Does My Library's Bank Account Love Me or Hate Me?
June 5, 2013 7:01 PM   Subscribe

I get a lot of books at the library. A LOT. For a while, it was 30-40 new ones/week but with overlap I'd have up to 50 out at once. With the smallest kids mostly out of picture books, I'm down to "only" having ~30 out at once, about 15-20 of which are new/week. I've always assumed it helps the library to have that much traffic because it helps show they need funding. However, I also do a lot of ILL...

My "request" list is fairly constantly about 10 items long. I pick up books twice a week because I know exactly what days and times they get dropped off. This is super, super convenient for me because as soon as I hear about a good book I can instantly ILL request it via the website and in about the time (but way less than the cost or environmental impact) of buying it, I have it.

My question is: Is this amount of ILL usage a net drain or a net gain for the library? Are the librarians thinking "great, we again filled up the twice-weekly car with books for Mr U, who is clogging the whole system"? Or are they thinking "awesome, once we show these numbers to the short-sighted dimwits who cut our funding we should get another ILL courier day approved"?

I'm not asking about the touchy-feely, "do librarians like people to read books" stuff. That's obvious. I'm specifically wondering if my library usage pattern would be considered helpful or parasitic on the system, not whether they would gaze approvingly at someone who reads a lot.
posted by DU to Grab Bag (28 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
When you say ILL, do you mean placing a request inside the library's borrowing network, or the kind of ILL that can be coming to you from halfway across the country? I know that this is a thing that varies a lot from location to location -- in some locations, there's only one or two libraries in the same borrowing network so you end up having to place ILLs for almost everything, while in a larger system, you can do an in-system request for everything that's not, like, an academic book or a super-obscure science fiction paperback from 1984.

It's really hard to weigh the costs and benefits of increased usage now vs. providing evidence that we need more funding for the future; I sometimes wonder if politicians are thinking, "Oh, your stats are good? Then obviously you're doing just fine with what you've got, no more money for you!"

But anyway: out-of-system ILLs do tend to be kind of expensive. In-system requests, not really, because we'd have to make the deliveries anyway. (I'm in a system that has every-weekday delivery because of the volume of requests, but librarians certainly wouldn't want to drop down to one day a week; that's too slow.)
posted by Jeanne at 7:19 PM on June 5, 2013

Within libraries, ILL is generally used to refer to books sourced from other libraries outside the local system or consortium or wherever (as opposed to 'holds,' which is when I have the Anytown Public Library East Side Branch send a book over to the APL West Side Branch for me).

Whether you're talking about ILL or holds, though, library policies are designed to accommodate both average users and outliers (you know which one you are).

Since you're an enthusiastic and even evangelical library user, I would say that your use is a net gain.
posted by box at 7:20 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

So, when you say ILL, do you mean from other library systems or just within a county system?

Assuming you're talking about ILL from other library systems, not a more internal system...

ILL does tend to be an expensive service, because of the shipping, packaging, and handling costs, along with any fees charged by the lending library. Some states/systems have really great courier systems set up that cut down a great deal on shipping costs and the environmental impact of hauling lots of packages around. That said, as an ILL person, it's really wonderful when someone uses ILL, loves it, treats the books well, and continues to use it-- those statistics are undoubtedly tallied up on a regular basis and used to show the worth of investing in, say, OCLC, ILLiad, and staff time. (Or whatever systems your library uses.) ILL can also help supplement a library's collections, so that they're not investing in materials they don't need, and ILL requests often spur the acquisition of needed books.

If you Google around, you may be able to find info on ILL statistics at the state level, as in this report from North Carolina. Or you may find conference notes and papers by librarians in your area that touch on ILL.

You could also try asking the staff member responsible for ILL at your library. Even if they can't or won't discuss the finances, you could ask how to best support ILL in your library's future. If nothing else, I'm sure they'd be glad to hear how useful ILL has been for you.
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:23 PM on June 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

I have written The Ethicist about this because I like using ILL but I worry. They have yet to publish my letter.

I'd be more concerned about the labor costs involved with ILLing than anything else. That is, do your ILLs take up a lot of staff time or are they otherwise a hassle (late returns can cost the library money, for example)? Or are you just using ILL to supplement the library's collection and you know the drill and you just do it a lot? My answer is the same as box's: the system is designed to be used and it's good when it's getting used. Ultimately what you do may make you a more costly patron than others (and less costly than still others) and that's sort of a shruggo thing in a system that is designed for everyone.

