Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Online ordering makes library a victim of its success

by: Chris McNamara

When Ruth Lednicer recently placed a hold in the Chicago Public Library system for the cookbook "Fix It and Forget It" at the start of the year, she never guessed the book would take nearly a month to arrive.
Of course, Lednicer had a bit more sympathy for those who processed her book request within the Harold Washington Library because she works there as the director of marketing.

For the rest of the Chicago's 1.9 million library cardholders, the extended waits for materials they placed on hold at the start of the year were more of a mysterious hassle.

A major factor behind the delay in cardholders getting their books is the growing numbers of titles ordered online, akin to the Netflix method of reserving DVDs online, that has been in place at the Chicago Public Library since March 2008.

"It was an expected shock," said Lednicer of the surge in hold requests with the advent of online ordering. She notes that 40,000 holds were placed online in the first month of the new system three years ago. These days, as many as 120,000 items are placed on hold each month, 95 percent of which are done via computer.

While nearly 2 million Chicagoans use their tax-funded libraries, it is likely that few fully grasp the logistics of how the holds system works. The Chicago Public Library has 76 branches, served by eight truck routes that move 750,000 items among those branches each month. When a book or CD or movie is placed on hold by a library member, the computerized system searches for the nearest available copy or the one that is due to be returned next.
If a title can be found within a truck route (at a nearby library), it can be processed remotely and transferred from branch to branch. If a title can only be found at a branch outside of the hold-placer's library, it must be sent to the library's headquarters — the Harold Washington Library at State and Congress — then sent back out, which slows the process.
As part of a three-person team, Steve Sposato, the assistant director of collection development,determines what to purchase and in what quantities.

If an author is popular — say "Harry Potter" writer J.K. Rowling — Sposato knows to order dozens of copies of a new release. He also monitors the media, the New York Times best-seller lists, National Public Radio and the "Oprah Winfrey Show" to determine what books will be in high demand. When a title is selected for the One Book, One Chicago program, Sposato places a big order.

Sposato's team also studies a "holds report" produced by the library staff each month that indicates what items cardholders have been requesting.

"We try to maintain a 5 to 1 ratio," he said. "If 100 people are waiting for a title, we want at least 20 copies."

Oftentimes, they do better than that ratio. In early February, there was a waiting list of 50 people for the 60 copies of the newly released Mark Twain autobiography that were rotating through the system.

It's a complicated dance — cardholders and truck drivers, staff within headquarters and librarians at branches — aided (and at times overwhelmed) by a complicated computer system.

Chicago Public Library staff are constantly re-evaluating and tweaking the system, Lednicer said. They recently reconfigured truck routes to better accommodate areas that have more holds. Branches on the North Side, for example, process more holds than other regions' branches.

But backlogs happen. Titles ordered online get mired in transit while staffers sort through mountains of materials trying to match books to readers and CDs to listeners as quickly as possible.

"We use (the library) too," Lednicer said. "We know it can be frustrating."

At the start of the year, everyone on staff — accountants, marketing professionals and even library Commissioner Mary Dempsey — was called away from their desks to empty shipping bins and process books at the dock within the Harold Washington Library. They transformed a small kitchen into a holding area.

That's not surprising, said Audra Caplan, president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association.

"It is common. You always struggle around the holidays," Caplan said. "January and February are always busy, that's universal. Even the best people sometimes just get inundated."

Despite the delays in getting their books, two cardholders said they enjoy using the Chicago Public Library.

"When a book is not available, that is always a bummer. But my satisfaction (with the library system) is pretty high," said Lakeview resident Cathy Ward, who checks out books to use in her first-grade classroom at The Children's School in Berwyn. "I am getting these books for free, which I otherwise would not be getting."

from: Chicago Tribune

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