Adventures of an overdue book detective

I’ve been wondering what to write about beyond the cpd23 things, and today I found inspiration in a project I’ve been working on in my day job.

A little background…

As I’ve said before, the library where I work doesn’t fit any traditional mold. Our collection is specialized in its focus on youth development and nonprofit management topics. Our services are specialized in that we can only circulate our books, DVDs, and curriculum to youth workers within the state of Indiana (you can request through ILL from out-of-state). Patrons include teachers, counselors, youth ministers, program managers, foster parents, etc. We do most of our business via e-mail and our integrated library system (ILS), sending requested items via US Mail along with postage-paid return envelopes. We were doing this way before Netflix, in case you were wondering. To promote our library, we regularly display relevant items at regional trainings hosted by our parent organization. We allow on-site checkouts at the events where our books are displayed, and one nice lady even gave me a hug when I told her she could take a book with her!

Normally, I love how unique our library is. We can fill a specialized information need that most other libraries in Indiana cannot.

Unfortunately, our unusual practices sometimes present unusual problems, which brings me to…

Retro Library Poster

Today’s challenge…

Over the past several months, I have been trying to get a handle on the whereabouts of several LONG overdue books. We find ourselves in this predicament for a few reasons:

  1. We do not charge fines. The US Mail is too fickle, so when would would they start to take effect?
  2. Before we moved to a more modern ILS four years ago, there were no automatic overdue notices, and limited staff time to chase after people.
  3. Our current ILS will send three automated overdue notices, but any additional followup requires pulling a report and manually calling or e-mailing each patron.

By and large, I have cleaned up the problems that resulted from #2. Since we had spare copies or newer editions for most of the items that were so many years overdue, I just decided to declare them lost and move on.

The main issue I struggle with now is completing #3 without the leverage offered by #1. It seems that because there are no consequences for keeping our materials well past the due date, some patrons are tempted to hang onto them indefinitely. They lend them to clients, coworkers, and children, with seemingly little regard for how to get them back to the library in a timely manner. Aside from karma, what reason do people have to return our books? In my e-mail reminders, I like to invoke a little guilt, suggesting that the patron’s fellow youth workers are waiting to see the items. That actually tends to work – for the folks who read their e-mails, anyway.

However, youth work seems to be an unusually transient profession. I can’t tell you how many e-mails bounce and phone calls reach dead-ends. I don’t think our books and DVDs always travel with patrons to their next job, as materials are often shared within an organization. This is where I curse our librarianly duty to protect our patrons’ privacy. How am I supposed to retrieve our missing property without calling ABC Agency to see if Mr. Former Employee left any of our books sitting around? A few times I’ve been able to inquire about the overdue items without revealing names, but most of the time, the conversation goes something like this:

Me: “Hello, is Mr. Former Employee available?”

ABC Agency: “No, Mr. Former Employee no longer works here. May I help you?”

Me: “Uh…”

What am I supposed to say at that point? Hang up and call back so I can ask about our books without mentioning names? It’s totally awkward and frustrating. I hate the idea that we have to replace books that are probably collecting dust someplace. What’s an overdue book detective to do when the trail runs cold?

Because this is the only library I’ve worked in so far, I have no way to know if my frustrations with long overdue items are unique to our circumstances or if this is pretty typical patron behavior.

Do any of you face similar challenges?

Any creative suggestions to entice people to return their materials without sending a search party?

Or should I just stop complaining?

Image credit: Enokson