À La Recherche Des Livres Perdus, or 50 Ways to Lose Your Books

The Time of Humans

Libraries used to spend hours searching for missing books. We lose books when they get misshelved, mislabeled, mislocated, forgotten in offices, homes, or stolen. When I worked as a searcher, I found satisfaction in figuring out different ways to find lost books and finding them. However, I also know the emotional toll of looking for so many books and more often than not, finding very few. Or discovering that a patron has torn out a chapter from a book or removed contents from a looseleaf binder because they did not want to pay for copies or that title does not circulate. One library reported that patrons ripped out RFIDs from reserve books to steal them. Theft or destruction of book contents deprives other users of access to the information therein. It’s disheartening and depressing to think that patrons can be so destructive of books or steal them for any reason, callow or otherwise.

Once we completed our search process and declared books lost, we then had to decide whether or not to replace these books. Usually, with limited budgets, we were not able to replace many. Not all law libraries regularly search for lost books. Some initiate searches or claims only to address particular needs. For our library, our traditional ways of searching for missing books and replacing them were costly, inefficient, and, for those staff who invested a lot of effort in the task, emotionally draining.

Enter the Machines

Libraries can now use scanners to search for missing books. Sometimes, it’s a small scale project, like a 25,000-document médiatheque collection in France. Our library did a larger project searching for books missing from a 340,000-volume location. Our Access Services/Circulation Department staff created a database to help with searching lost books. The database was the subject of a poster session at the AALL annual meeting in Philadelphia in July 2011 called “Electronic Stacks Maintenance: Mobile Shelf Reading at the University of Chicago”. How does it work? Students using a laptop or netbook and a scanner, scan barcodes on books in the stacks. The database determines if the books are shelved in the correct order by checking them against the library’s integrated library system (ILS). The database also finds inconsistencies between a book’s circulation status and its shelf status, and reports all inconsistencies to the library staff.

The mobile shelf reading project took about a year and a half. As far as I can tell, the mobile shelf reading process was more efficient and enabled us to identify more lost books than the totally human traditional search process, and without the emotional toll. The only thing that seems to be missing is the personal satisfaction of using search savvy to find a lost book.

Replacing Lost Books – Still a Human Task

Our law library has a policy of replacing lost books “needed for law school research” or relying on interlibrary loan. If we decide to replace a lost book, we can buy another copy, a reprint edition, or an e-version. I find that users, especially for classics, prefer original print editions over reprints or ebooks. For in-print titles, we use Yankee Book Peddler among other sources. One of our favorite sources for out-of-print, secondhand, used copies of books is

Other libraries replace lost books only upon patron request, particularly if a faculty member or law journal makes the request, or if they’re classics. One library only replaces missing journal issues only if they’re symposia. With reduced budgets, libraries are serious rethinking whether they should replace lost books at all. Patrons can usually get access to the lost books through ILL. The ebook as a replacement format is looking more and more appealing as well. Google Books, Hathi Trust, and the Internet Archive are becoming more robust e-options, albeit with some possible reliability issues. Print-on-demand is a possibility. When I crowdsourced responses on replacing print lost books on Twitter, one librarian mentioned feeling “increasingly burdened by owning things”. She also noted that “digitization is moving print to a rental model in general”.

Why Not NOT Replace Lost Books?

One of the results of our library’s mobile shelf reading project is that we ended up with thousands of lost books to review for possible replacement. I was particularly looking at titles of foreign, comparative, and international law (FCIL) books that the library had lost over time. Except that, as I reviewed each title, I could not help, as a former searcher, wondering how the book managed to get lost, and feeling a pang for the loss.

Deciding whether or not to replace the lost books was like selecting them all over again. Is any current faculty member interested in this topic? Are the lost books FCIL classics? How much will replacement cost? Can we replace? Which replacement format is better? Should we wait and see if any patron requests them? Should we replace them quickly because many FCIL titles are hard to obtain? More and more libraries have canceled FCIL print serial titles. The content will not be so readily available via ILL.

As my crowdsourcing suggested, I had to take into account not only the major ongoing shift in law libraries from print to electronic sources, but also the move to rental and short-term access to information, in deciding whether or not to replace our lost books. We also have a present focus on patron driven acquisitions, pay as you go, and buying books, subscribing to databases upon user request and not in anticipation of user demand. Faced with a huge quantity of potential books to replace, a very limited replacement books budget, and emotional fatigue, I’m really tempted to unburden myself from print and not replace any of our lost books at all.

50 Ways to Lose Your Books
(sung to the tune of Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover)

“Replacing books is no big prob,”
She said to me
“The answer’s easy if you just
Rethink your policy
Print is a burden of which your
Law library can be free
There must be fifty ways
To lose your books…”

Forget ‘em in class, Cass
Put ‘em in the bin, Lynn
Shred ‘em instead, Ted
Just give them away

Sell ‘em on eBay, Ray
Leave ‘em on the plane, Jane
Sculpt them into art, Bart
Just give them away

Another coffee spill, Jill
Oh no, not Starbucks, Gus!
Forget they’re not yours, Kors
And set yourself free…

Comments are closed.