This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

December 1, 2004 - holds and patron privacy

As anyone reading my last batch of columns knows, I'm thinking a lot about a deep redesign of some longstanding library practices. Why?

Because our own success has led us to a spot where I can see the end of our capacity to grow. Case in point: what we call "holds."

Way back in 1991, I was mucking about with our computer system and saw the option to allow patrons to place their own reserves on items. If the item was out, a "hold" would lurk quietly in the background. When the item was returned, the computer would generate both a message -- please send to Matilda Smith at Parker -- and a notice or list telling staff to phone the patron.

If the item was in (as when Matilda placed a hold for something on the shelf in Castle Rock), then staff would fetch it, check it in, to get the same message. Then we'd either send it to the person's home library, or hold it locally for pickup.

What a great idea! I thought. So I flipped the switch.

Immediately, before we even did any advertising, patrons pounced on this new option. I, of course, had done nothing to prepare my staff, as they soon let me know.

But the service was clearly popular. So we figured out a way to deliver it.

A few years later holds were SO popular that we hit a bottleneck. The process of calling people to let them know that their books were in ate up thousands of hours of staff time. So we spent some money to buy automated notification options: automated telephone calls, automated email, and automated mailing notices.

Between 1999 and 2003, holds continued to grow -- by 165 percent, well into the hundreds of thousands per year. At one of our libraries (Parker) we ran out of space to store them behind our desk. At Philip S. Miller in Castle Rock, we designed our hold pickup space in such a way that it might be accessible to the public, too.

We had noticed that some of our neighbor libraries were allowing patrons to pick up their own holds. Could we move the holds out to a more public area, giving us both more space, and allowing the patrons to incorporate their holds into some kind of self-checkout system?

That was the experiment.

From the numbers side, it's worked, too. Holds continue to grow, without the barriers of space and with slightly less need for staff handling. It has expanded our capacity.

But here's the problem. Although we shelf the holds spine down (so you can't see the title without actively pulling them out and checking), patron privacy is compromised.

Most of the time, nobody cares what you're reading or listening to. But a snoop certainly could intrude on this information. Although I am not aware of a single case where this has happened, several patrons have written me to express their concern that it might.

And they're right.

So here's a head's up. The service itself will continue. In the short run, we'll put a notice on our holds screen letting you know that picking up holds at Parker and Castle Rock uses this system.

But we're investigating some alternatives -- filing the items by patron barcode, or by some mix of last name and barcode, thereby better preserving your confidentiality. This is a high priority project, and we'll get it solved.

Meanwhile, thanks for your obvious support of the service -- and your patience as we work out the bugs.

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