By Karen Reilly
If you are a regular library user, you may have noticed a change over the past year: some of the books which you may have seen on the shelf every single time you visited are no longer there.
You might also notice that some of the books you pulled off the shelves to check out have stamps from other libraries. We haven’t become sloppy and careless about sending books back where they belong — we have begun floating our adult collections.
What does floating mean? In library systems that float their collections, if a book is returned to a library, the book will go onto the shelves at that location, even if it was checked out from another library location. We have floated our DVD and audiobook on CD collections for several years, but we recently expanded floating to large parts of the adult book collection as well.
There are several reasons to float library collections. First, it creates more variety in a branch library’s collection. This is particularly valuable for small libraries. Every library has patrons who prefer to browse for what they want to read instead of placing items on hold, and after a while patrons of smaller libraries with static collections can find that they have run out of options. Floating means that new items appear on the shelves all the time. In addition, if patrons at a given library tend to be interested in a certain type of book, such as murder mysteries or knitting books, floating means that as patrons bring those items in on hold, that collection grows for other patrons.
Floating collections also cuts down on the need for sorting, packing and transporting items back to their home branches, a task that can eat up staff time and resources. When items are being shipped, the transit time also makes them unavailable to be checked out or pulled for a hold. In addition, sorting, packing and shipping library materials causes extra wear and tear on those materials. This is worth it when sending an item to fulfill a patron’s hold, but less so when simply sending it back to sit on a shelf.
Libraries around the country have shifted to floating their collections in recent years, and we studied their experiences before floating our own collections. A common problem is the pooling of materials at libraries that are on many patrons’ commutes or have abundant parking, as people tend to return their items there.
Another potential problem: a patron will check out a library’s entire collection on a given subject, and then return it somewhere else, denuding one library and overstocking another. For this reason, we use a service called Collection HQ to monitor whether any library is overstocked or understocked in an area based upon the size of each collection and how much it is used. Then once a month we shift some books around the system to remedy this.
“Wait!” you are thinking. “Doesn’t this mean that you are still sending books from library to library?” Yes, but we are moving far fewer books than we used to. For example, Mission Valley Library used to receive an average of 18 1.4 cubic foot crates of holds and returns on a given weekday. Now we are more likely to receive five to eight crates, and most of those are holds. In contrast, we send 60 large print books to other branches each month (apparently this is an item type which tends to pool here), and perhaps fifteen non-fiction books in very specific subject areas — and we receive approximately that many books from other branches. This is a fraction of the books we used to move.
Another potential problem we reviewed before implementation of floating was instances where all the copies of popular new books get sucked to a few branches where people are very good at placing holds. This would mean that patrons at other branches would simply never see those titles on their shelves, which seems unfair. For this reason, we do not start floating items until they have been in the system for at least two years. We also don’t float specialized collections which have been compiled over the years at specific branches, such as the Veterans Resource Center collection at the Point Loma Branch Library.
We are still working through the kinks of floating such a large part of our collection, but overall, we think the system provides more choices for our patrons and saves staff time and resources — a win-win!
—Karen Reilly is managing librarian of the Mission Valley Branch Library.