Customer Service Starts in Circulation

One of the few job hazards of being a public librarian is that everyone asks you why a library has a certain policy or rule. Often it is in areas I can readily explain like Internet filtering, privacy, weeding, etc. However, there have been a few times, I am absolutely flabbergasted on a policy or rule.

A civilian friend of mine shared this story about a recent trip to a local library in her new town. Her child was all excited that this new library had Dora the Explorer videos. The video was checked out for three days per the circulation policy. As my friend was headed out of town, they renewed a second time over the phone. No big deal. Upon returning, they went to the library and returned the items, save for the Dora video which they wanted to renew again. No dice. The circulation policy is limited to 1 renewal. My friend suggested that they simply return it and then recheck it out. Again the library said no. (“That wouldn’t be fair.”) My friend pressed on. Was someone waiting to check it out? No. That is just the rule. Too bad for you. Friend left with screaming child that was denied a Dora movie and friend left with a bad taste for libraries. Frankly, I don’t blame her.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out what this library was thinking. Isn’t one of our objectives to get people to actually¬†USE¬†the resources of the library? Library circulation policies and procedures are the first step in creating a good customer service experience. The above scenario is a textbook example of poor service. Even if the staff involved were pleasant and helpful otherwise, this is absolutely negated by the idiotic policy in place. Customer service is more than “being nice”. It is a philosophy of service that is about helping the customer get what they need/want.

Circulation policies are now my new litmus test of a library. Are they designed with the customer in mind or are they to help the staff? I started reading a bunch of circ policies and can tell you it seems like many libraries are embracing punitive, complicated circulation policies. To what end? If your library is about having people actually use the resources, make sure they actually can.


Originally published at on 7/30/2013.

Updated 11/7/2014 MK


  1. When I was working, this was one of the issues we had the most problem with. It was the same for the public computers before we got sign-up software that ended the sessions automatically. If no one was waiting to use the internet PC, why couldn’t the person who was using it stay on until someone did want to use it? The reason was that some people would look into the computer room, see all PCs in use, then leave rather than ask for an appointment because they needed the PC at that moment and none appeared available. I once saw a woman do that and was able to intercept her, explain that I could give her an appointment at that moment, which I did and it meant telling the man using the PC that his extended appointment was over, as I’d warned him it would be. The situation isn’t much different for other things and materials.

    Discovery is part of the equation. I can imagine a mother coming in with her kids, seeing no Dora the Explorer videos, and leaving with her disappointed children because she didn’t think or know to ask if there are any out and can she reserve them. That, I was told, was the logic behind the policy of limiting renewals, so the items can get returned to the shelf at some point so others who otherwise would never get to see them might discover them. Unlimited renewals if there are no reserves at some point comes close to ownership, or temporary ownership given that some people will end up keeping them out indefinitely. It’s a difficult balancing act.

    I don’t know the solution and I know that explanation wouldn’t have helped that mother much or made her crying child any less disappointed. But it is the reason, or one of them, behind a policy like that.

    1. I agree with Shelly, and we have the same policy on DVDs, mainly because they are such a high demand item, and also one that is almost solely based on browsing the collection. You can have one renewal which means you could have a DVD out for two weeks. After that, it goes back on the shelf. Especially with kids videos, I could potentially see someone holding on to a favorite video for months at a time if we allowed unlimited renewals.

      Books are allowed 2 renewals which mean you could have them out for nine weeks. After that, if you want them longer we will check them in and check them right back out to you as long as there are no holds on the item.

  2. I’ve also heard of cases where unlimited renewals were used by would-be censors to keep “objectionable” materials off the shelves and available to others. In this way, a group would make sure that these items would never be checked out by anyone else who might be “harmed” by their content. From a student, I learned that this was the case for the Madonna “Sex” controversy at the Monroe County Public Library though I have no independent verification of this “fact.”

  3. Yeah, that’s a good point. And it’s also an issue if your library doesn’t allow holds on DVDs. My explanation for patrons unhappy with the renewal limit is “we need to make sure everyone has a chance to use our materials.” (That said, I do make exceptions from time to time! But really, if you don’t have time to watch the video right now, and you’re going out of town anyway? Return it, let someone else have a chance to borrow it, and check it out when you get home/ have time to watch it.)

