Collection Dilemmas: Frequently Missing Items
Librarian: "Uh, mayyyyybe, let me check. Sorry, not right now. Can I put one on hold for you?"
Replace "GED" with books on witchcraft or sex; titles by Stephen King or Sister Souljah's The Coldest Winter Ever; memoirs like A Child Called "It"; almost any popular DVD you can name, especially horror films; rock and rap CDs . . . this interaction plays itself out with depressing regularity. A quick check of the catalog shows that my library (just this building, not any of the branches or the extensive network we belong to) has purchased 26 copies of The Coldest Winter Ever, all but three of which have disappeared from the collection. They've been stolen, lost, or taken home and never returned. Each time we purchase one of these items new (in paperback) and process it for circulation to the public, the cost is around $8.00, meaning that we've spent over $200 just to keep one book on the shelf for our patrons. That money could have been spent buying other materials. Is it our duty to buy the same book over and over, knowing it will be stolen, at the expense of collection diversity?
Let's take another example: GED books. There is a real and persistent need for GED help in our large, urban community. Most of the item records for our GED books end up looking like this, which is frustrating for both patrons and librarians. I found that we have at least 105 missing, billed, or "claims returned" GED prep books. We (theoretically) have 14 copies that are currently checked out, some of which may return some day. We have three copies in the reference collection, none of which any patron has been particularly interested in using. If you're looking for a Spanish GED book, the odds are much better; fewer than 50% of those are missing.
As a librarian, it's extremely frustrating to purchase items that will disappear. Are we wasting taxpayer money on items that will circulate a few times and be gone before they can return our investment? Other than buying these titles over and over, what are the options?
1. Tighter security. With certain collections, such as DVDs and urban fiction, a lot of the missing items are stolen rather than checked out. Is there something we could be doing to minimize this risk? Unfortunately, we have to balance our security needs with patron privacy and our desired identity as a welcoming and easy-to-use environment. As I mentioned above, we put three GED books in the "Desk Reference" collection, out of patron hands. On the plus side, they haven't gotten stolen. On the other hand, no one really seems to want to study for the GED in the library. Aside from putting everything valuable behind the circulation desk in a restricted area . . . this question continues to confound.
2. Limits on replacements. One librarian I spoke to, who orders DVDs, explained that she buys one replacement if a popular movie or television show goes missing. If it disappears again, she won't reorder it. Another possibility is to allocate a certain amount of money in the budget each year for replacements. Once that limit is reached, no more replacements would be purchased until the next fiscal year.
3. Consider other locations. At my downtown library, we have a larger collection and a huge problem with disappearing items. As librarians trying to get items into the hands of our patrons, we usually have to place holds on branch items. The video game collection was actually removed from this location and placed in a branch library where it could be more closely monitored. At some point, it may be worth saying: "We can't keep this item here, but it stays on the shelf at the branches. We aren't ordering any more for this location." The same could hold true for the greater region--if you can still put a hold on it and are able to deliver it to the patron in a few days (often not the case with these items that are supposed to be in the library), does that mean it's still technically "available" to patrons through your library?
4. Electronic options. Despite all their flaws, electronic resources can't be stolen, lost, or damaged. Continuing with the GED example, most public libraries should have access to Learning Express or some other program that enables online study. I realize that this doesn't solve the problem for people without internet access beyond the library, but it is another option that they should be aware of and could use while they are in the building. If your library is circulating e-readers, make sure that (available) high-demand, high-turnover books are loaded on them. I helped someone looking for Mockingjay who ended up checking out one of our e-readers to get faster access to a copy.
To answer my own question, I do believe it is our duty to replace books that our patrons clearly want--theft is a wonderful indicator of patron interest--however, I think that we must keep in mind the needs of other patrons and the overall diversity of the collection. I'm very interested to hear what other librarians have to say about this topic, so please let me know what you think in the comments.
ETA: This month is our blog anniversary, and Robin and I have been assembling a variety of crazy-covered Awful Library Books and ARCs for your delectation. If you comment on one of our posts this month, you'll be eligible to win one of these amazing(ly weird, and possibly off-putting) prizes!