Thursday, April 20, 2006

Poetry Books, Loan Periods, and Customer Service Models in the Public Library

Sometimes we have the technology to change but have not realized that we can.

I have been thinking about how poetry should be read and how library loan periods discourage the poetry reader. April is National Poetry Month, and I have been reading poetry books, but I have not been whipping through them the way I intended. Even though they are small, they still take days or weeks to read thoughtfully.

The nature of poetry is different from fiction and narrative nonfiction. It is often published one poem at a time in periodicals, and poetry books reflect the work of years or decades. Writing and reading should be unhurried. "Couldn't put it down" is not something you often hear about a poetry collection. Putting the book down after each poem is normal for a thoughtful poetry reader. Reading a poem in the morning and another before bed is a nice way to read. The reader with a 120-page poetry collection may need more than two or three weeks, but libraries have "one size fits all" policies that work against the poetry reader.

Some might say poetry books do not really fit in the library well, since they do not fit the loan model well. Maybe they are intended as personal items, not public property. I would disagree. There are poetry collections that I want to read, but I do not want to own them. I want to check them out, read them, return them, and recommend them to other readers. In this way, they are no different from novels and other books and belong in the community collection.

I would like to see loan periods for poetry books change. In fact, I would like to change loan periods for other books that are handicapped by inflexible loan policies. Big family saga novels can be hard for some readers to finish in the allotted time. 800-page definitive biographies are also problematic. I have had readers tell me they bought a book instead of borrowing it from the library because they would need it for "too long." I tell readers that books can be renewed and most know this, but some feel reluctant to ask for the favor. Meanwhile the poetry books and the huge novels and definitive biographies sit on the library shelves. I think it is time for some new ideas.

Our current way of assigning loan periods in many of our public libraries seems to me procedures-based. We put every item into a standardized slot, as we did when we were sticking pre-stamped date due cards into every book. We have not yet realized that our computerized library systems can be more flexible.

We do assign some loan periods based on the nature of items. While most items go out for a standard period, we give new items, periodicals, videos and DVDs shorter loan periods. Perhaps we could go farther with this idea of item-based loan periods. Loan periods for novels could be graduated according to size, so a 600-page novel would get twice the check out time as a 300-page novel. Philosophy, physics, and other difficult subjects would be granted longer loan periods. A couple of months could be given for The Poetry of Robert Frost (a complete collection) or the 703-page Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

Perhaps there is a simpler way to improve our loaning of books. We can try a reader-based model, asking each person who comes to the checkout desk with a book to borrow "How long would you like to have this book?" Can you imagine how nice that would sound? Our circulation software already allows the choosing of any date on the fly. We will surprise a lot of readers if we let them choose.

I can hear some objections to this idea and admit there will have to be exceptions. Hot bestsellers will still have to be given shorter loan periods to get them to all the readers who want them. The demand for children's picture books and books on homework topics might rule out flexible loan periods for much of the children's collection, as well. Still, I think a reader-based model will be a good starting point with some benefits.

Readers will be pleased to have more time with the books they want to read. They will be encouraged to try some "harder stuff."

Circulation staff, empowered to provide a reader-friendly service, will be good guys in the eyes of readers. The enforcers of fines could use a few more smiles.

Books will stay off the shelves longer, easing the work of the pages and lessening some of the need to weed. We have many books that spend most of their lives on our shelves when they could be out in the community, informing, entertaining, and enriching our readers.

Think about it. Often we discuss customer service-based models at conferences, in our journals, and at board meetings. Here is an easy chance to do something. What is more basic in the library than the loaning of books and other materials? Let's give the readers more choice.

I will take The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats for eight weeks.


Anonymous said...

I'd definitely call this "thinking outside the box." --And I could also use more time with those poetry collections.

Anonymous said...

An excellent idea. One of the nice things about working in such a tiny library is that we are often able to give people special loan periods. I'd like to see more libraries do similarly, although I can imagine it would be something of a pain to institute in a larger system.