Why does my local library never have the books it says it has?
October 31, 2014 9:54 AM   Subscribe

I have a well-funded local public library. Whenever I go to look for books, the ones that are supposed to be there (according to the online catalog) are not on the shelf. This goes for about half of the books I look for. What gives?

I have asked the librarians and they can't find them either. There's no particular pattern to these books--they are not new or popular, though. I'm at the point where I always put a book on hold before I come in for it, which feels like a waste of library resources, but I'm tired of spending hours in the library looking for books that aren't there. Why does this happen? Are there any ways it can be prevented? (I have not had this issue with libraries in other areas.)
posted by chaiminda to Media & Arts (32 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The answer is theft. This happens in my libraries as well, and has resulted in a general distrust of both the libraries and humanity.
posted by I EAT TAPAS at 9:56 AM on October 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I've seen kids move books around and hide/relocate them because they are immature kids who think that kind of stuff is hilarious.
posted by rdnnyc at 10:03 AM on October 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Are they very slow about reshelving items? I don't think it's theft if they can suddenly find these books when you put them on HOLD.

I don't think there's any reason to feel guilty about utilizing the HOLD system to have books pulled for you. That's what it's there for.
posted by muddgirl at 10:04 AM on October 31, 2014 [12 favorites]

I would assume that they are understaffed and aren't reshelving as quickly as the books come back in, so the computer shows that they've been returned but they're sitting on some wheely book cart somewhere instead of on the shelves.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:10 AM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These are often books that haven't been checked out in years, so slow re-shelving is not the issue.
posted by chaiminda at 10:16 AM on October 31, 2014

Best answer: If you're reading popular books then this is probably the books getting checked in but not reshelved in reasonable amounts of time. Keep track of this. There is an answer. It's possible that your library has a mismanaged consortial system (like where you can return a book to "any branch") and the book is shown as available when it's been checked in to one branch and it's not even returned to that branch until days later. This is not supposed to happen, of course, but it sometimes does. If you read books about tattooing or certain graphic novels, there is a good chance they're just stolen or hidden somewhere. If you live in a very conservative community and are trying to find books about sex toys or GLBT issues it's possible people have hidden them so that people can't check them out.

If the system doesn't work, it's totally appropriate for you to put the books on hold. It might be worth sending a note to the library's director and/or the trustees to let them know that this is happening. Be prepared to back up your statements with some specifics so that they can actually solve the problem and not just be all "I'm sorry you feel bad" Some libraries suck but most of them are really trying to do the best that they can. Give them a chance to straighten this out.
posted by jessamyn at 10:18 AM on October 31, 2014 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Could be theft, but often the problem is that the book has been put back in the wrong place. Depending on how big the library is, books can stay lost for a very long time. When I worked in a big university library, part of my job was to take the list of "lost" books and just scour the stacks trying to find them. I had some books stay on the list for weeks or even months. I assume some were re-purchased, but I don't know how or when that decision is made.

Also, on preview, what jessamyn said about books being checked in but not sent to the appropriate branch.
posted by Bunny Boneyology at 10:20 AM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In my experience, although you've already dismissed some of these options, the this problem is caused by:

a) the re-shelving thing. You can ask at the circulation desk and they will check the shelving carts for you. Since the carts are loaded in shelving order, this is a quick job. If the librarians you've asked have only checked the shelves and not done this, this can solve some of your problem. It's also possible someone has the book off the shelf but hasn't checked out with it yet, though if it's not a popular book this is less likely.

b) lost or misplaced books. If the books haven't been checked out, they may have migrated out of place on the shelves due to accumulated shelving errors over the years. Placing a hold will sometimes trigger a more intensive look for a book that is in the system but misplaced, as well as catching books that are somewhere in the re-shelving process.

c) if your library is part of a system with branches, the book may have been returned to a different branch and accidentally shelved there. This has happened several times to me, both with books I've returned and with books I've wanted to check out. When I ask at the circulation desk, they will initiate something called a "system search" in my local library system, and will put the book on hold for me once it's found and returned to my local branch.