In my state (and this totally varies state to state) there is some sort of $ given to libraries that lend out a lot of books via ILL to partially compensate them for the postage that they spend doing it. In places like NH with a courier service, the cost is a little more balanced and costs individual libraries even less.

So unless you have a teeny library that is really strapped either moneywise or staffwise, what you are doing is using the library's services and that's good news. If you have conscience pangs about it, go give them a few sheets of stamps for holidaytime (or no reason whatsoever) but I would not at all worry about it.
posted by jessamyn at 7:27 PM on June 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

You're a net loss for sure. The stats that get referendums passed and budgets enlarged are number of visits, percentage of community with cards, broad usage of children's programs, number of students/assistance of teachers, percentage of cardholders and so on.

You're possibly the most expensive user of your library who doesn't steal DVDs and there is a very slim chance someone would vote yes because the ILL number is 83 higher than it would be without you keeping your queue full.

But! They do like you over there. And as a lover of the library, you are in a great position to donate to it and tell others to use it, bring people to programs and lobby for its funding with people you know. That's how you get your patronage in the black for them.
posted by michaelh at 7:31 PM on June 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

The way it worked in my suburban system, where all the local libraries were sort of on equal footing with each other, was that they had a courier that shuttled between the different libraries. So I'm pretty sure there is almost no extra cost to utilizing the system to its fullest.

Same thing with the big city library system. (I was lucky as a youth to have access to both.)

But I seem to remember that for anything further off, there was a fee that was basically just the book rate shipping charge from the post office.

I would presume that if you aren't getting exasperated looks and ARE getting good service from the librarians, you are fine. The only time I would imagine that they would get annoyed is if they somehow got the idea that you weren't really reading all those books, and doing the "buy them all and return what you don't like" game with your books.

If ILL cost them significant money, they would probably already have a fee. The different libraries probably just keep an account with each other and just settle up the differences at the end of the year. So (if I'm right, anyway), you aren't costing them money as much as you are balancing out what other patrons cost their other libraries.

(Or, if it's a big library + small satellites kind of system, their efficiencies of scale likely override the costs of doing the shipping back and forth.)
posted by gjc at 7:40 PM on June 5, 2013

I have written The Ethicist about this because I like using ILL but I worry.

Oh man now I'll have to keep a sharp eye out for any requests from Vermont!!

But seriously, the problematic users are usually the ones who a) steal the books and then tell us the fines are cheaper than the cost, b) the ones who steal the books from the mail and resell them on Amazon, and c) the ones who ruin the books with, I don't know, razor blades and smoking and coffee and cat pee. Using the service is an overall good thing for the reasons michaelh et al. pointed out above, whatever the costs are. (Also, most libraries will have a talk with any extremely expensive patrons, as far as I can tell from listserves...)
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:41 PM on June 5, 2013

You could ask the librarian. If you're actually reading the books, I wouldn't feel bad about it. If they end up returned because you didn't get around to them, then maybe you should try to limit it to books you'll definitely read. It's not just costly financially, but environmentally you're adding mileage to get books between library systems.
posted by backwards guitar at 7:42 PM on June 5, 2013

There are a few different ways to approach this:

In terms of resources consumed you might be a net loss. It's hard to say for sure. The way it worked in my system is that we had a van with the ILL books that did a circuit and would pick up / drop off books in the most efficient way possible to save gas. How many books are you getting per shipment? I'm going to wager it's not enough to force them to send out another van (or however they do it). If you're getting books from outside the system, then it's possible that they're part of a consortium. Well, that consortium is charging a certain amount regardless (at least that's how it worked for us), so whether you get 10 or 50 books per week it doesn't matter much. I'd say if you are a net loss of taxes paid versus resources consumed then it isn't by much, and for every one of you there's a non-user which counter balances it.

In terms of librarian happiness, I'm sure that librarians enjoy having active users. I always liked having people I would see every day, and it was nice to see the hold shelf have a lot of stuff circulating regularly, because it made me feel like we were providing a useful service. do you talk with the person at the desk? Do you use other programs at the library? Do your children have cards and participate in summer reading? Do you participate in community programs? If the answer is yes, then these are the sort of valuable metrics which make the most sense to county official. If the answer is no, then don't sweat it too much.

