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Monday, January 29, 2007

Honey, I shrunk the collection

I love virtually everything about the Multnomah County Library -- particularly the great staff over at our branch in Albina -- but last week's story in the O about how many items walk out of the library and never return is cause for concern. In this day of bar codes and tattle tape, there must be something that can be done -- why is nobody coming up with a solution?

Comments (17)

I remember Lars ranting about this a couple years ago.
There were problems at the downtown branch. Seems they have an electronic solution installed, but its hardly ever turned on...so people were walking out with dvds, cds, etc.

Unlike Lars and his ilk, I'm all for the library. I also understand that they'd rather not do a strip search of everyone leaving the building. But it's 2007 -- there have got to be unobtrusive ways to tighten security.

Also under consideration: limiting the number of DVDs and CDs a person can borrow at one time to 15 -- rather than the current 149.

Huh??? How about 4 or 5?


I'm not sure it's the high-volume checkouts that are causing the losses. There may be some correlation there, but I have not seen it.

I suppose finding out whether there is a correlation might be a good first step.

Im not against the library, but I have to admit, I dont use it. (I usually buy the books I read.) And I dont let my kids use it much, either. Not without adult supervision.
A couple summers ago I witnessed a couple people checking out pretty graphic porn videos out in front of everyone. That was kind-of disturbing at a public library.
And the people working there said they couldnt do anything about it.

You know I understand the library staffs frustration with the security towers at the doors. Most of the time they sound off for no reason that anyone can find. Plus they are easy to defeat.

That being said, catching the thieves stealing the items is really not their purpose anyway.
If a thief walks in and sees some one checking people at the door when the alarm goes off the are less likely to steal a book or DVD.
Deterrence is there real goal.

Oh, for God's sake. Heaven forfend that kids old enough to go downtown by themselves, carry concealed weapons, drink sodas, etc. should catch a glimpse of a human body. News flash: each of them has one.

As for the library's collections "shrinkage", I'd venture a guess that the items going missing aren't being checked out in the first place. I remember when this came up some years ago, before the current head of the library came to Portland. The story was that the electronic security system was turned off because the alarms were bothersome. If that problem hasn't been addressed, it's an outrage.

Jon, I've visited the central library once or twice a week, and have done so since moving to Portland seven years ago. I have never once seen anyone check out porn.

This is just the latest iteration of a complex problem that has more to do with the orientation of public library administrators and staff than anything else. It grows out of the noble cause of wanting to provide as many services as possible without erecting "barriers" between the library's resources and the public. It's complicated by the need to aggressively market a service that's perceived by many as not quite as important as things like police, fire, roads and other "basic" services in terms of prioritization of the tax dollar.

So, a few decades ago, it became fashionable for librarians to remove anything that was perceived as a deterrence to building their numbers - e.g. number of books loaned, number of people using the facility etc. This was the foundation for getting more public support - goodwill and, most important, more funding.

Unfortunately, that attitude evolved into greatly reduced efforts to protect the taxpayer's investment. Collecting payment for occasional lost items is no big deal when most of your customers are honest but the crooks learned a long time ago that in all too many cases theft from a library is fairly easy and the consequences minor. And the total loss adds up very quickly when there's a dozen or so items with an average replacement cost of $20-30 multiplied many thousands of times a year. You'd better believe there's a lot of people out there who think nothing of stealing from libraries. A few libraries will take the really egregious cases to the police or a collection agency but those are only when there's more than several hundred dollars involved. Generally, after a couple mailed notices nothing more will happen except the scofflaw won't be able to use their library card again. So the technique is to try to get a new card (and that's a whole nother story) or, around this town, if you're cut off at Multnomah County because of overdue/lost charges you just go out to one of the Washington or Clackamas County libraries and get a new card from them. This is made possible by the cooperative tri-county library system which allows anyone to use any of the libraries. If those other county systems don't have the items you need you can always borrow from Multnomah County via interlibrary loan.

Because of the regional nature of library users, back in the mid-'90's the Multnomah County Library was asked by other members of the regional cooperative system to share info on the worse case individuals. We're talking here about those who had kept dozens and sometimes hundreds of books. All that was asked of MCL was that they and the other members of the regional cooperative system share names of these thieves so they wouldn't be able to repeat their actions in a neighboring county. Multnomah County Library turned the idea down flat - an invasion of privacy they said. And that killed the idea.