d) don't be afraid to ask the librarian or circulation desk about this phenomenon. Really, the people who know best why this happens are working right there in the library and are probably happy to explain library procedures to you. I've asked many questions like this and gotten very interesting answers about how the library works. I also once had the librarian reassure me, when I received a hold book and realized I'd read it before and was lamenting out loud about wasting resources, that they have limits on use of the system (no more than 50 holds at a time) and that as long as I'm within those limits, I'm fine. And also that usage statistics are part of how they justify their budget, so people who use the hold system create support for continued funding of that system.
posted by not that girl at 10:26 AM on October 31, 2014 [10 favorites]

Best answer: This is one of things the hold system is for, actually. "I can't find it-- you find it for me!" Totally legit-- some people want or need help with finding stuff, and that's the library's job. It's also fine to use the hold system so that you can just run in and out on a quick errand-- I work weird hours so I do a lot of virtual browsing and time my holds so I can get them when both me and the library have overlapping time.

1) Theft
2) Poor shelving skills or slow shelving skills or a label got switched somewhere
3) Someone didn't update the system properly (book doesn't exist any more, was not properly checked in, book is checked out but system thinks it's in, etc)

Some libraries do a shelf survey every once in a while where everything is accounted for. Maybe it's time!
posted by blnkfrnk at 10:27 AM on October 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Are there any ways it can be prevented?

More hours spent shelf reading, the most boring job in a library.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:27 AM on October 31, 2014 [12 favorites]

nthing putting things on hold. They'll find it, or if they don't, they'll update the catalog accordingly.
posted by acidic at 10:33 AM on October 31, 2014

Best answer: If they haven't been checked out in forever, they probably went missing a long time ago and nobody flagged them for removal from the system.

When we can't find things on the shelf, we change them to "missing" status, and then our circulation department investigates, and if they can't find them either, suppresses them from displaying in the catalog so they don't frustrate anyone else.

If your library doesn't do this, the catalog can get wrong real quick.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:36 AM on October 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I actually enjoy the mindlessness of shelf reading. Consider volunteering in your library as it is undoubtedly underfunded and understaffed.
posted by mareli at 10:46 AM on October 31, 2014 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Ungh. I wish your library was more on the ball regarding collection maintenance! Your response to wasted trips to the stacks - putting items on hold - is only correct and proper, but they're missing out on a lot of added circulation by cutting out the browsing the shelf part of your library experience. Even if people have a book they are going for on the shelf and find it, they tend to stumble across similar items and check those out as well when they actually go to the stacks rather than just check in at whatever Circ desk holds the holds.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:55 AM on October 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

I always use the online hold system (accessible from the online catalog). I get an e-mail or text message when the book is ready to be picked up, and there it is on the reserve shelf under my name. I don't even have to go through the shelves to look for it. I even do this if the book is at the local library branch.

This has the bonus of the fact I can also request books from other libraries in the county, but pick them up from the library closest to my house.
posted by tckma at 11:28 AM on October 31, 2014

More than half the time you look for a book, you can't find it on the shelf. When you ask a staff member to look for them, they can't find them either. But when you put them on hold, the holds people always or almost always find them?

The books are in a non-public area of the building, on carts or in temporary shelving areas. This is especially likely if, when you ask the staff member to look for the book, they only check the spot on the shelf where it's supposed to be. Alternately, the book may be in the wrong place, and neither you nor the staff member are finding it.

If a patron can't find a book, the staff member should first verify that the book is supposed to be on the shelf, then look in the right place on the shelf, then look in the general area (I usually tell pages to check the whole shelf, plus the shelves above and below that one), then check carts and temporary shelving areas (and, if the library has them, places where books wait to be mended, withdrawn and otherwise processed), and, if none of those things work, to check in some of the places it is likely to be misshelved (e.g. fiction in biographies and v/v, kids stuff in adult sections and v/v, etc.).

That's the kind of searching that holds personnel generally use, but not all libraries have the staffing levels, or training, or customer-service focus, in place to have every staff person do it.

