge children fines at all, believing it is more important to encourage reading as a positive experience.

Some libraries have a policy of rescinding fines for borrowers who are unable to pay. Many libraries have tried moratoriums to encourage the return of overdue material. If a borrower returns the overdue material within a specified period, staff cancel the fine. The rationale for such amnesty programs is that the purpose of fines is not to punish borrowers or to make money for the library; rather, fines are levied as an incentive to encourage the timely return of material. Some libraries allow borrowers to work off their fines by performing tasks around the library.

When staff or the online system identifies overdue material a notice is usually produced and mailed to the borrower. Some systems are programmed to place telephone call reminders in place of written notices. If the borrower does not respond to the first notice, second and third notices may be sent as deadlines expire. The number of notices mailed is a matter of library policy and postage budgets. Staff keep manual or online records of the notices sent and on the eventual resolution of the problem (see figure). A library usually bills a delinquent borrower for the amount of the fine, plus a standardized service charge to cover the cost of processing.

If the fine remains unpaid or the material unreturned, libraries generally suspend further circulation services to the borrower until the situation is resolved. Libraries using automated circulation systems can easily change a borrower’s status to block further checkouts until fines are paid or books returned.

Libraries may resort to the employment of collection agencies, which sometimes report delinquent patrons to companies who are sources of credit checks. In some extreme instances, libraries may take extreme action in small claims court. The decision to initiate legal proceedings generally rests with the chief librarian. Public libraries may work with the city or county legal department to act against borrowers who fail to respond to overdue notices. Libraries sometimes take such action against borrowers guilty of flagrant violations in hopes of deterring others from committing similar transgressions. Academic libraries work with the university registrar or business office to withhold transcripts or degrees from students with unpaid library fines. School library staff contact parents.

Collection of fines and fees
Collection of fines and fees is an important responsibility because it usually involves accountability in handling money. Often, libraries collect fines and fees at the loan desk when a borrower returns overdue or damaged material. This requires a cash register or cash box for making change, a ledger of some sort for recording transactions, and accurate accounting procedures. Fines must be computed carefully; a fine is a poor customer relations device in any case, and miscalculation of the fine will only aggravate the situation. Automated systems automatically calculate fines.

Circulation staff often encounter borrowers who contest their fines. The most common argument heard is that the items listed as overdue were, in fact, returned on time and library records are in error. If the material is, in fact, found in the collection, staff generally give the borrower the benefit of the doubt and excuse the fine. Flexibility in collecting fines will do much to preserve good public relations while obtaining the return of overdue materials.

In some libraries, usually academic, the fine money is not collected by the library. Instead, the library issues a bill stating the fine and the borrower pays the fee at the business office or other campus agency. Sometimes fines for overdues do not revert to the library at all but disappear into a general fund for use by the governing body of the institution.

A library also collects fees for damaged or lost books. Generally libraries charge the cost to replace or repair the material plus a fee, or service charge, to cover the expenses of processing the fee. The amount of the service charge varies from library to library. For example, a lost book that costs $29.95 to replace might be billed at $34.95, the cost of the book plus a replacement fee of $5.00. Some libraries permit borrowers to purchase a replacement copy in return for reducing or eliminating the fee.

Some libraries have special fees for rental collections. Some academic libraries have rental reserve collections and some public libraries have rental collections of popular materials. If multiple copies of particular works are needed but funds are limited, the library might purchase several copies for rental and thereby recover the cost of the material.

The librarian or support staff may not do the actual collecting of fines and fees but will probably supervise the operation and must be aware of library policy and be able to solve problems that may arise. One of these is negotiating fines and fees with borrowers. When bargaining, it is important for staff to remember the philosophy behind the charges. The staff should be willing, and able, to negotiate a reduction in fines for returned overdue materials if they perceive a legitimate reason to do so. Such a willingness to consider the special circumstances of individual borrowers does much to ease the negative situation. It enhances the library’s customer relations and achieves the basic aim of getting material back on the shelves.

Ethical and legal considerations
Consistent with the Library Bill of Rights and the principle of intellectual freedom (the right to read and think whatever one wishes), circulation staff are ethically bound not to reveal the reading habits of library users. Only the reader and the circulation staff, in the legitimate performance of their duties, have a right to know what information sources the customer has consulted or checked out, and circulation staff have an obligation to prevent others from obtaining this information.

