The library that doesn’t buy single copies of anything now buys quite a few single copies

Back when I toured the Front St. processing plant, I was assured the library never buys single copies of anything. I knew that was false at the time and it has certainly remained so.

The new variation of this model involves buying single copies of the books I suggest via blue forms. They’re willing to do that even when books on similar topics have 15 copies. (That’s what makes me think I’m being singled out. There’s obviously demand for the topic, and the books aren’t interchangeable.)

MLSs, mistresses of the sidelong glance and conspicuous throat-clearing, are adept at passive-aggressiveness. So yes, they’ll take my suggested titles seriously and buy nearly all of them. One copy each, in many cases, or just two. There’s really no way for these items to circulate, since you have to walk by the items in their home branches (typically TRL) to even know they exist. (And actually, not “walk by” them – scan the shelves and notice the book just by its spine.) Lose those and you’re left with nothing.

“Lose” here can mean all sorts of things. The wonderful volume The Lost Album: A Visual History of 1950s Britain contains cards and tickets embedded in its cover and includes life-sized replicas of instruction manuals and wartime ration coupons.

Double-page spread showing four-inch-high kraft ration book bound inside

I didn’t even know the library bought this book until I bumped into it on the new-release shelf on second-floor Reference. I had my guy check: Yes, it’s the sole copy. So I went through the whole thing, with delight, and handed it in at the front desk.

Where is it now? Who the hell knows? Want to put a hold on it? You can’t.

20,283 dings

The Toronto Public Library Board, chaired by a city councillor who wanted library hours reduced and populated with political hacks and lobbyists we now know were hand-picked by the Ford administration, ordered the library to start dinging you a buck when you don’t pick up a hold. The fine kicked in last summer.

I’m going to go where you least expect it and actually endorse some kind of fine for holds not picked up. The only reason I do so is because I believe I am the only person ever to have tracked the entire holds process, which in the normal course of events involves 27 steps. I have no ability to implement any changes whatsoever, but one of my goals is to implement changes that will reduce the number of steps in the holds process. Just reducing the process by one or two steps on average will save tens of thousands of work-hours each year. (I’m less concerned with saving money than I am with reducing drudgery.)

Of course I have to be consistent and accept that reducing the total number of holds is another way of improving the holds process. That’s why I can see how a fine would be in order.

But, as with RFID, it’s a policy with unforeseen effects. Here the effect is deterring people from placing holds and borrowing things from the library. TPL’s own report (PDF) admits that, just in September 2012, people placed 50,000 fewer holds.

The result is that holds are filled more quickly for customers as material is not sitting on the holds shelf, and the Library is achieving the planned efficiencies in staff time tied to this activity.

However, the fine is also resulting in a reduced number of holds placed and appears to be contributing to a downward trend in circulation overall.

Stated another way, people are now scared of placing holds. People should not be scared of placing holds, though the problem in saying so is that conservatives think the little people should have some fear in their bones to keep them in their place. Conservatives run the TPL Board.

So far, the library has raked in $20,283 in fines, with an annual run rate of a hundred grand. Is this how you ever thought a public library should function?

The least capable patrons suffer most

I am pretty sure this entire process was set up with highly-computer-literate TPL users in mind. Anyone who uses a computer to “manage” their library account is well aware of the new policy, I think. But this excludes tens of thousands of users, including non-English speakers and the old ladies who keep branches like Don Mills afloat. Sure, the library handed out notices and bookmarks. The new policy nonetheless came as a surprise to some. And those are exactly the same people who don’t know how to cancel or suspend a hold. And if you think they can just talk to a staffmember or call in to do it, you’re assuming that even occurs to them in the first place, and that they aren’t mortified and embarrassed.

I think reducing the fine to a uniform 40¢/day for all items expiring that day would solve several problems.

  • A $1 fine triggers sticker shock and seems wildly disproportionate just in general. 40¢ doesn’t.

  • Somebody who misses a pickup shouldn’t be penalized because they have more than one item. You did not incur n times the staff time and effort because you have n items. The fine should reflect missing a deadline, not a per-capita penalty. (Again, there’s an undertone here of deliberately tricking the library user – the same tone we see in lending pedometers for nine weeks but hours-long TV series for one week, then dinging you a buck a day when you’re late.)

I asked around with people on the Inside. They agree that unclaimed holds have declined. But they also agree that holds have declined. They are even more adamant than I am that the result is people are reading less. The result, I infer, is not that people are placing superfluous holds less often or are saving the library system more time and money. My friends’ conclusion is that people’s use of the library is suffering. Something else conservatives like the little people to do is suffer.