I would encourage you to ask to speak with a branch manager, head of circulation, someone along those lines. Then, calmly and respectfully and without saying the sentence 'I have not had this issue with other libraries,' tell them about your experiences. It might come as news to them, but it's more likely that they're aware of the situation, and they will probably be able to tell you a little bit about what they're doing about it.
posted by box at 11:30 AM on October 31, 2014

Too slow in the edit window:

It's possible that the books are in a non-public area of the building, on carts or in temporary shelving areas. This is especially likely if, when you ask the staff member to look for the book, they only check the spot on the shelf where it's supposed to be. Alternately, the book may be in the wrong place, and neither you nor the staff member are finding it.
posted by box at 11:36 AM on October 31, 2014

The "hold' mechanism is actually quite efficient for most libraries. Don't be shy about using it to queue up the books that you want to check out. That way if there is a shelving or missing book problem, the library staff will also start to see it as they pull the books for the holds list.
posted by calgirl at 11:46 AM on October 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

I would add that, for holds, my library usually sends the "hold ready" email two or so days before the item is actually available in the hold section. Other than that, good system.
posted by Danf at 11:55 AM on October 31, 2014

My public library has public stacks and basement stacks that are accessible only to the librarians, for books that aren't checked out very often but they want to keep in the collection. ALL THE TIME things get checked back in and are listed as on the shelf in the public section when an intern or someone not paying close attention has shelved them in the basement. When I'm after a specific book at the main branch (where the basement stacks are), I frequently put them on hold first because they're often mis-shelved in the basement and that way the librarian can find them before I get there and we all spend 40 minutes going, "Where IS that book?"

As more floor space has been devoted to computers and to non-book collections (DVDs, CDs), and the library has expanded its genealogy and local history section so they have their own room, this has become an even more frequent problem because there are simply fewer books in the public section. (I don't object to any of those excellent uses of the library; it just means more books are in the basement more often.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:18 PM on October 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Just to clarify, when I put the book on hold, they usually get it from another branch.

I appreciate all the ideas about why this happens and I am definitely going to look into volunteering!
posted by chaiminda at 12:18 PM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Given the day, it's interesting that
Almost everywhere, librarians reported that the No. 1 stolen item is books dealing with the occult, satanism, witchcraft or astrology. Books on gay and lesbian issues also vanish. Another constant is exam-prep books, mostly for the high school diploma equivalency test.
and there appears to be no consensus as to the reason, though one librarian in rural Oklahoma thinks people are trying to keep them out of the hands of other patrons.
Textbooks dealing with abortion face a similar problem, a librarian from the University of California at Davis Medical Center Library in Sacramento wrote in. "At medical libraries, the books in obstetrics/gynecology that cover abortions are often stolen by pro-lifers.

"They use the photos for their protests and keeping the books out of medical students' hands is part of their strategy," the librarian added.
Citation needed, I'd say.

~70,000 books were apparently stolen from the Brooklyn library in 2012, but Brooklyn does have 2.5 million people.
posted by jamjam at 1:07 PM on October 31, 2014

Best answer: For just over a year part of my job was to search for items which weren't where they belonged. I was very good at it.

Where are your books when they aren't where they belong?
  1. Reshelving.
  2. (If checked in recently) On a cart behind the circulation desk.
  3. (If checked in recently) On a cart in the circulation office.
  4. In use or carried around for eventual checkout by another patron. This is a problem with no solution except regrets for the other patron who wants it, followed by the offer to place a hold on it for them.
  5. Out of place on the same shelf or in the same bay.
    1. In the right place on the wrong shelf, e.g. on the shelf directly above or below where it actually belongs.
    2. Mis-shelved, e.g. the author's last name is Tyler Moore and the book is under Moore.
    3. Mis-alphabetized, e.g. Mc and Mac are supposed to be treated the same; sometimes McAdams might be after May.
    4. Mis-alphabetized, e.g. sometimes a bay has two stretches of in-alphabetical-order items which together are not in alphabetical order, e.g King to Kingsolver followed by King to Kingsolver.

  6. In the wrong department (e.g. picture books get mis-shelved with chapter books; chapter books get mis-shelved with picture books or books for teens; books for teens might be with the books for adults; books for adults might be with books for teens. Other mis-shelvings are possible but rare).

  7. With the prose if it's a graphic novel or manga.

  8. With the new books when it isn't new.

  9. With the older books when it is new.

  10. On display.

  11. With the Large Print materials when it isn't Large Print

  12. With the not-Large Print materials when it is Large Print.

  13. In the wrong genre (Mystery and Fantasy both have a blue genre sticker; you'd be surprised how often people put a book in the wrong genre, missing the spine label).

  14. Fallen off the shelf, on the bottom of the bay between rows of books facing in the opposite direction.

  15. On a library employee's desk for an extended period, though it is not checked out. This happens much more often than it should, which is to say, this happens.

  16. Stolen.

Some of this varies from one library system to another, e.g. whether comics are shelved separately, whether Mc and Mac are alphabetized the same.