Now, regarding those electronic security gates. These systems work just fine 99% of the time. Like anything else they can be defeated by a variety of techniques but the possibility of that can be greatly reduced through counter techniques including building design, visual surveillance and a proactive staff. Keep in mind that these systems have been evolving since the 1960's and are widely used in retail and other high-value inventory settings saround the world. But, they are a nuisance to library staff who don't want to put up with false alarms (a very rare oocasion with the modern systems)or, heaven forbid, have to confront a member of the public. That's the basic problem.

As a long-time library user and supporter, I hate to say it, but until the taxpayers and their representatives bring a little heat on the library administrators the dirty little secret of high loss rates is going to continue. And it's a much bigger problem than has come to light so far.

I often check out 10+ items at one visit. When I check my account online, many time 2-3 of said items are not even shown as being checked out. I'm talking magazines, large books, books on CD ($30+ a pop). Just my experience.

I really support Google's book scanning project for exactly this reason. How many times I have gone to the library, trying to find the book I want, only to have it made unavailable by a thief, or simply another borrower. This is a problem at law school libraries too, btw, although less so because they have a smaller client base. Worst ever for non-existent books in that regard was the library at my former BigLaw firm. I'll never forget the late Saturday night looking through every office in the firm for a treatise on bankruptcy law, only to get yelled at by a senior partner for not being able to find it.
But I digress. Theft of public property is a big deal. Public servants who think otherwise should find other work.

I got a bill for $20 the other day for a book out too long, and the return address read "Multnomah County Library...Bloomington, IL" or some other godforsaken place.

The library needs to get its PR machine in order, hire some unarmed security and keep the branches open on Wed-Thurs-Fri nights. Closing at 6:00 p.m. when most people gotta work is so '50s.

Theft of public property is a big deal. Public servants who think otherwise should find other work.

Hah! Not in this town.

Well the library is going to put in that 15 item limit on DVD's and CD's but that strikes me as punishing the people who actually check items out. How about considering how library practices should be changed in other areas? Under the new rules (coming soon as mentioned above), if I have 10 DVD's out I can put 10 more on hold (presumably) but will only be able to have 15 total checked out. Likely library staff will be able to make exceptions for those people they deem trustworthy.

I believe the whole reason for 149 items as the limit has to do with keeping the library's circulation statistics up. You may not know that you can renew items 50 times -- at 3 weeks each that's close to 3 years you can have something out. That's another way to keep statistics high.

Library managers don't make basic taking care of the collection a priority. Until there was that fuss in the papers about the stolen items a year or so ago, they hadn't done an inventory and had no plans to do one. According to library staff I've talked to, what they did was some kind of sample inventory anyway -- didn't really go through what was actually physically on the shelves.

I heard another story -- perhaps apocryphal but perhaps not -- that when they switched to the new catalog system a couple of years ago, they found lots of books in the basement at the downtown library that weren't in the catalog. Apparently they had been marked as "missing" and then that three years had gone by and they were taken out of the database. In the meantime of course other copies of those same books had been purchased because it looked like the library didn't have them. So somebody should be paying attention to what comes in the door as well as what goes out.

Most library staff seem to want to do things differently but it seems like the director doesn't care. The new money we just gave them is not going for more people to take care of the resources they already have -- it's going to new buildings and new services.

It would be interesting to see how this compares to Powells' or Borders' shrinkage rate.

According to the below link, it averages 2% for general retail.


I'm guessing it's much worse at MultCo, and I wouldn't be a surprised if some of it is an inside job (as long as nobody cares?). But then Borders and Powells have to make a profit, don't they.

Evil corporate pigs.

In regard to the comparison to retail and "shrinkage" often being an inside job, I believe there have been some incidents of staff or volunteers being caught taking library materials.

While most library folks are honest, it only takes a few to mess up the whole system. It's my understanding that Multnomah does not do background checks or drug checks on staff or volunteers -- I'm pretty sure most retail establishments do make those checks.

According to the library (you can call and ask Director Raphael) the new magnetic security system would cost about $3MILLION! I don't know about you, but I'm not sure Multnomah County should be spending 3 Million right now when they can't afford to pave the roads. Sure the stolen stuff ticks me off, but the cost of security seems too much. I used to work security for a retail store with those magnetic gates. Hell, people just lift stuff over thier heads (above the gate tops) and the dang things don't sound off. I think those magnetic security people are just a rip off anyway.

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