Can we agree that the holds process is the most inefficient function of the entire Toronto Public Library?

In typical cases, I count almost 30 steps per item!

  1. Find the item

    1. Search in catalogue, or

    2. Ask library staff (includes walking up to that person with a reference copy in hand and asking if there’s a circulating copy)

  2. Place the hold

    1. Do it yourself, typing in your lengthy barcode number and PIN and selecting a branch (defaults to home branch on new catalogue)

      • It is open to dispute how many people have their browsers autofill these details, but if you’re doing this at a library branch, it will surely not autofill anything


    2. Library staff scans your card and does it for you

      • Forgot your card? Maybe staff will look you up, maybe they won’t

      • Rare cases like the one I actually saw (man comes into branch, wants to place hold on DVD, but has no library card) not included

  3. Item goes on hold-pick list

    This is actually one of the most horrific white-collar jobs in the genteel library system.

    1. Someone who has an item in hand and tries to check it out will always succeed even if a hold has been placed on it. (This happens to me all the time.) Then the next available item has to be put in the queue to fulfill that hold.

    2. For items already on loan: When checked in, system pops up a message stating it’s on hold and listing the destination branch (several different user interfaces)

      • In rare cases, item is on hold at that branch and system prints out a hold wrapper right then and there

      • RFID sorters will place item in box for destination zone

    3. For items on a branch shelf:

      1. System assigns a branch (not necessarily the closest one) where the item is located, adds the title to a completely illegible mass of other titles on a holds-pick list

      2. That branch prints the list

      3. Some poor sap (usually a page):

        1. squints at this egregiously and needlessly unreadable form

        2. hunts all over the library trying to find the item (and the next, and the next)

          • If it’s in a foreign language, you’ve got three options: Wing it, get somebody who speaks that language (this really means Chinese) to do all those holds, or laboriously double-check call number for an item whose cover you cannot read

        3. on the form that does not reserve space for this step and without a clipboard or anything firm behind the form, crosses the item off the list

        4. notes not-found items, but beyond that I don’t know how those are handled

      4. Item gets plunked on a truck

      5. Truck gets schlepped behind desk

      6. If the picking branch is the same as the pickup branch (this has happened to me), it gets a hold wrapper and goes on the shelf (using all the same steps listed below). When does this happen? You place a hold from home on an item that is in stock at your home branch. You show up and they’ve moved the item from its regular shelf to the hold shelf, with numerous steps in between

    4. Processing

      1. Although some staff pile up items on RFID checkout pads, in reality one item is processed after another by human staff no matter what happens

        1. Scan or read the item

        2. Look up on screen for destination branch

          1. Untrapped items go on their own pile or otherwise have to be handled. (This means a hold was cancelled or was otherwise filled between the time the hold list was printed and the item was scanned or read into the system)

        3. Pull off a holds-transfer bookmark (also incorrectly designed and unusable – they’re too narrow, there is no need for printed boxes to write in, and the glue binding is on the wrong edge)

        4. Illegibly write a branch code in one square (maybe writing over previous code)

        5. Put bookmark in item (difficult for some CDs, language kits, stiff VHS cases)

      2. Put item in Out pile

      3. Sort the Out pile into destination-zone boxes (at the very least north, east, and west, with either one or four boxes for south, and very often a custom box for a nearby branch)

  4. Mass sorting and transport

    1. Items are sorted at depot – or at least go through there without individual sorting (if they’re in a custom box), but that’s conjecture since I haven’t actually been given a tour of the sorting centre

    2. Items arrive at destination branch

      • Some items, especially brand-new items coming from central processing, arrive at big branches in boxes containing nothing but holds

  5. Do half the job all over again!

    1. Now, insanely, every single hold has to be reread or rescanned anew. Because it is only here that the hold wrapper gets printed out (modulo rare case above)

      1. In RFID branches, typically staff will pile items three layers deep onto the pad and print out a wad of hold wrappers in one fell swoop. Then they match up the barcodes to find the right item. (This too is insane, not to mention error-prone)

      2. At non-RFID (i.e., welcoming) branches and at some RFID branches, every item gets wanded in or read individually

    2. Hold wrappers are wrapped around items with elastics (rare cases: several items are put together in one elastic; other rare cases have unusual treatment not relevant here)

      • At some branches (TRL is almost a worst case), staff have to shoehorn a CD or DVD plus wrapper plus elastic into a case

      • At other branches, there’s a decision tree that determines which items go on shelf (book, CD, VHS, kits) and which sit behind the desk (at Jones, DVDs)

      • And aren’t there different shelves for different categories of items? (All CDs shelved together, for example? A truck for oversized holds?)

    3. Holds go on a truck

      • Bookmobile and Home Library Service holds are carefully culled to transport only items actually needed that day, which essentially means there are five or six additional sorts per week
    4. Staff (usually pages) schleps holds to shelf, tediously sorts and files them by card number. Even small branches have hundreds of holds (so many at Beaches and Pape they overflow onto trucks)

    5. What happens if the status is listed as Available, and it really is, but you can’t find it on the shelf? Maybe it’s on a truck (also maybe without a wrapper – that happened last week). Maybe it’s behind the desk, or in the back room, either of which could be some distance from the holds shelf. Then you have to ask staff to go looking for it, which is usually more than one step because of the places it might be hiding. (In lots of cases, my holds really were on the shelf after all and I had looked right past them)

  6. Hold lives or dies

    1. Patron picks up hold

      1. At welcoming branches, every item is unwrapped and wanded one more time. Hold wrappers are discarded, elastics returned to cup for reuse

      2. At RFID branches, people either walk straight out the door with their holds (I’ve seen it happen) or use self-checkout. What happens to hold wrappers and elastics varies

    2. Patron doesn’t pick up hold

      1. At some branches (Yorkville), near the end of the hold period just those holds about to expire go on a separate truck, triggering another report/pick/sort process

      2. Patron gets dinged a buck

      3. Holds are recovered and unwrapped by staff, and (this is just a guess) usually sent out for another hold or to a home branch

What’s the solution?

Remove steps from the process.

The only thing I’ve been able to think of is unifying the branch-destination slip with the hold wrapper. And the only way I’ve been able to get that to work, in this thought experiment, is for the slip to be double-sided, which would require replacing every printer in every branch. (Or print two slips and insert them back to back, which could in fact work.)

In this method, though, destination branch would be printed at top of slip on one side (right reading). On the obverse would be the last four digits of patron barcode number rotated 90°. Items would never have to be wrapped in elastics or unwrapped, save for multi-part or exceptional items. But in turn they’d have to be shelved on their sides so that the hold wrapper, now projecting into the aisle from within the item, would appear right-reading.

Another option involves a mechanized process in which new automated sorters apply an adhesive label to the front of the item. Just think about how many ways that could go wrong for a second and you’ll see why I deem it fanciful and impractical.

Let’s not close library branches or reduce hours. Let’s “find efficiencies” by finding efficiencies in the most convoluted process in the library system.