Retrieving SML’s long-lost books

Amid the narrow, crowded stacks of Sterling Memorial Library, millions of books sit inert, untouched by library patrons for years. But a small handful of these books should not be where they are, mistakenly shelved in the wrong spaces.

Some books are stolen. Others are lost — or even purposely hidden — by patrons. Some are simply mis-shelved. In all, 143 books from Sterling Memorial Library and Bass Library were reported lost in 2009, said Geoffrey Little, communications coordinator for the library, though he acknowledged the figure does not account for books that were lost but not reported.

The paper stubs help prevent misplaced books, a system unique to Yale.
The paper stubs help prevent misplaced books, a system unique to Yale.
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No caption.

“We only know about book losses when someone reports them to us,” said Joan Swanekamp, chief catalog librarian. “And in many cases we can’t tell whether the book disappeared yesterday or 50 years ago.”

While the library cannot control whether patrons lose books after checking them out, Sterling staff work to make sure they do not lose books on their end, inside the library.

To resolve the problem of employees mis-shelving books, Anthony Riccio, the manager of Sterling’s stacks, developed a system in 2003 for employees to check the location of books.

Sterling stacks employees are each assigned a flag number that is inserted inside selected books as a placemarker when they are shelved, Riccio said. Once books are in the stacks, other employees check the books’ placements for accuracy.

“It’s humanly impossible for anyone to make a mistake” using this system, he said.

But while Riccio is confident in his method and has even presented it to his colleagues at library conferences, the system has not caught on at other schools. Yale’s unique system — with a meticulous approach to checking employees’ work — is an added layer of protection for Yale’s valuable book collections.

THE SEARCH IS ON

Before the implementation of the current system in 2003, Riccio said, employees would simply glance at the spines of books in library stacks to look for out-of-place materials — an approach still used in Bass Library, said Brad Warren, head of access services at Bass and Sterling. But in Sterling, the roughly four million volume collection is so vast that it is impractical to give such intensive attention to every shelf.

Instead, Yale’s placemarker approach can best be described as preventative, ensuring that employees do not shelve books in the wrong places.

Because Sterling shelves more than 400,000 volumes per year, Riccio said, he estimated that a 3 percent rate of human error results in more than 12,000 books being misplaced by library staff, an unacceptable number of mistakes for an institution of Yale’s size, he said. Based on the placemarker system, employees’ collective and individual performances are brought up frequently in staff meetings, encouraging high-quality work — although no disciplinary action is taken as a result of employees’ accuracy rates, Riccio said.

Riccio estimated that 20 to 25 percent of books in Sterling reported missing by patrons were later retrieved by employees, with searches lasting as long as one or two years.

While Riccio is confident in the success rate of his system, he was at a loss for words when asked why other libraries have not followed a similar approach.

Johnny Weyand, head of collections management at Harvard’s Widener Library, said Harvard does not follow Yale’s preventative approach, but rather uses a targeted system to find books that are reported lost. He said Weidner uses a “tracing unit” composed of library employees whose primary function is to locate items reported missing.

“These are trained staff whose specific job it is to go out looking once a book shows up as not where it needs to be,” Weyand said. “Most large universities, in fact, have a system similar to that of our own.”

Weyland said Harvard has no plans to change to Yale’s system or any other, noting that Harvard is happy with its “tracing unit.”

Sterling, too, has a means of finding books once they are lost: Two specialists are trained to perform “2X” searches, Riccio said, which involves a careful check through the stacks. The process ranges from scientific to practical, in which the specialists check books cataloged under similar decimal numbers and also look behind shelves. Unlike Harvard, these individuals are not foremost charged with finding books, reflecting Yale’s greater trust in its preventative system.

“It’s crowded up there, and the aisles are narrow. Sometimes books just fall down,” Swanekamp said. “In the past, people sometimes hid books that they didn’t want others to find, but thankfully that doesn’t happen much anymore, especially with digitization efforts.”

LOOKING AROUND YALE

Still, the danger of mis-shelved books in Sterling is of less concern to Yale’s other, smaller libraries.

Subject libraries like the Haas Arts Library have fewer difficulties locating lost books because of their smaller collections and size, said Holly Hatheway, art and architecture librarian at the Haas and assistant director for collections, research and access services.

“Over the course of a month, even a semester, I would say there’s less than 10 or 15 things that I need to replace,” she said. “But replacement is totally a case-by-case basis, so many things we have here are old or out of print that it’s impossible to reacquire them all.”

But at the Library Shelving Facility in Hamden, Conn., which holds 3.5 million volumes, book loss is more easily solved because patrons do not have access to the books.

Michael DiMassa, the manager of LSF, said that in the 12 years of the LSF’s existence and amid the more than 500,000 patron item requests received, the facility has never lost a book, a feat he attributed to the rigorous cataloguing items undergo upon their arrival at the building. All volumes are scanned into an inventory system that records their provenance, date of acquisition and location within the facility; the items are then fitted with barcodes meant to last 250 years. Another LSF employee repeats the process to ensure accuracy.

DiMassa added that because of LSF’s size, a misplaced book at the facility would likely never be rediscovered.

At the heavily trafficked Bass, book loss by patrons and employees is a more serious concern.

Warren, the head of access services at Bass, said thefts of items — though undetectable by the Library administration and indistinguishable from other types of book losses — were likely infrequent and are made more difficult by the Library’s stringent security checkpoints. To his knowledge, he said, no thefts in the Library were reported in the past year.

Warren noted that such lengthy searches are necessary to minimize the Library’s losses and preserve its unique collections.

“The items that we have are a tremendous responsibility for us,” he said. “I see these extended searches as doing due diligence to our volumes.”

Only 13 of the 143 books reported lost in Sterling and Bass libraries in 2009 were later returned to circulation, Little said.

If the library finally resorts to replacing the book, Swanekamp said, a number of factors are considered, including the item’s importance to the Library’s collections, the number of other copies in the Library’s possession and even the item’s ability to be replaced. She estimated that 20 to 25 percent of the Library’s volumes are the only copies of the item in the United States, many of them obtained by acquisitions librarians from overseas.

Correction: March 2, 2010

An earlier version of this article misreported the position of Yale librarian Brad Warren. He is head of access services for both Bass and Sterling Memorial libraries, not just Bass.

Comments

  • Barry Mc Murtrey

    Mr. Tidmarsh should note that Bradley Warren is, in fact, the Head of Access Services for both Bass and Sterling Memorial Libraries. The entire Access Services staff of each library report to him and he oversees the lending policies of the over-4-million-item Sterling collection.