Sacred Cow #2

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Sorry for the long gap between cows...I had some technical difficulties that were making it hard for me to blog.  On with it...

I've been thinking about one of the most bloated sacred cows in library management systems.  No, not the MARC record--I'll leave that one to others.  I'm talking about Circulation Rules.  It's become almost cliche to compare what we do in libraries (and this accusation is pointed primarily at academic libraries) to a typical commercial customer service.

Picture me at the Blockbuster checkout desk.

Me: Hi, I'm visiting here for the next six months and was wondering if I could check out your movies.
BB: Um.  Can you verify your residency to prove that I should trust you?
Me: Yes.  Here is a signed affidavit from the CEO of my company who moved me here.  He can vouch for my credibility.
BB: Yeah, okay.  I can make you a "visiting resident with special privileges."  You'll get movies for 3 days fewer than other "regular" customers.  Oh, and you can't check out new releases or games.  I'll need your Social Security number and a permanent billing address just in case we need to bill you.
Me: Is there any way I can get regular privileges?
BB: Um, well....no.
Me: How many other users have this kind of borrowing privilege.
BB: You're the only one.  We add profiles for people like you one at a time.

Who are we helping by ensuring that the professor emeritus in veterinary medicine gets bound periodicals for 3 days more than a full professor?  I'm starting to find Amazon's delivery options confusing and there are only 3 or 4 of them?  Why must we complicate something that could be so simple?  Without disparaging the gargantuan effort that was the Evergreen ILS development in Georgia, the real victory, I think, was the creation universal borrowing rules.

Take a hard look at those systems, folks.  Are all those item types really helping?  Are all those patron categories useful beyond reporting usage statistics that rarely lead to any business intelligence decisions?  Is it time to simplify?

Comments4 Comments

Bryan said:

Picture, too, the staff on the other side of that transaction who would like to jettison those seemingly special circulation rules for special patrons. They are a pain to remember and a pain to do. Every moment that I am explaining why the patron cannot do something, because of his or her special status, is one less moment that I have to explain all the great things that the patron can do at the library. With all this talk about people not coming to the library, we would be remiss to turn them away because that's what we do when we burden them with all our internal library baggage. Take a credit card or cash deposit to defray the costs of theft or damage (like at hotels or car rental outfits) and then be done with it. One more happy customer.

Hugh Taylor said:

There's an assumption in what Adnrew says that it's always librarians making these rules. My own institution is far from unique in having librarians implement policies defined by the university. We're not the ones saying A can have X books for Y weeks, but B can have twice as many for half that time, etc. We simply have to ensure that those rules are reflected in our circ system. We have some say in determining which materials are available for borrowing (we won't lend our Gutenberg Bible or our copy of Audubon!), but not who/how many/how long. This doesn't invalidate the basic point, but neither can it be ignored.

James said:

How many $300+ movies are available at Blockbuster? I'd actually like to know. I may be wrong in my assessment that the shelves of Blockbuster do not carry anything nearly as valuable as some of the items in my library.

Yes I agree 100% that we need to cull our herd of numerous cattle. Circ rules are needlessly complicated and SHOULD be simplified. And I’ve always felt our policies SHOULD err on the side of easy access. I feel the same way about interlibrary loan policies and computer use policies as well.

I question more this tendency to illustrate the folly of libraries by comparing them to Google or Amazon or Blockbuster. Yes we can learn a lot from the way private sector companies behave. And we desperately need to jettison most of our old ways and assumptions.

But your example implies that Blockbuster's mission is comparable to that of a libraries. And I question the usefulness of such forced comparisons.

These problems get far worse when you start sharing resources on a consortial or network level. In addition to calls for differential treatment based on the things you list, administrative relationships, geographical or political boundaries, and other factors make checking out books far more complicated than it needs to be.

For a profession committed to open information, we spend a lot of time worrying about people getting more service than they're supposed to. Meanwhile, many libraries insist that ILL should be totally unthrottled so people can request hundreds of items that won't be read at enormous cost, but I digress...

If the energy we futilely spend trying to make everything fit some insane logic or dealing with extremely rare (or hypothetical) situations in the library world were redirected to some useful purpose, there's no telling what we could accomplish.

It's a penny wise pound foolish way to do business.

/rant

About the Author

Andrew K. Pace

I am Executive Director for Networked Library Services at OCLC. I am also a past President of LITA. On occasion, I am known for pontificating "on stage, in writing, and via the web" on a variety of issues important to libraries.

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