Probably as long as libraries have existed, police, government officials, ministers, parents, spouses, and others have asked library staff about the reading habits of borrowers. Only during the past 50 years, however, has the library profession expressed a desire to keep circulation records confidential. In 1938, the American Library Association “Code of Ethics” specified the confidentiality of library records, the first formal acknowledgment of this issue in the United States. (American Library Association, Code of Ethics Committee, “Code of ethics for librarians ... adopted ... December, 1938,” ALA Bulletin 33 (February 1939):128-30). Since 1970, the profession’s stand on confidentially has become stronger. There is currently, for example, a movement to keep children’s records confidential, even from their parents.

The following discussion of this issue is necessarily brief (Much of the material in this section was taken from: B. S. Johnson, “A more cooperative clerk: the confidentiality of library records”, Law Library Journal 81 (Fall 1989): 769-802; and Bruce Kennedy, “Confidentiality and Library Records: a Survey of Problems, Policies, and Laws,” Law Library Journal 81 (Fall 1989): 737-68.) Nothing in the following paragraphs is intended to be construed as legal advice. From a strictly legal standpoint, government officials have legitimate reasons to view library records. Public safety is the strongest justification for disclosure of library records, such as in response to requests relating to investigations of specific crimes. Legitimate national security concerns may also justify government access to library records.

Citizen access to library records is much less defensible. Although the records of libraries, which are governmental agencies (publicly funded in some way), may be categorized as public records, access to these records serves no public function. Citizens have few legitimate uses for library records. Nevertheless, most states’ laws regarding open records are so broad that library records may be open to inspection by the general public.

Most requests for circulation records, however, infringe on the privacy of the library user. Privacy may be considered an intrinsic and a prophylactic right that secures and safeguards other rights. A person has the right “to be left alone,” according to Justice Brandeis, and the right to be free from the harassment, intimidation, and persecution that might result from free access to circulation records.

In 1970 the American Library Association adopted a policy on the “Confidentiality of Library Records,” the current version of which was published in 1988 (American Library Association, “Confidentiality of Library Records,” ALA Handbook of Organization 1988/1989 (Chicago: American Library Association, 1988,), 237). This policy attempts to constrain unlimited police access to library records by requiring an order from a judicial, legislative, or administrative body. The 1995 revised ALA Code of Ethics (available at reaffirms the librarian’s duty to protect each user’s right to privacy with respect to library records. Many librarians and library associations responded to these documents by adopting confidentiality policies of their own.

A summary of state laws and practices, as of the mid 1990s, may be found in Shirley Wiegand’s book, Library Records (Shirley A. Wiegand, Library records: a retention and confidentiality guide (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994)). These statutes attempt to strike a balance between access and privacy. Each law permits some access, especially in response to court orders or subpoenas. Several statutes provide that libraries need not disclose circulation records under the state open records law. A number of states allow records of a minor child to be disclosed to a parent or guardian. Performance of library routines permits the disclosure of records to library staff, and records may be disclosed to others if the patrons consent.

The current status of confidentiality laws leaves several issues unclear. Under current legislation, library staff may be liable for civil or criminal liability for wrongful disclosure of records. There is no federal law regarding confidentiality of library records, and the question of whether or not the state legislation limits federal access often arises. Thus far, the federal government has not tested the legislation in the courts. Interstate transactions, like interlibrary loan, raise the question of which state’s law governs access to transaction governs.

Policy in most libraries requires that staff attempt to eradicate past circulation records and preserve the confidentiality of customers. If the circulation system used in a library requires that the name of a borrower appear on a book card or some other record traceable to a book involved, staff should render the name illegible as part of the discharging process. Libraries with automated systems are in a good position to act in defence of confidentiality by ensuring that the system eliminates any link to between the borrower’s name and the specific material borrowed once the item has been returned and any fees paid.

All library staff must be familiar with library policy on disclosure of library records because someday any library employee may be approached by a citizen or governmental authority with the request that the library disclose information on the reading habits or other library use of particular users. Staff who are approached with a request of this kind should refuse to comply and immediately report the request to their supervisor.

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