April 2017 | Volume XXXV. Issue 2 »

Is Your Library a LOT?

March 23, 2017
Keisha Hester, Broadview Public Library District

Libraries and librarians constantly look for ways to bring innovative services to patrons. This inclination has given rise to a type of collection named with an ironic play on words: Library of Things (LOT). Typically, a LOT is a collection of related items that go above and beyond the usual offerings of books, music, and movies, and include such diverse items as power tools, baking pans, ukuleles, even sewing machines, as well as ever-increasingly technology-related items such as hotspots, tablets, computers, etc. The offerings are limited only by the imagination and patron request.

Before developing a specialized Library of Things, libraries would do well to take into consideration many factors, including seeking legal counsel for feasibility and policy recommendations and implementation. However, the factors below can help to inform the discussion with affected staff, the public, and legalities.

LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP

Patron demand certainly plays a large part in acquisitions; however, as librarians are often trend spotters, their assessments about particular items or collections should be considered as well. Allow item requests to come from all levels of employees, not just frontline staff or managers. The request should be in writing, with supporting research and/or documentation, including future uses and price to acquire, when possible. This is especially helpful if the decision to purchase will rest with the library board of trustees due to the item’s price point or intrinsic value. It also helps keep board members informed of these special collections so that they may promote them while representing the library in the community.

Next, identify the stakeholders in acquiring and promoting the item or collection and seek their input. Look at this from a holistic point of view, with as many viewpoints as necessary taken into account. For example, an item that can’t be stored or displayed easily is difficult to promote. Additionally, items that are too costly to replace if checked out and not returned create financial risk for both the patron and the library.

Ideally, if the decision to purchase is made, these items are cataloged and inventoried along with the rest of the collection of more typical materials—e.g., along with books and media. It helps if usage can be quantified to judge the item’s popularity, and also serves as inventory control over the items for tracking purposes. Involving multiple stakeholders from the beginning, including a representative from technical services/collection management, will ensure the groundwork has been laid to get the items shelf-ready in the most expeditious manner possible.

AND THINK BEFORE YOU LEND

Ideally, policy implications should be brought up while the item is under consideration and before it is purchased. Stakeholders should be consulted before drafting final policies so that the full impact can be understood. The library board will necessarily have the final say in approving a policy, however staff can allay concerns they may have during this vetting process if they are informed of the implications and ramifications. A Library of Things can convey special risk that may or may not be covered in the library’s current insurance coverage, so that needs to be addressed. Fully understanding the risk involved to ensure the item’s return when writing lending policies will promote fair and equitable access to the item in the first place. The goal is to allow full use of the collection by all patrons.

A first line of defense could be to have the patron sign an acknowledgment form or some other document where they expressly accept responsibility for the item until it is returned. This is a step above the regular patron lending policy, and calls specific attention to patron actions in using the item. Due to the newness of the item or collection, a LOT could be made available only to cardholders of that particular library. The argument can be made that the local taxpayer should be given first access before opening it up (if ever) to the larger community. In theory, local users are more known to staff, and will be easier to follow up with should anything go awry during the loan period or in trying to recover the item.

Limiting use to in-library-only lending is a viable option that can open up a newly acquired item or collection to all patrons, regardless of their cardholder member status. This method can sometimes remove the monetary barrier by requesting that the patron leave some form of identification in lieu of a cash deposit, or making it mandatory that the patron sign a waiver stating that lending only extends within the library building itself. This is particularly useful for more expensive items, or those that may be less intuitive to use, as staff is nearby and can assist. One big consideration for this type of lending policy is weighing the value of the item against how a patron desires to use it. It’s nice to have video cameras and projectors, for instance, but if the patron needs them for a project that cannot be completed inside the library, how has adding this item to the collection enhanced a patron’s life, or put the library in a position to deliver on its brand promises?

BALANCING RISK AND EQUITY

One of the most common methods to reduce risk in lending items is to require a monetary deposit, sometimes equal to the purchase amount of the item itself. We reason that if the patron has financial responsibility and has created a cost-sharing relationship with the library, they are highly likely to return the item in good working condition in order to get their money back. If the patron does not return the item, or does so in less than favorable conditions, the library has collected the replacement fee up front, and can almost immediately replace the item so no time is lost on billing, etc.

One drawback to this method, however, is that those who may benefit the most from being able to check out a “free” item won’t be able to because of this monetary barrier. Additional consideration should be given to exactly how this deposit is handled with in-house accounting practices. It may unduly burden frontline circulation/customer service staff to take in money that will be refunded in a short amount of time, especially if the cash drawers do not typically have enough money to cover the amount of the deposit.

Age-limit minimums, coupled with cardholder-type restrictions, help to minimize risk by not allowing use of a juvenile card to check out certain items. It puts the onus on the patron to be a responsible cardholder, and gives the library an added layer of protection should the item not be returned or damaged to the point of requiring a fee. The library can pursue the right person for the monies owed, as typically some libraries do not penalize juvenile cardholders for certain kinds of debts.

One last point to consider is the library’s general fine and fee policy currently in place, and determining if it needs amending for Library of Things collections. Will the new items fall into the current overdue and replacement fee structures, or will a different one need to be created? If the library is fine-free, as more are increasingly moving in this direction, will this Library of Things be an exception to that policy, or fall in line with it?

MANAGING THE COLLECTION

Finally, as with any other collection, you need to evaluate circulation on a regular basis. If an item has been popular
but is no longer circulating, do you consider retiring it and upgrading, or deciding that it’s time to remove it entirely? What other steps do you take with either popular or unpopular items—duplicating some, removing others? These will have to be individual collection management decisions, hopefully considered during the planning phase along with acquisitioning.

However, even if realized after the fact, one would do well to pause and think about removal implications for those patrons who did use an item. At what point do you consider the number of times circulated to be your break-even point versus the cost? Is the collection now dated, are there better, shinier items at a cheaper price to be had, even though the current collection works just fine?Do you add these newer items alongside the older ones, or do you remove the older ones and have to begin a new learning curve in teaching patrons (and staff) how to use it?

All of these points and more are considerations when adding a Library of Things, and we hope they empower all levels of staff with the knowledge that is needed whenever a collection like this is being considered. The process mimics some of the steps taken when adding traditional items to the collection, but precisely because they are not the usual things one would come to expect in a physical library, extra care and consideration must be given.

This article was submitted on behalf of the ILA Best Practices Committee. The committee will host a panel conversation to explore these points and more at this year’s ILA Annual Conference in October.

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