Hidden in plain sight

“Ask a librarian for assistance.”

To regular patrons of the Asheville-Buncombe Library System, this faintly ominous warning may be all too familiar: It’s the message you get when you’re searching the computerized catalog and the item you select is missing in action. In the past six months, this reporter has encountered such a prompt about once in every eight visits to the catalog — not a scientific sampling, to be sure, but alarming nonetheless. And if that frequency is typical, it suggests that a huge amount of material has somehow fallen through the cracks.

So where did it all go?

“There are all kinds of reasons books might be missing from the shelves,” librarian Phil Barnett told Xpress. “Some are checked out and never returned. Some are damaged and were either discarded or sent for repair. Others are misshelved.”

Human error, for example, can result in books simply disappearing from the system. “If I am busy talking to you while I check a book in, I might not notice that it is from a different branch,” said Barnett. “So I would put it with books to be shelved here, instead of routing it to the correct branch. Once it’s in our stacks, it could literally be years before anyone notices.”

Even finding a needle in a haystack, it seems, is easy by comparison — at least the metal object looks different if you do spot it. But locating missing library items is more like finding a particular needle in a mountain of needles. With 13 branches (plus a law library) and more than 563,000 items in circulation, the number of possible shelving errors is literally infinite.

According to the Dr. Math Web site (mathforum.org/dr.math), the mathematical formula for determining this figure is the factorial of the number of books in the system divided by the factorial of the difference between the number of books and the number of collections. (A factorial is the product of all the numbers in a sequence, in this case: 563,000 x 562,999 x 562,998 … x 1.) And with numbers this large, the result is, for all practical purposes, an infinite quantity. That’s why librarians are so insistent that patrons not reshelve books — replacing a volume on the wrong shelf, or even a few books over from its correct spot, can be the functional equivalent of tossing it in the trash.

But disappearance within the system isn’t the only problem. Laura Gaskin, head reference librarian at downtown Asheville’s Pack Memorial Library, observes: “Unfortunately, some people don’t understand what a library is. There is a lot of free material here — but you have to bring it back.”

If you don’t, the whole system begins to break down, due to what amounts to theft, plain and simple (All you folks who’ve “borrowed” books from this writer, this means you!).

Misplacement, theft, damage and discards — it’s a daunting list. And that’s not to mention the normal ebb and flow of books in a library. Assistant Director Gigi Francis told Xpress, “There might be a best seller for which multiple copies were required a few years ago, but [it’s] no longer of interest. As copies are damaged and retired, they aren’t replaced.”

Because of the way the computer catalog works, however, “If something is overdue for a couple of months, it will automatically go to the status of assumed lost,'” Francis explained. “Then the librarians have to decide whether to reorder.” A number of factors enter into that decision, she notes, including “the depth of interest in the author, the shelf space at the location, and whether it is out of print. Sometimes we can’t get them back, because publishers have dropped the books from their lists.”

The current large number of apparently missing titles is an artifact of the 10-year-old computer system. Francis notes, “We have historically kept those records in the database, because if we purchase a replacement, it is quicker to use an existing record than create a new one.” That’s about to change, though: By mid-April, a wholly new tracking system will be in place (see sidebar: “A Virtual Library”).

“We are trying to clean up the database before [moving it over] to the new system,” notes Francis, adding, “One feature of the new computer system is that it will be much easier to generate a shelf list.”

Such a list can be compared to the titles actually on the shelves at any given time, enabling the staff to more readily check for missing or misplaced volumes.

Still, with 563,000 x 562,999 x 562,998 … etc. places to hide, a lot of those delinquent volumes may still end up hidden in plain sight.

A virtual library

During the first week of April, the library will introduce a new catalog system — and a whole new way for patrons to access information about the collections. The new iBistro Web interface will enable patrons not only to view the library catalog but to access and manage their own accounts. From any computer, users will be able to log in to their library account and renew, request or reserve books.

The new catalog will look more like a secure Web page and will use many familiar Web-surfing commands. “Each patron will have a PIN number,” Assistant Director Gigi Francis explains. “If you can find a book on [a bookstore Web site], you will be able to find a book on the new system.”

During the changeover, patrons will be limited to checking out three items at a time. This switch is scheduled for April 4-6, and if program installation goes as planned, the new system will be up and running on April 7.

The cost of the new system is pegged at almost $156,000, with an automated-systems grant from the State Library of North Carolina providing $75,000 of the money.

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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