Thursday, February 08, 2007

What's so funny about alphabetical order?

"How does it work here?"

"Huh?" I look up from my computer, still at least three cups of coffee away from full functionality, to find a patron with that oh-so-familiar vaguely confused look on his face.

"I have a book on hold here. What's your system?"

This is of course where it gets tricky. 'On Hold' means a couple of different things in our Reading Room:

1. That the item has not been picked up yet since the patron ordered it

2. That the item has been placed on our 10-Day Hold Shelf by the patron

I can't tell you how confused both patrons and staff alike can get trying to determine which of the two above situations is in fact the case. Most of the time patrons are unaware of the fact that there are two separate 'hold' operations going on, and assume that an item once ordered will go out to 10-Day Hold rather than being held behind the desk until it is picked up for the first time. Insofar as many of our patrons use the Reading Room (which deals mostly in non-circulating items) much more infrequently than they do the Circulation Desk, I try to make sure that my staff is as patient and forgiving as possible in the process of figuring out what our patrons are actually looking for.

But sometimes it's hard, even for the supervisor.

"Umm," I dig deep for every last available ounce of my pre-noon social graces and empathy, as this is where the interview process can go south in a hurry. In these situations we have stock questions we ask of patrons without thinking that can very easily be interpreted as being accusatory in nature.

For example, my least favorite is 'When did you get the email?' From a staff worker's point of view, this is a perfectly rational question to ask, as it helps us determine where the item is located in our somewhat complex filing system. To a patron however this question can sound a lot like the staff member is challenging him or her for proof that there actually is an item on hold; even if not, about a third of a time it is a question that requires additional clarification and/or explanation from the staff member, somewhat defeating the time and labor-saving purpose of asking it in the first place (especially since the staff member can quickly determine the item's precise hold date by scanning the patron's ID and looking at the transaction record). Personally, I find this kind of Socratic method to be unnecessarily passive-aggressive at a public service desk, so I always try to find a more intuitive way of eliciting my patrons' needs.

But as I said above, however, some mornings you just have to settle for the "20 Questions" method.

"Did you order the item from the Depository?"


"Have you used the item yet?"

"Yes. Then I returned it to your desk. You hold those items, right?"

"Did you ask us to place it on hold for you?"

"I think so." This is another potentially confusing point of Reading Room procedure. Often a patron will pick up an item at our desk, use it in the room, then return to us assuming that we will automatically continue to hold that item... which we don't, under normal circumstances (the exception to this rule is in the case of non-circulating Interlibrary Loan materials and special collections, which remain behind the desk until their specified due dates as stipulated by the lender -- with these materials the exact opposite procedure applies!). This is why I try to train staff members to ask a nice leading question when a patron returns the item, such as 'Are you finished with this?'.

"Okay, well then it should be on the 10 Day Hold Shelf."

"Yeah, but how does that work?"

"It's alphabetical, by last initial." You'd think this part of the process would be pretty straightforward, but you'd be wrong. A long time ago the Reading Room used to assign its Hold Shelf space to specific patrons, going so far as to charge these items to separate 'pseudopatron' accounts in the Circulation system that were created specifically for each designated portion of the shelf. Mercifully we junked this system soon after I took over as supervisor, as not only was it a time-consuming process but one which ate up an inordinate amount of shelf space. Now we simply file everything together, using the patron's initials instead of last names or ID numbers in order to protect their privacy and shelving the material spine-down to make the books 'invisible' to browsers while they're checked out to the room.

Piece of cake, right? Well, aside from the not-as-rare-as-you'd-think instances when patrons think the item is being filed by the author's initials, there seems to be a little difficulty with the idea of arranging materials by last initial (using the first initial to file within that letter range and any possible middle initial as a way to further disambiguate in the case of popular 2-letter combinations, such as 'JS'). Either that or alphabetical order is becoming less and less second nature to a generation of human beings who search for things primarily by keyword.

"Oh, I see!" I'm not sure how the patron was looking for his book before he ventured up to the Reading Room desk, but now he seems to know where to find the missing item, and lo and behold after a couple of seconds he's retrieved it from the shelf at long last. Whew! So at least I didn't have to troubleshoot beyond that point, because from there on in things get unpleasant. If any item isn't on the Hold Shelf where it should be, sometimes it's merely been transposed when the patron's initials were accidentally reversed by a desk staff member or the patron him or herself when filling out the Hold Slip. This is why I would almost always rather that we fill out these forms, although I can understand when there's a rush (say at closing time) that pushing the onus back onto the patron might make sense, especially if he or she has a large pile of books to be held.

Of course if the item hasn't been misplaced in such a manner, it is almost certainly the case that the 10-Day hold period on the item has elapsed and the material has returned to whence it came -- either the Stacks or the Depository. Given that items on this kind of hold aren't attached to a patron's record in any way, shape, or form and thus can't be tracked and renewed electronically as normal loans, it's perfectly understandable that patrons will lose track of when these items are due to come off the shelf. This is why we try to be as accommodating as possible in removing materials from 10-Day Hold, holding the expired returns in the room until the end of the day before sending them to Stacks for reshelving. But even then it's inevitable that we'll get at least a couple of patrons per week who are caught off-guard by the date and are forced to track down or re-order the materials they had placed on hold, sometimes after exerting no small amount of painstaking effort in order to gather them up in the first place.

But this one was an easy save. And on Thursday mornings (especially when you're short both on caffeine and additional desk staff), we like easy...

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