It’s not hard to go in and out of the library without speaking with most of the library staff, but it is hard not to see any of them. I’d like to say that you’ll see a reference librarian, but some libraries have decided to do away with a regular reference desk. You’ll see reference librarians at those libraries, but not necessarily know who they are.
Even if you don’t check anything out, you’ll recognize some library staff right away: the people who check out library materials. They still work behind a desk, probably very close to the door. The desk is probably called the circulation desk, maybe circ desk for short. The department within the library that includes the people at the circ desk may be called either circulation or access services.
Checking out, checking in
These people do more than just check out books. They check them in, too. After all, you borrow materials from a library, and so you have to bring them back. At the desk, you see someone handle the item, probably run a barcode over a scanner and perhaps put a date due slip in a pocket.
The computer system then knows that you have the item and when it’s supposed to be back in the library. It also knows your name and contact information. If you don’t bring it back on time, you get notified. If you get an email, the computer system sent it out automatically. Someone in the circ department wrote and formatted the notification and coded what time it goes out.
When you return the item, naturally you don’t want the computer to think you still have it. Someone in the circ department scans the barcode again, and the computer completely forgets you ever had it. Libraries do not maintain circulation records.
I have occasionally heard of a judge ordering a library to turn over records of what a particular person has borrowed. No such records exist. No such records ever existed in any American library from the earliest lending libraries. It is no one else’s business what you borrow from a library. Computers now make it possible to keep such records, but national standards set by the American Library Association, no library does or ever will.
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Other things the circ staff does for the library
But getting back to library staff, the circulation or access services department does more than check library materials in and out. A mound of books, videos, and what not returns to the library every day.
Some materials can’t be removed from the library, things like newspapers, magazines, reference books, and often even bound journals. People have to use them in the library. When they’re done, they leave them on tables.
Other patrons make copies of library materials. Even if they’re circulating items, they don’t leave the library. The patrons leave them by the copier when they’re finished.
Who puts all of this stuff back where it belongs? The circ staff. In the room behind the circ desk, someone has to sort through everything that has been returned. It all has some kind of classification number on it, which doubles as a shelf mark. If the library uses Dewey Decimal Classification, someone sorts books onto shelves marked 000 100, 200, 300, etc. Some of those classifications may need further subdivision for sorting.
Then someone on the circ staff further sorts everything into exact shelf order on a book cart. Someone takes a cart load of books (etc.) to the place where they belong and puts them back on the shelves–probably between two items that are already there.
That way, the next time you look for something at the library, everything is neatly arranged in proper order. First you look in the catalog to find where to find it. (If someone already has it checked out, the catalog will tell you that it’s out and what day it’s supposed to be back. Then you go to the shelves, and there it is.
When you use materials in the library, you’ll probably see signs all over asking you not to resolve them. There are two good reasons for that.
- Library classification systems make materials easy to find, but unless you know them in great detail, you won’t know where to put them back. So the someone on the circ staff has to spend time every day reading the shelves in order to put misfiled materials back where they belong. Please don’t inflict that on anyone. It is one of the most boring, mind-numbing tasks in the world.
- The library needs to know which of its materials have been used. If you look at something–especially if it’s a circulating book–and then put it back on the shelf, even if you put it in exactly the right place, no one knows anyone looked at it. If you leave it out, someone can come by with a laptop and barcode reader (or just put it on a cart with everything else lying around and take it to the back room for sorting) and keep a record of it.
So you’ll recognize these library staff members when you see them behind the circ desk, shelving library materials, or pushing a book cart. Go ahead and ask questions, but only the right kind.
They’ll be glad to tell you where to find things in the library. If something’s not on the shelf where you expect it, they can give you some idea of when it will be back. (Maybe you didn’t see that information in the catalog, or maybe it’s just sitting in the back room waiting to be put away.) Tell them the copier is jammed or out of paper.
Just don’t ask reference questions. Except for the department head, they are not librarians. They are not trained to recommend books or help you find the sources with the answer to your question. That would be the reference librarian.
But if the library doesn’t have a reference desk any more and you can’t easily identify the reference librarians, just ask the circ staff. They’ll be glad to introduce you to one.
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Photo credit: Circulation desk. Some rights reserved by Newburyport Public Library
Shelving books. Some rights reserved by Mace Ojala.