Some Accidental Library Research

November 14th, 2010 by Richard.James

Sometimes you get to ask interesting questions upon the discovery of mistakes and oversights! And it might be the fact that unanticipated research discovers more significant issues than the research that we meticulously plan. For instance, the Selbyville library staff recently found out that due to a combination of staff and management turnover and other factors, they had not sent out traditional overdue notices to their patrons since early 2009! Not that they just hadn’t sent out mail notices, but they also hadn’t sent out any email notices either.

This has been remedied now, of course, but it was informative to see what impacts this might have had, and make some speculations about the role and usefulness of library notifications about overdues and fines based on the data available.

In most libraries, once an item is about a week overdue, a notification is triggered. Some libraries only send out email notices as a cost-saving measure, while others send out notices in the mail as well to those patrons who haven’t elected to provide an email address or don’t have access to email. Because notices go out only after an item is overdue, they serve mostly as a reminder to look for the listed items, and a notification that fines are being accrued. Harrington library is a good point of comparison- they do send out overdue notices, and they have a similar annual circulation and number of registered patrons.

Looking at the overdue bills for each library for 2009, Harrington charged about $3,500 in overdue fees, while Selbyville charged about $3,900, about 10% more. These fees are generated automatically upon the return of an overdue item, so aren’t dependent on any type of notice being sent. It’s hard to really conclusively say whether this is a very significant difference, if only for the fact that another library that is slightly bigger and somewhat busier, charged almost three times as much in overdue fees in the same period of time- so there are clearly other factors that are influencing the result. Does this suggest that receiving overdue notices is one of the least significant influences on library circulation? I would say that it doesn’t seem from this data that receiving a traditional overdue notification made an impact on items being returned to the library in a timely fashion, and it also didn’t seem that the lack of traditional notices created problems for the library in patrons’ accepting and satisfying the bills, a suggestion that there was no great customer service impact. In 2009 the Selbyville library collected slightly more overdue fees as a percentage of fees generated than most other libraries- about 82% instead of an average for other libraries in the high 70% range.

Of course, one notice that the Selbyville library HAD been sending, along with every other library since the report is generated centrally and notices sent automatically from the main library catalog server, but only to patrons who have registered an email address in the system, is the three-day pre-due notification- it says something like “these items will be due soon.” Maybe without this, the results would have been very different- perhaps for most people, getting a notice in advance of their items being due is more helpful than getting it a week too late! My question would be whether patrons are going to return books and other media when they are going to return it, no matter what we do for notification. There are any number of reasons why people can’t make it to the library on the schedule that we are imposing- especially in rural Sussex County.

What are your thoughts? What do you get out of overdue notices, either as a library professional or a library user? Would you prefer to see more, or less, or just different types of notice sent to you- and do you want it by mail, email, or both? Several large libraries in Delaware have moved almost entirely away from mailed notices, largely as a cost-saving measure, and it will be interesting to look at their statistics once several months have elapsed. Could we be seeing the end of overdue notifications (and will you miss them?)

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11 Responses to “Some Accidental Library Research”

  1. Richard's old mate Jon says:

    Hey Rich
    Do you do anything specific with the cash received from late fines – does the income beat the admin costs?
    And do you do anything to serial offenders like giving them a reminder when they pick up new books?

  2. Richard.James says:

    Different libraries do different things with the monies received from fines, to the best of my knowledge. Some use it for what’s probably the lion’s share of their new book budgets, others that are part of local government probably submit the money to a general fund and never see it again, directly. And yes, we sure do like to remind people about their fines when they stop by!

  3. Jean Costello says:

    I’m a public library patron, and a”three-day pre-due notification” email is very helpful for me. It includes a link to renew the item and this prompts me to consider whether I want to keep the material a bit longer or not. The email includes a hotlink to the catalog and when I click to renew, I inevitably browse for material I’d been thinking about but had not made the time to look up. So the notification and quick catalog access helps ‘generate new business’ for the library as well as keep our existing business together on track.

  4. Richard.James says:

    Thanks Jean- those were our goals in implementing the pre-due notices, and I’m glad they’re working out from your perspective. you didn’t mention overdue notices- is the pre-due system so successful that you don’t receive any?

  5. David Schuster says:

    OK so what about the fact that email to the younger generation is “old technology” – does your system allow them to do text messages?

    Allow them to email or text a receipt to put into their calendar to remind them things are due?

    Pre-overdues are a great help in this day of too many activities!

  6. Nick says:

    I agree with your supposition that “patrons are going to return books and other media when they are going to return it, no matter what we do for notification,” but I’d even go further: I suspect that patrons are going to return items when they are going to return it regardless of fines as well. That raises the question of what role do fines actually play? Are they really an incentive to get patrons to return materials on time, or are they a nickel-and-dime revenue stream and nothing more? And is that revenue stream worth the staff time to process the payments and argue about whether or not an item was returned on time? I’m not suggesting that we don’t hold customer accountable for bringing materials backl; but why not, instead of an overdue notice and fines, just send the customer a bill if the items are more than X days late? Then the customer either has to return the items plus a processing fee for the bill, or pay the bill.

  7. Kate Byroade says:

    Years ago when I was head of circulation in a small CT public library I conducted a circulation study. At the time–mid 1990s–all notices were paper notices and managing the notices was my daily responsibility along with compiling the library’s statistics.

    Two years in a row I tracked each day’s circ in the month of March out for the full cycle of notices. Since we had two different loan periods and two different cycles of notices it took some effort, but it proved very illuminating when done.

    Videos circulated for 7 days, everything else for 21 days. We sent out overdues for videos at 3 days overdue, and for everything else at 10 days, then 10 & 14 days, and then a bill at 21 and 42 days overdue respectively. We also had a final notice that generated at 90 days overdue that allowed us to clean up the collection, seek replacements, and because this was a small town, make a referral to the Police department if we deemed it necessary.

    The amazing thing was that for any given notice half of the items were returned before the next notice was generated! I followed the full cycle for all the items loaned in the month of March. By the 90-day overdue hopeless notice I received we were down to a half dozen items for the whole month when we’d circulated say 12,000 items. It was kind of amazing.

    Some patrons will be on time or early, some will be a little late, a few will be significantly late, and a tiny minority will never return anything ever.

  8. richard says:

    Last year we toyed with the idea of changing the language we used for overdue notices- beyond just eliminating the term “delinquent”- with the idea that we would stop talking about overdue fines and start talking about “extended use fees”. The core notion being that instead of saying “you can only have it for this long after which you are BAD” to “you can have it for this long without charge and if you want to keep it longer you can for the bargain price of .10c a day. You’re welcome.” The next logical step would be to then say “you don’t want to bring it back at all? No problem! Here’s the bill.” My thought was that this would emphasize the customer service aspect as well as the general library service value proposition. We may want to talk about this again next year!

  9. wendy says:

    was a report run on the outstanding items in the period? I think it might be a valuable comparison and surely a clearer way to judge if returns had been affected?

  10. winter coats says:

    I have a question that “does your system allow them to do text messages?”

  11. richard says:

    winter- we do not send sms-based notification. i think that it’s configurable in the system, but resources do not permit at this time.

    wendy- I wasn’t able to be real authoritative, but a spitball take suggests that the library wasn’t missing any more items than another of comparative traffic. but I can’t back that up with actual numbers.