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.