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.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

January 6, 2010 - hold that thought! by David Farnan

[This column is by David Farnan, Associate Director of Community Services for the Douglas County Libraries.]

I recently had dinner with some volunteers from Parker Library.  As you can imagine, their reasons for volunteering were as diverse as the group itself. A few were retired and wanted to give back to the community. Another woman wanted to teach someone to read. Another wanted to keep busy while she searched for another job.

One told me that she used the library hold service so heavily, she felt guilty about it. She figured she should pitch in at the library.

What do we have her doing? Shelving hold materials.

Holds is one of the most popular services at Douglas County Libraries. Patrons request books through our website, and receive a call, email, or text when their item comes in. Around 30,000 people use the system annually. Among those polled, more than half indicated it was not just their preferred method of using the library. It was their only method.

The holds service is also one of our most costly services.

It costs around $2 to circulate an item. This includes everything –the item, labor, self-check machines, sorters, software, computers, buildings, utilities, salaries, everything.

Placing a hold adds about sixty cents per item.  Most of this cost is labor – staff to search for and reshelve the item.  Nearly one-third of the costs are for infrastructure - courier costs for shipping items from location to location, and a pro-rated percent of the technology that makes the system work.

Sixty cents a book may not sound like much, but we do around 1.7 million holds annually. The popular service
is growing at nearly twice the rate of regular checkouts.

So what’s wrong with this model?  It’s convenient. Patrons love it.

Here’s the rub. Almost 15% of the holds are never picked up. That translates to about 500 unclaimed items a day.

I don’t begrudge those items. Things come up. In a way, the 15% not picked up is the price of doing business.

But it’s a hefty price that needs to be reduced. If we could eliminate that 15%, it would allow us a year or so of growth in holds with no added costs.

A library taskforce recently analyzed the holds service and recommended some changes.

One recommendation was to reduce the number of holds per patron to 50 from 99. The taskforce found a correlation between unclaimed items and having a lot of items on hold. 50 books and movies is a lot to be waiting for. I have no idea what I could do with 99.  Personally, 50 seems generous.

We knew the new restriction would affect around 300 patrons - less than 1%.  We also knew that patrons with 50+ holds were likely “power users” – folks who love libraries and visit at least weekly, are serious about reading, and unafraid to tell us when we go astray.  I notified staff of the change in policy, and let them know we could expect to hear from all of the patrons affected. We nearly did.

The day before my dinner with the volunteers, we implemented the first change in our holds policy.

Remember the volunteer who used the holds service so much? She was one of the 300.

We are having a nice dinner, telling stories, laughing, and suddenly she realizes I am the person responsible for restricting her holds from 99 to 50.   She carefully explains to me that she knows how to manage her card, and always picks up her items on time.

Seriously, I hate policies that seem punitive. I told her I really didn’t want her to read fewer books, but I needed to reduce the cost of the service and the number of items not picked up. I give her a few tips for how to keep items on a “wish list” without actually putting them on hold.

She understood. But suddenly my chicken didn’t look so good. I consider making a run for the dessert table for a nice chocolate brownie.

No, I know. I’ll order it and pick it up later. Or not.

P.S.  If you’ve got an itch, we could use a few more volunteers to search for, and shelve holds.

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