In terms of metrics visible outside of the system, individual numbers only matter so much anyway. A real way that you can pay your system back is by donating to the library fellowship / friends / foundation (donations are probably unwelcome unless they're asking for them specifically), you can buy used books at the book sale, or you can see what volunteer opportunities are available. However, more importantly, you can be a vocal supporter of the system around election time in person and through written communication. If you mention specifically ways that the library services have helped you or your children educationally or economically and tie the support of library funding to your future vote, then this is a great boon for the system. If you can get a non-user friend through the door by stressing how much money you've saved with their great ILL services, even better.

Short answer: don't worry about it, ILL is sort of a sunk cost anyway, and one super user isn't a strain on the system, so long as you're getting utility out of the service.
posted by codacorolla at 7:46 PM on June 5, 2013

It depends on the specifics of your location and library system, but "number of items circulated" is definitely a statistic that matters for some libraries.
posted by songs about trains at 7:52 PM on June 5, 2013

In my own (medium-sized public) library system, ILL checkouts are rolled into our general circulation numbers, which are the ones that we trumpet when we have ballot initiatives and PR material and whatnot. Additionally, though, we keep ILL-specific stats, which are used internally when the Head of Reference wishes to hire additional ILL staff people or adjust ILL policies or whatever.
posted by box at 8:13 PM on June 5, 2013

Also, by donations being unwelcome I meant used material.
posted by codacorolla at 8:15 PM on June 5, 2013

From a user who would prefer to remain anon:
Hi! I am a public librarian with a large urban system. We love our ILL users! It gives us great pleasure to have a way to offer items to our members that we aren't able to have in our collection. However, I will be honest with you and say that, in the face of budgetary problems, we have had discussions about whether to limit ILLs or charge a fee for ILLs for very heavy users who constantly place their maximum number of holds. The reasons for this expense have already been mentioned by previous posters--there are inter-institutional fees, shipping is expensive, items get lost in the mail, and processing items takes a lot of staff time. Accommodating large volumes of ILLs is definitely expensive. So, please, use and enjoy them, but if you want to minimize budgetary impact on your library, use the service with discretion. Thank you for supporting your library, and for being so enthusiastic about its services! Speaking for the librarians of the world, we really do love to find you the items you're looking for (even when it's expensive).
posted by jessamyn at 8:16 PM on June 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

I run a library:

we love to loan material, so borrow all you can

we do not really like ILL, it is really expensive for us and takes a lot of staff time, but it is an important service.

we hate unsolicited donations, unless it is money
posted by buzzieandzaza at 10:40 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Librarians like their services to be used as it justifies their existence. Services that nobody uses get cut. Finding what you want and getting it into your hands is both the mission of the institution and the calling of most librarians. If too many people requested ILLs too often it might cause budget problems, but high demand for library services is usually what drives, or justifies, increases in funding.

That said, ILL is expensive in a dollar per checkout sense. Estimates vary a lot depending on library, type (within consortium/system/state etc. vs. out of state, international and so on), and even more depending on which fixed costs you factor in. It is a decade of more since I did any research on this, but when I looked estimates for cost per circ for academic ILL were in the range of $15-$30 a pop (there were some lower estimates, but they were mostly only for the obvious variable costs rather than the true economic cost). The sort of ILL that happens in a public library may be cheaper, and the figures I was looking at did not reflect the savings represented by your local library not needing to buy so many books because they could be obtained by ILL.