    We have a couple of patrons who get annoyed when we ask them to stop hogging the Express computer — it doesn’t have the reservation software, and thus doesn’t automatically time people out, but it is supposed to be just for 15-minute use. So we get the “no one asked me if they could use it!” argument, and we also get people who use it for 15 minutes, walk away for one minute, come back for 15 minutes, walk away for one minute, over and over and over. And when I catch them doing that, I tell them to quit it, because that’s not what that machine is for, and people are not obligated to ask them to move — it’s not THEIR computer. And people generally won’t say anything, they’ll just see that someone’s using the computer and leave.

  4. It is not uncommon for a patron to ask if we have something, that something is checked out, and they refuse our offer to place a hold and just want to know when it’s due back, so they know when to come back and get it. I try my best to convince them to let me place the hold, but some people just won’t. I imagine there are other patrons who don’t even ask a librarian and just keep coming back, hoping that what they want will back on the shelf. If someone could renew indefinitely, the people who just keep checking back wouldn’t get a fair shot. For most books, 2 renewals means 3 months. For Dora DVDs, 2 renewals would be 3 weeks. That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me, but there have been cases where I have used professional judgment to override the limit. Some library staff may not be allowed to make exceptions though.

    1. Do you charge for holds? We’re 25 cents per item for holds and some people refuse to place holds for just that reason. It makes no sense because then they’ll drive to the library that has it right that second, even if the library is an hour away – so they spend way more in gas.

      1. We don’t charge for holds, but a lot of times people won’t put a hold on whatever it is they came in looking for (or let me request it from another library in our network) because they really wanted something to watch or read right then, and don’t want to wait and come back later.

        1. Okay. Well, here most of the time it’s because they don’t want to wait a couple of days and spend 25 cents. Then they drive all the way from Costa Mesa to San Juan Capistrano just to “save” that quarter.

  5. It’s 7 days for entertainment movies with no renewals for us. And we tell them “You can check it out again tomorrow if no one else has taken it. But other people need to have a chance.” Most people find this reasonable. Then they go get some other movie their kids like.

  6. Thanks for the great post!

    I actually had the same experience at my branch library. I had checked out a book and was only able to complete half of it before it was time to turn it in. Since I was going to the library that day anyway, I asked the circulation attendant if she could renew it. She told me no, because that book had been purchased using Friends of the Library funds, and those books were not eligible for renewal. When I suggested that she simply check it in and then check it out again, she said the exact words you used in your post: That wouldn’t be fair. I ended up turning in the book and never finishing it.

    Now I simply use the Library’s ebook collection. No late fees and no worrying if I’m checking out an item purchased with funds prohibiting renewals.

    1. I wonder if those books are like our Quick Picks books — they’re copies of new and very popular books that go on a table right by the circulation desk, and can’t be placed on hold or renewed. The point of handling them that way is this: the regular library copies of these books have enormous waiting lists — they’re best-sellers, new, and often end up with 100+ people on the hold list. People get annoyed when they’re told they might have to wait weeks to get the book they want, and get discouraged from using the library (since no matter what we do, we can’t ensure that there are enough copies of the shiny new stuff so that people don’t have to wait). So, the Quick Picks are there to try to offset that issue — they go out for two weeks, and you can’t renew them or put a hold on them, so checking them in and right back out wouldn’t be fair at all. The whole point is to give other people a chance to get their hands on these books. Even if it’s a slim chance!

      Maybe that library staffer could have been more eloquent in her explanation of the policy, but it really does boil down to “no, that wouldn’t be fair to everyone else” sometimes. And I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. The library is a shared resource, after all.

      1. But how is it anti-patron? I mean, we have limits on how long you can borrow materials and such, right? Isn’t it just as anti-patron to let someone just keep renewing an item indefinitely, rather than letting other patrons have a chance with it?

        1. Since I knew which library was in question, this was simply being mean for no reason. (I could go chapter and verse on this particular library) My real criticism is that the employee didn’t (or couldn’t) be flexible. Again, policies need to be flexible in certain situations. Has this patron “abused” the system? Context is everything. Even though I have no issue with renewals, or need to have such a policy in place at my library, a better response could be “I can only do this one more time, will that work?”

      2. I don’t think it’s anit-patron. How are all patrons served if they never get to see something because someone else keeps renewing it, essentially putting it on indefinite loan? Not everyone reserves or even thinks to ask. They want it right then, and if they don’t see it, they’ll leave empty-handed and just as likely to be annoyed as the person denied another renewal. Limitless renewals, as I see it, go against the nature of what libraries are or should be, places where everyone has a chance to find what they need or want.