Spokesgayte 2012

It’s a tempest in a teapot in one sense, but did you know that TPL’s Spokesgaysian, Ab “Six-Pack” Velasco, wrote an entire article for a city blog about a tenant of the Toronto Public Library without disclosing that he too is linked to the library?

I didn’t know, either – until cherubic Hebraic gadfly Goldsbie Twitted about it. So that gives you an indication of just how much impact Velasco’s article, grandly entitled “Why Balzac’s and the Reference Library are a perfect fit,” really made after it was published a month and a half ago. I’m sure that had something to do with the fact the publisher was the near-irrelevant BlogTO. (They’re Number 1 at being Number 2.)

Just to remind you what conflict of interest means

It is an ethical violation for a paid employee of an institution to write an advertorial for a paid tenant of that institution without a disclaimer. (It might still be unethical even with a disclaimer.) Not only wasn’t a disclaimer included at time of publication, one still isn’t visible now.

Guess who doesn’t see a problem with any of this?

  1. BlogTO editor Tim Shore:

    We are aware of Ab’s role at the TPL, but we didn’t feel this was a conflict. We don’t feel the reporting was biased at all by his position at the TPL, nor was Balzac’s or the TPL portrayed in a way that we feel would not have been done by any other writer on our team.

    In other words, we would have published a rave anyway.

    If you have specific issues with facts or details presented in the story, please let me know.

    I wanted to believe that Shore was pretending not to understand that conflict of interest is a structural issue, not one of New Yorker–style fact-checking. Since Shore wouldn’t comment on that issue at all after I brought it up, I think he really is unclear on the concept. He later insisted “We are more vigilant than most to keep a strict separation between editorial and advertising.” Those less-strict publications would be which, exactly? And besides, this isn’t about paid advertisers.

    Like so many Millennials, Shore exhibits a fatal combination of ignorance and entitlement. He isn’t just acting this stupid.

  2. Spokesgaysian himself: “When I pitched my piece and before I wrote it, I checked first with both the library and BlogTO. Both didn’t feel there was/is a conflict.”

  3. Spokesgaysian’s boss, the generally level-headed and sensible Linda Hazzan: “Ab made us aware of his interest in writing this article, and he checked with the library before pitching it to his editor to see if we felt there was any conflict. We didn’t feel there was, as it was a profile of the Balzac’s owner, rather than a piece on the library.” Except that a TPL employee is talking up a TPL tenant.

The punchline

Neither the Toronto Ombudsman nor the Integrity Commissioner has purview over the library. (At all!) The city auditor probably doesn’t, either.

That leaves the pols, hacks, seat-fillers, apologists, and registered lobbyists on the TPL Board – the same Board that wants advertising plastered hither and yon on date-due slips, library vans, and elsewhere. I can already hear Mike Foderick’s boisterous defence of somebody who doesn’t even work for him, delivered in a tone of disbelief that anyone would dare bring this up.


I am oversensitive and I take the weather personally, but even correcting for that bias TPL management has a devastating talent for poisoning the well.

In its latest impotent tantrum, TPL management tried to lean on my friends at Jones to induce me to stop submitting blue suggested-title forms. I witnessed great discomfort and embarrassment among staff there as they conveyed this news down the chain of command. They chalked it up to TPL’s feudal labour relations, as I call them, and thought it par for the course. But I have not forgotten that petites fonctionnaires at the district-manager level and above tried to throw their weight around. I think I am well overdue for a chat with the Pape District head.

Jones delivered this diktat from on high just as I was checking out a title I had suggested – Life on Mars, the well-reputed BBC series from five years ago. As such it doesn’t meet TPL’s claimed selection criteria for TV shows (brand new and really popular), but they bought it anyway. (Cynical explanation: Because it’s British – classy by default. Preferred explanation: Because it’s good.)

John Simm on ‘Life on Mars’ DVD with StingRay Life on Mars stars Mr. JOHN SIMM, one point on the Hart/Freeman/Simm Axis of highly sympathetic British character actors. I dearly love them all.

I knew the ending of Life on Mars before I even started watching it. I’d seen the final episode on TV before, plus I had looked it up. I support the ending, which, like that of Being Erica, respects the logic of the series. And the soundtrack is just smashing.

You can see that I had a host of reasons to invest my viewing of this series with a great deal of feeling. But actually the whole experience was tainted because Toronto Public Library managers went out of their way to shame me and my friends at Jones. I found out about all that just as I came to check out the series I myself had suggested.

I am oversensitive and I take the weather personally, but TPL management tainted what should have been a triumphant and rewarding experience.

And for what?