Friday, January 2, 2015

Gaming the System: How to Become a Library Power User

Every few days, I have to run the same urgent errand: get to the library before a book runs out of time on the hold shelf.  I did not mean to become the book equivalent of an extreme coupon shopper, but when I started taking advantage of my local public library's request system to take charge of my To Be Read list, I found myself employing every gimmick and loophole in the system.  I also find myself running to the library every few days to pick up the latest book about to vacate my hold shelf.  Okay, my books do not take up the entire shelf, just half of it.

Do you too want to be the bane of a library aide's existence?  Here's how:

Step 1: Get to know your library's online system.
Over the last few years, our public library has transformed it's online system from something that was just a rung above of an analog system, without any of the charm of a wooden card catalog, to a very robust system I can access from my living room.  When I find a book I like, I still tear the review out of the magazine or add it to my little TBR notebook, but instead of letting those pile up on my desk, I also log into my library account and do a search for the book, even if it hasn't been released yet.  Our library system allows patrons to create multiple lists of cataloged materials that are saved to one's account.  I created a TBR list and add books to it as I find them in the system.  I add several books a week and use the list to keep track of books to read the kids at night and books Dr. Yap wants to check out too.  The last book I added was Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper, which I saw on the BookRiot Instagram feed while I was out walking the dog yesterday.

Step 2: Know your limits.
Theoretically, I could immediately request the book, but since I already have the maximum fifteen books requested, I add it to my list.  Every time I check a book out from the hold shelf, a spot opens up on the request list and I look at my TBR list and decide what to request next.  Since I'm already logged into my account, I can make the request directly from my personal list on the library's website.  Right now, I have eight books checked out; one that I am reading to Bean at night, one that I'm reading right now, and six in the queue. With so many books already out, I am only adding books that either have not been released yet (books on order in the library system) and hot books that have waiting lists of 20-100 patrons long.  When I have more wiggle room, I also request books that are in other branches of the system so they are delivered to my "home" branch.

As soon as see a book I am waiting for start to get some press, like The Rosie Effect, by Graeme Simison, I start checking to see if it is in the library system yet.  If it is on order, I can still make a request and get a higher spot on the waiting list.

I cannot see how long a waiting list is until I make the request, but I can tell that there are zero available and I usually have a pretty good idea which books are currently popular.  Usually, the book blogs I read start talking up books one to two months before they come out.  BookRiot even provides a helpful YouTube video with hot books to add to your library request list. Professional reviews from sources like NPR and NYT appear in the weeks immediately before a book comes out and by the time a book is reviewed in a magazine like Vogue, Elle, or Vanity Fair, it is already out.  By adding books that have long waiting lists, I get a place in line and have plenty to read while I am waiting.  Sometimes this works out and sometimes, as with Some Luck, by Jane Smiley, I am caught off guard when my number comes up and do not have time to read a book before it has to go back to the library.  I just add it back to my TBR list and request it again another time.  

Step 3: Due Dates
Library due dates are less arbitrary than baby due dates, but only a little less stressful.  At my library, we have three weeks until a book is due, unless the book has a waiting list, the book can be renewed four times. Any popular book, even an older one, will have a waiting list.  In this case, those books have no renewals.  Three weeks and you are done.  I would rather not return a book half finished and then have to wait another few months to get it again, so I just let the books go if I do not have the time.  Sometimes, I will wait for months on books and only have one or two out at a time and other times, I have a whole bunch at once.  I often throw books on my library list that I am not sure I will like.  I am willing to take risks because I am not buying the books, but I do not want to start and stop too many books or end up clogging up my reading queue with things I do not love.  I used to plunk myself down on the floor in the hold section and read the first page or two to vet my choices.  When I realized the section is directly across from a popular bathroom, I started reviewing the books in a far away corner then returning them to the shelf until I am ready to check them out.  

Step 4: Working the Shelves
You may have decided I got on the crazy train several paragraphs ago, but this is where I think things really take a turn for the loony.  Unless my stack of checked out books has dwindled down to nothing, I do not run out and pick up my hold requests the minute I get a text from my library.  (What? You do not get texts from your library?) Every once in a while, the stars, my reading speed, and a hold list back log create a vacuum in the check out cycle, but this only happens every few months.  In order to maximize my time with each book, especially when they are likely to have only one renewal, I wait until the second to last day possible to check them out.  My library gives people ten theoretical days to check out a book before it is banished from the hold shelf and either returned to its shelf or passed on to the next person in line.  I say theoretical because I am never sure if "One more day" means they will take the books off the shelf that day or the next.  I once cornered an aide in the hold section and he admitted that they purge books that are on their final day in hold purgatory, so I feel completely vindicated in rushing down to the library on the penultimate day.  

Okay, I have to get back to City of Stairs, it's taking me longer than usual to read and Florence Gordon is waiting.  She is a hot commodity and time's awasting.  I only have twelve days to get her back to library. I checked and double-checked the Goodreads reviews and read the first few pages and decided that she is definitely worth the stress.