F*ck the Books

Now that I have your attention with my intentionally confrontational, click-baity post title…

Last month (May 2020), my library reopened our book returns in preparation for limited reintroduction of material circulation in our community. The course of the pandemic in our service area was on a trend that indicated it would be safe to do so. The best data we have suggests we need to let returned materials sit for 72 hours before processing them back into the collection, onto the shelves, and into patrons’ hands.

Which is why a few of our branches have giant piles of books dumped on the floor:

Pile of books on a library floor

(From this news item: “Johnson County libraries busy after restarting dropoffs, holds and pickups,” Carey Wickersham. Fox 4, Nexstar Media Group, Inc. https://fox4kc.com/tracking-coronavirus/johnson-county-libraries-busy-after-restarting-dropoffs-holds-and-pickups/. Accessed June 18, 2020.)

Images like this one were presented in the media as my library reopened our book returns. It caused a minor furor online: people were offended we would treat books so callously. There were outraged comments on Twitter. Even the article this image is taken from can’t seem to avoid a slightly judgmental tone:

“When books are returned, they are somewhat unceremoniously dumped from giant bins in to untouched piles where they sit for a while to make sure lingering germs are gone.”

It does seem disrespectful to treat books this way. I get it. I do. We love books. That’s why we’re librarians and library users. There was a time in my life when I, myself, would have considered this tantamount to sacrilege.

But instead of immediately getting offended on behalf of the books, ask yourself a question:

Why would librarians treat books this way?

Books are our love and our livelihood. We, more than anyone, believe in the importance of books in our communities. We, more than anyone, value our material collections and their benefits to society. Do you really think we don’t care about the books?

So why are we dumping books on the floor?

Safety.

In order to proceed with accepting returns, we had to develop material handling procedures that protect the safety of staff. We did a ton of research and determined that it would be safe if we could sufficiently minimize staff contact with returned materials. Our goal was the fewest possible number of touches and the shortest possible amount of exposure.

Dumping books on the floor turns out to be safest for staff. It requires the least amount of contact for the least amount of time. It was the only material handling procedure we determined safe enough to be acceptable. Anything more than this—any amount of stacking or organizing—means more contact for longer periods, which reduces staff safety to an unacceptable degree.

Do you really think we should care about books more than we care about our staff?

We’re a public library. Nothing in our collection is unique or rare or valuable. Everything we circulate is mass market and easy to replace. Yes, “unceremoniously” dumping books on the floor runs the risk of cracking a few spines, maybe we tear a couple pages. We planned for the need to replace extra items with this material handling process.

Totally worth it if it keeps staff safe.

And let’s be honest: This is no worse than how materials end up in book return bins on a regular basis anyway. And it’s definitely no worse than how some of our patrons treat our books.

Maybe I’m just sensitive because I’ve been educating myself on vocational awe and uncritical reverence for books is wrapped up in that. But it bothers me that people see piles of books and don’t think about the staff that has to handle them. It bothers me that people jump directly to negative judgments when they see images like these instead of asking why libraries might do this. Instead of extending benefit of the doubt.

We’re librarians. We’re book people. If you see us doing something like this, there’s gotta be a good reason.

3 thoughts on “F*ck the Books

  1. Hmm, I’m not sure about this. I understand that the books have to sit for awhile to be safe but there are better ways to do it. At my library, they are removed from the drive up book drop bins by someone wearing gloves and a mask, then sorted onto tables labeled with the days of the week. This keeps them from getting damaged and also makes it easier to knowing which ones are safe to actually handle and check in. I can’t imagine how someone sorting the giant pile knows which are new and which have been there for three days.

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    1. We have separate piles for each day. Each pile is labeled with a sign listing the day the materials were returned, the day they’re clear to be processed back into circulation, and the date to backdate them. The image in this post is from one day’s returns. It’s our busiest branch and this was the very first day we had our book returns open to the public after two months. The piles got a lot smaller after this photo was taken!

      We followed safety guidelines and analysis from our County Department of Public Health and local medical experts in coming up with this material handling process. Each library system is going to come up with their own solution: depending on material volume, space constraints, staffing levels, material replacement budget, the track of the pandemic in your local area, etc. This was the method we felt was safest for staff and that we could accommodate.

      Interestingly, we haven’t seen any increase in the amount of damaged materials compared to our normal operating processes. When patrons drop books in our standard book return bins, they pile up like this anyway. We’re not actually making it worse by dumping our materials into quarantine piles. The overwhelming majority of damage to our materials is still being inflicted by our patrons.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I guess you’re right about piling up in the book drop. Our book drop has actually gotten worse since we opened, but will slow down soon since people can only get books by placing holds right now, and you don’t see anyone checking out nearly as many books. Hope people don’t just give up and find other sources of reading material.

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