        1. To both Mary Ellen and Shelly — how is it NOT anti-patron to create a kind of second-class circulation, where renewals available for other books are forbidden for particular titles based only on who paid for them? I think that’s dreadful. Please also note that my original post said nothing about unlimited renewals. I am certainly not in favor of patrons hogging things forever. No, just let all the books, regardless of who bought them, be subject to the same renewal policies. Even at that “mean” library. And I have to say again, are their Friends really on board with that bad policy? Ours would be up in arms and would probably refuse to buy any more books unless it were fixed.

          1. I think the situation could have been handled better but I think limiting renewals so other people can discover items is not anti-patron. I dealt with plenty of patrons who were continually disappointed to not find something that was out but wouldn’t reserve them because they didn’t want to wait. There are so many people who game the system and don’t give others a chance.

            1. Again, my comment was posited on the assumption that THE ONLY THING DIFFERENTIATING THE NON-RENEWABLE BOOKS IS WHO PAID FOR THEM — by the description, it seemed possible that one copy of a title in the general collection could be renewable and another not. Why should a patron have to know or care about that? It seems totally arbitrary, mean and, yes, anti-patron. But if there is more to it — for example, if these books are a sort of quick-pick collection — then of course none of that applies; the contrary in fact.

          2. Our Quick Picks, which I talked about earlier, aren’t purchased with Friends’ funds, they come from our regular budget. And again, the point of having the Quick Picks is to give patrons a choice: they come in looking for the newest best-seller, and can either choose to be put on the waiting list for the book, which might be quite long… or they can grab the first-come, first-served Quick Pick copy right now, with no waiting! The trade-off is that the loan period is shorter and you can’t renew it. I asked our Circulation staff and supervisor about the no-renewal policy on those books, and what they do when people ask if they can just check the book in and right back out again, and all of them said “No, that’s a renewal, and it wouldn’t be fair to everyone else.” And we make that policy very clear when the book is checked out — we tell the borrower that it’s got the shorter loan period and that it can’t be renewed when they check it out, and there’s a label on each book. And according to the staff at my library, 99% of patrons are perfectly fine with that — they’ll either say “Oh, I can read this in two weeks!” or they might say hmmmm, maybe I’ll hold off on this one. (And hey, if they want to keep it past the due date they can pay the ten-cent-per-day fine, and thus help us buy more books.)

            And we have different loan periods for different materials — regular stacks books go out for a month. DVDs go out for a week. You get two renewals on books, one on DVDs… because the demand for DVDs tends to be higher than for books, alas. It’s a matter of balance, and trying to make as much available to patrons as possible, as often as possible.

            The issue of who paid for a particular book isn’t really relevant. Some libraries use Friends money for the Quick Pick type books, some don’t. And I’m pretty sure the Friends know exactly where those funds are going, and are okay with it.

            I don’t understand the idea that saying no means you’re anti-patron. Of course we don’t say no just to be mean — I’m both amused and dismayed that you keep calling a particular library “mean” because they enforce the policies that, presumably, work for them and their users. Sure, it would be great to never have to say no… but we can’t do that. We review our policies frequently, we gather as much feedback from the public as possible (in fact, we just recently had a survey to do just that) and one of the things our patrons were happy about was the availability of new books and movies and such, because we have the non-renewable Quick Picks. So one patrons “OMG you’re mean” is another’s “Yay, this item is available for me to read!”

      3. Maybe the confusion over my post is that it is not clear what i was replying to — it was to argiletum, who at the time had no responses showing, not to maryellenc.

    2. That sounds like our rental books. You only have 7 days to read them and you have to pay a $1.50 for them.

      I usually encourage people who don’t want to do that to check with the librarians if there’s any large print editions in the system. Typically those are a three week check out and you can renew them. But some people don’t want to be caught dead reading large print.

  7. Our library system sets a limit of two renewals. Individual libraries can override that with their own materials if they choose to do so, and for awhile we were more than happy to if the patron needed an extra week or so.

    Then we got The Abuser. Okay, that’s a terrible sounding nickname, but he did abuse our policy so much that we had to change it and become more strict to everyone just because of this one person. He’d check out sometimes dozens of DVDs at a time (we also have no limit on that) and then just keep on renewing them. He’d also make sure to visit at different times when he would see different workers. Most of the time, we didn’t realize that he’d renewed this same DVD five times before! Our director caught on and now we’ve had to impose the two-renewal rule on everyone.

    Beside that, this guy is a piece of work…

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