I feel like I'm forgetting some possibilities; it's been years since I was a page.
posted by johnofjack at 1:23 PM on October 31, 2014 [21 favorites]

librarians reported that the No. 1 stolen item is books dealing with the occult, satanism, witchcraft or astrology

Yes, we used to say that section was self-weeded.

people are trying to keep them out of the hands of other patrons

I agree that happens, but as a strategy it's idiotic, since it just means the libraries buy replacement copies making apparent demand for those books higher than what it actually is, which kind of opposes their position.
posted by timepiece at 1:35 PM on October 31, 2014

I work in a library, and was telling my son about all the witchcraft books that get stolen. He laughed and said that the people who take them only read the part about how to make them disappear, not the part about how to bring them back!

Nthing the earlier posts that encourage you to talk to the director or manager. It shouldn't be happening this often. Even with budget cuts and staffing issues, the shelves need to be kept in order. Our mantra is "if you can't find it, it might as well not exist".
posted by LaBellaStella at 1:49 PM on October 31, 2014

If it is truly not on shelf anywhere, it should be marked missing in the catalog until it is replaced or it is decided that it will not be replaced. A patron not finding something is a useful way for the library to discover this, so please do tell them each time.

(Off-topic: The library where I work is quick to mark things gone but has not historically been quick to remove records, something I rectified here as the cataloger--phew! Things which had been marked missing 10 years ago should not be in the OPAC.)
posted by Riverine at 2:08 PM on October 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

when I put the book on hold, they usually get it from another branch.

This could mean that the copy that's supposed to be at your branch is now "officially" missing -- which would be worth knowing for the staff.
posted by shiny blue object at 2:34 PM on October 31, 2014

I feel like I'm forgetting some possibilities; it's been years since I was a page.

One that's less common, but comes up occasionally: books with foreign-language titles with an initial article (e.g., Les Miserables or La Casa de los Espiritus) being filed in incorrect alphabetical order. (I did page-type work for a while, although my title was 'student assistant,' and I've spent a lot of years training and supervising pages since then.)
posted by box at 5:23 PM on October 31, 2014

If they are books that haven't been checked out in years, they may be stored at an annex. So they're still in the system, but you have to put a hold request on it and wait for it to be transferred for pick-up at your preferred branch.

My local public library notifies me via email when a book that I have been put on hold is now available for pick up. They keep it behind the front/circulation desk with my name on it. If the book is missing, I'm notified immediately (also by email); or it may be listed in the system as "missing" before I even have the opportunity to request it.

I'm surprised so many books you look for are missing. Would you say your library lacks enough funding/employees/volunteers? If so, the understaffing or underfunding could be responsible for the slow pace in identifying lost or stolen books.

But I would bring this up with them very directly, because if it's this frequent of an issue - they need to find a way, within their budget, to fix the issue.
posted by nightrecordings at 6:46 PM on October 31, 2014

I suspect that certain books disappear from my local library for ideological reasons. I've noticed that books that religious fundamentalists might not like have a tendency to go missing.

I don't know what your time is like, but maybe you could volunteer at the library and help check on mis-shelved items.
posted by charlesminus at 6:47 PM on October 31, 2014

If their technical services department is small they might have a backlog of books that need mending, recovering, relabeling etc in a back room someplace. These should be checked out to "mending" or some such, but just today at my library we were trying to find Frozen, which was supposedly on the shelf, but which was actually sitting on top of the DVD cleaning machine. If I didn't know DVDs often end up in a pile over there I would have been driving myself crazy looking for it.
(I swear, I am trying to get better about checking out the books I am using for storytime.)
posted by Biblio at 3:11 PM on November 1, 2014

At my library we absolutely do our best, but there are times when the re-shelving just gets away from us -- especially since we have a very small staff, so we rely on our teenage pages to do the shelving and shelf-reading. The pages are great, it's just that there are times of the year when we don't have enough of them. Plus, whether a book has been checked out in ages or not doesn't mean it hasn't been taken off the shelf by someone who just read part of it in the library, or made photocopies of some pages, or whatever, and then left it in a weird place or stuck it on a random shelf.

If it's a constant problem, then yes, absolutely talk to the director about it. Feedback from patrons is always, always welcome.
posted by sarcasticah at 1:14 PM on November 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

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