If your library starts throwing up roadblocks (fees for ILLs, limits on numbers permitted, subtle but persistent discouragement) then think again; until that point use the service wisely, but use it!
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 11:07 PM on June 5, 2013

It seems to me that ILLs might have value to a library in terms of collection-building; they can see what people are requesting that the library doesn't have, and look into getting more/newer/broader materials for their own collection. I don't know that any library does that, though.
posted by blnkfrnk at 11:20 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

ILLs might have value to a library in terms of collection-building

Yes, I've seen this taken into account, though it was a manual/eyeball deal where worked (there was a more formal procedure for our own titles which got a lot of holds in the system). I also heard that the library on the 3M campus used to enter all ILLs into their catalog when requested, then leave the record there permanently on the grounds that if something had been asked for once it was more likely to wanted again (multiple requests then making it a good candidate for acquisition).
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 11:37 PM on June 5, 2013

I used to borrow books from out-of-system libraries all the time (ILL, I guess), from libraries all over the state. I never really gave it much thought until I asked a librarian how much it cost the library to borrow a book from somewhere else in-state: $35 a pop. All the libraries in our state are part of a consortium, so I assume this is the standard price. Once I found this out, I stopped requesting out-of-system books all together.
posted by Wrongshanks at 2:23 AM on June 6, 2013

Response by poster: Sorry for the confusion over "ILL". I mean only libraries within my system. I only just search the catalog. I also have access to two or three other library systems where I place further requests.
posted by DU at 2:40 AM on June 6, 2013

I take back my answer, then. Shuttling books around in the system is nearly free because the truck/van will be making the circuit anyway.
posted by michaelh at 5:26 AM on June 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

Second this, if it's within the system it's pretty much just an unqualified Good Thing.
posted by jessamyn at 6:40 AM on June 6, 2013

I do the same thing. I use our state electronic library system a lot to get books delivered to me at my local branch. I asked the librarian about it one time, and she said that the cost didn't matter so much as that users like me drive up their circulation stats, which is a positive for the library. It shows that both the local library and the statewide system are serving a need that exists.
posted by not that girl at 6:41 AM on June 6, 2013

At my local library, getting material from other branches is no big deal. ILL within the state library network involves some paperwork, but still not a significant expense or hassle. I find that the librarians are delighted to help people get the material they want. The same is true at the University library. I often incur late fees and pay them cheerfully. When it's budget time in your town, contact your town councilor and make sure they know that the library is an important resource for you and your children, and maybe write a letter to the newspaper supporting library funding. My library takes book donations for an annual book sale. You could also bring in the occasional baked treat, or a basket of apples or other fruit.
posted by theora55 at 8:10 AM on June 6, 2013

I'm kind of bewildered by the people saying you're "a net loss" - EVERY patron is a net loss! I mean, I of course there are some people whose donations and property taxes (or whatever) more than cancel out the cost of their library usage, but if nobody came in the library or used any materials at all, the library would save a lot of money. It would also have no reason for existing.

If you're reading the books, you're using the library the way it's meant to be used. If the library needs to institute limits on how many books someone can request from outside libraries, that's on them.

(I am a librarian; I've never worked in a public library but I have done plenty of ILL with public libraries.)
posted by mskyle at 8:55 AM on June 6, 2013

In our system anyway, circulation numbers are a HUGE THING and the more people check out, the better. We get a lot of grief from admin if our numbers are down, so we love people like you!

The only way this would be annoying is if you didn't come pick up your holds regularly and it was filling up the hold shelves, but that happens occasionally and we just put them in a box or basket for the person. NBD.

Agreeing with others above that "real" ILL is a different thing, kind of, but if you are just requesting within your own system, go crazy!
posted by exceptinsects at 11:13 AM on June 6, 2013

Response by poster: I'm guessing that for my (main) library circulations are also huge. A few years ago, they installed infrared counters by the doors. Since it doesn't sound like in-system ILLs cost much, I'm basically just boosting circulation.
posted by DU at 12:07 PM on June 6, 2013

This is precisely what the library is here for! You're just on the end of the bell curve, and you're made up for by the many patrons who only come in once or twice a year, or who just come in to use the Internet.

(If you feel vaguely guilty about so much usage, consider donating money to the library (or local Friends of the Library organization), or giving your old books to them for the library book sale. A friendly letter thanking your local librarians (and library employees and volunteers who are not librarians, who tend to get missed by the public) wouldn't go amiss accompanying such a donation, or in lieu of a donation if such a thing isn't possible right now.)
posted by telophase at 2:54 PM on June 6, 2013

Your library has the ability to reduce the burden of heavy users on the system by imposing lower limits. Intrasystem holds being shuttled around their own branches are not a big drain. I agree with others, though; if you have some money available, it can't hurt to make even a small donation to offset some of your use.
posted by asciident at 11:47 PM on June 6, 2013

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