The Case of the Disappearing Books

When I interviewed for my job at the Yale Club I was warned:  Books disappear from the shelves here.  There are no ghosts or rumors of ghosts at the Yale Club, but books that pass through our doors have a tendency to show as “available” in our OPAC (our public access catalog) and mysteriously fail to be in their places on the shelves.

Our checkout system is well-established.  The Yale Club Library runs on an honor system, which means our members can check out books, without the aid of staff, whenever the club is open.  The Library has self-checkout kiosk available from 10AM to midnight and, for our more traditional members, and in off-hours, paper checkout slips and a lovely wooden box located near the elevators.

And yet…

…over the last two days, I have marked seven books as “missing” that should have been on the shelves.  All of them were books requested by patrons.  Over the last five months, I have marked over a hundred books as missing – many of these “newly missing” books were discovered because a patron had found the book in our catalog and then could not find it on the shelf.

Of course, missing books plague every library – especially large public library systems where books float among different branches.  When I worked in a public library, we would mark a few books as “missing” each week, but the books were often found a few days later. It would turn out that the book had been returned to a different branch and not checked-in, or the patron would find the book under a car seat.  Books that patrons had lost and reported would be replaced by that patron.  We had a circulation desk at the library, fully staffed whenever the library was open, so it was rare, relative to our overall circulation, for a book to disappear from the shelves.

Here, it seems to happen all of the time.  And, although I was told that new books were the primary targets of dematerialization the book phantoms seem to me heedless of publication date.

Certainly, books are sometimes stolen – maybe by members, intentionally or not, and maybe by event guests, who might think of the books in the library simply as party favors.

I want to provide the best service possible to our patrons, and my instinct is always to order another copy of the requested book.  But, what if the books have simply and honestly been borrowed and they show up in my book return in three weeks?

I suspect “honor system” means, to many members, simply that the book needs to be returned at some point.  I wonder if many members understand that a book they take off the shelves will still appear as “available” in the library catalog – which means that another member may take time out of his or her day to come in to the library for a book I cannot give them, or that I will certainly spend time looking for a book that is currently on someone’s bedside table.

Clearly, there are further steps I can take to encourage formal checkouts – I can advertise more in our club newsletter and add a few more signs to the library.  I can try to quantify the losses, to make the financial costs of the missing books more real to our members.

And I can ask interested parties:

Have you seen our books?  Is there a Yale Club library book nestled in-between volumes on your own bookshelf?  We would so like to see those books come back to the club, for all our members to enjoy.  They can be returned, anonymously and with no questions asked, to the library book drop on the fourth floor, near the elevators.

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6 Responses to The Case of the Disappearing Books

  1. Hoyt Spelman says:

    The basic problem is that anyone who looks respectable and seems to know where they’re going can walk straight through the lobby and go to any floor, no ID shown, no questions asked.


    • That’s a valid concern, Mr. Spelman — though I know our security team is working very hard to make sure that only members and invited guests walk in the door. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, though, if people intent on pilfering were always looking for books? I do believe that our missing book problem, however, is inconsistent checkouts. Last week, I saw several people I know are members returning items in the book drop, only to discover later that the item had never been checked out.


  2. Anne F. Riney says:

    Is there a list of the missing books somewhere? I have already searched my bookshelves but if I had a list of titles i would be to donate any of my own copies as replacements.


    • Thank you for searching and asking, Ms. Riney. There was a list of missing books developing before I arrived, but it was lost in the transition between librarians (irony!). I am putting together a new list, slowly, and will be sure to keep you in mind. What a generous offer.

      Maybe I will consider advertising the list as I put it together, though, in case someone reading does have the book. A missing Yale Club book of the week tweet, perhaps?


  3. Stewart Landefeld says:

    What a great idea that is, to publish or advertise the “Missing Book” list, with a suggestion that members consider contributing a substitute volume. (Many members may have too many books for our own shelves). Perhaps consider publishing the even as you have it in part, to test the idea? I bet it would meet a strong response. And the partial list may be easier for readers to absorb and react to.


    • Thanks for your suggestion, Mr. Landefeld. Given yours and Mrs. Riney’s suggestions, I’m considering was to best wayto “advertise” missing books. Soliciting donations for used books to go in the general collection is always a challenge because used books are not always in good enough condition to add to a circulating collection. Additionally, if I learn that a book is missing because a member has requested it, then I usually want to order that book for the member rather than hope someone will step forward with a copy in excellent condition that we can have.

      I am still considering publishing a list anyway, though. Thanks again for the suggestions!


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