For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
January 21, 2004 - Theft
Years ago, I was working my very first job as a professional librarian. I was an Assistant Professor at Illinois State University. Among my responsibilities was to work the general reference desk, not too far from the main entrance to the library.
Shortly after I arrived, the library installed a new security system. Staff had already inserted tags in all the books. The new system made a loud, obnoxious noise when somebody tried to slip out with an item that hadn't been "desensitized." A detection also blocked the big aluminum gate between the checkout desk and the outside.
The new system was widely publicized through campus media, but apparently not that many people paid attention to it. The first day of operation, it went off at least 30 times.
And every time, it was a professor. Not a single student.
Every time, the professors said, "But I need this book for my research!" Staff pointed out that no one was denying them access to the materials. We were just requiring that they be checked out first.
You may have noticed that most public libraries use security systems now. They're expensive -- the hardware alone (not counting the tags and staff time) -- cost about $30,000 per location.
To figure out if such a cost were necessary for us, the staff of the Douglas County Libraries conducted a couple of inventories. What we found was heartening: our loss rate was surprisingly low, less than 2 percent.
We have an honest community, that does not feel compelled to steal what it may freely borrow.
Um, until recently. At most of our libraries, we've tracked a big jump in the disappearance of two classes of library materials: CDs and DVDs. And this is happening just as we've just started to build useful collections. Particularly saddening is the devastation of a brand new
foreign film collection -- something truly unique in the area.
I have to admit that I don't get it. The whole purpose of libraries is to allow MANY people to have access to things they simply would not be able to buy. The implied social contract is that this cooperative purchasing agreement offers to all a great benefit at a relatively low cost.
At home, I have my own collection of CDs and DVDs, and have noticed something else: I don't use them all of the time. Much of the time, they sit idle in bookcases and trays. There's another library benefit: I can return what I don't really need lying around all the time to some place that will keep it in order for me, as well as allowing others to enjoy it.
But I don't expect this public declaration of indignation to have any affect whatsoever on our problem. To preserve our collection, we'll have to pursue the same costly solutions adopted by our colleagues in the retail world.
First will come the new procedures. Expect some inconvenience in the process of checking out these materials.
Second will come the gates and tags. The good news is, this problem has emerged at the same time as new technological solutions. Nowadays, the "tags" can do more than beep at the gate -- they can actually identify their contents and whereabouts. In the future, we may be able to hold up a device in the middle of the library that in essence, asks, "everybody here?" and every item answers.
The same technology might save some of the time we'll lose elsewhere; such tags would let the items check themselves back in just by sliding through a bookdrop.
But it won't be cheap. The small minority of petty thieves will rob their communities thrice: by stealing what they may already borrow for free, by forcing new inconvenience on their neighbors and public employees, and by diverting money that could have been used for more new materials and services.
On behalf of the vast majority of people who have been so righteous for so long, I am truly sorry.