Wednesday, August 14, 2013

We know where you live!: chasing down overdues at Lancaster Public Library

Lancaster Public Library is proving to be one of the richest sites I have visited, in terms of documentation about its long history. Thusfar I have found hundreds of news articles, a substantial collection of legal documents, dozens of thought-provoking photographs, and various eye-catching pamphlets. Yesterday, I stumbled upon a delightful pair of artifacts: two "Messenger Books." These small notebooks list each title long-overdue at LPL from 1916 to 1923, and from 1931 to 1932. 

Messenger Book from Lancaster Public Library, 1916-1923

Messenger Book from Lancaster Public Library, 1932-1933
Entries include the overdue books' authors and call numbers, the dates they were checked out, and the names, library card numbers, and home addresses of the borrowers. Definitely a hot potato, because of Pennsylvania's laws regarding the confidentiality of patron records -- a right to privacy that has no statute of limitations. I informed LPL administrators of the books' existence, and they are now developing proper safeguards for such records.* Although I can't discuss individual borrowers, I will describe the library's efforts to reclaim its materials. The books include various notes which reveal the messengers' efforts and successes in tracking down each volume. 

Using LPL's newspaper files, I already knew that the library sometimes employed teenage boys to visit residences and retrieve overdue books. I had also discovered that the library used federally-funded workers for the same purpose during the Great Depression. Nonetheless, the actual notebooks, which no doubt became so tattered as they were continually pulled from and shoved into pockets, thumbed through and scrawled inside with rushed and sweaty hands, provide tangible clues about how the messenger boys operated.

Back in the days when mothers were often home and fewer people commuted long distance to work, in-person visits were apparently quite effective. Most entries are marked "returned," although fines often went unpaid. In some cases, intrepid messengers tracked borrowers across state lines. For example, one dutifully noted that a certain patron, who borrowed the library's copy of Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables in the winter of 1917, moved to Seekonk, Massachusetts. Apparently (s)he moved at least once in the Bay State, for beside one scratched-out address, the messenger penciled-in "wrote letter," and recorded the new location. There may have been even worse offenders than this particular borrower, for underneath some names is written a more omninous-sounding note: "constable letter." I didn't have time to make a scientific study of it, but it also seems that all kinds of materials and people crossed paths in the library. Let us say that men, women, and children failed to return all kinds of items, from children's picture books, to classic novels, to hydraulics repair manuals.

LPL's messenger books seemed laughable to me at first -- evidence of an earlier generations' inordinate obsession with collections and their care. Most librarians today wouldn't send staff across the hall, let alone across town, for a measly 65-cent fine! It is far easier to sigh deeply and buy a new copy. When I worked at Enoch Pratt Free Library years ago, some of my colleagues didn't blink when ordering dozens of duplicate Bibles or GED practice manuals. They'd stash the Ingram boxes in their offices, and when all shelf copies proved missing (i.e., at least once per month), they'd go to the back rooms, pull out a few fresh copies, stick on some barcodes, adjust the holdings records, and toss the fresh bait onto a reshelving cart. 

But after further thought, I could appreciate the older librarians' point of view. LPL's messenger books remind me of a time when cash-strapped libraries did not shrug off lost/stolen materials as a mere cost of doing business. Keeping items past due was enough of a threat to the library's well-being and an affront to the community to use scarce human resources to retrieve them. The small part of me who is sometimes weary of being tramped upon by overbearing customers couldn't help but smile over LPL's willingness, back in the olden days, to lay down the law.

*Note: LPL isn't unique in inadvertently providing access to confidential material -- over the course of 9 years of doing this kind of research, I have uncovered similar records many times. Such items were created long before Pennsylvania's law was in place, and are often stored with other "old library stuff" in eccentric closets or corners of the building. When new directors and staff replace veterans, the knowledge is often lost that such institutional records exist. My personal belief is that state statutes should be amended to provide exceptions for historical materials of a certain age, so that practitioners will not feel compelled (as some unfortunately do) to destroy them or strictly limit access. But as of today, I feel obligated to turn over anything circulation records I find to the library's administrators. 

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