Check It Out

The Denver Public Library closes the book on borrowing 1,000 items.

The public library, unlike many other limbs of government, is built upon a nearly perfect system.

Libraries have the blissful and unique distinction of being the only places on earth where individuals are invited to select whatever items they fancy and take them home -- for free. Proletariat to the core, libraries extend their welcome to the aimless and listless, as well as the focused and determined, which is key to their appeal.

For this system to work, those who borrow are required to bring the booty back. From the ancient Museum of Alexandria to the New York Public, libraries have always put their stock in the law of return, whereby everything that goes out comes back -- usually in good shape and within a reasonable amount of time.

Sam Turner

It doesn't always work that way. Last month, the Denver Public Library issued a notice to patrons of all 22 branches advising them of changes in the library's circulation policy. Among these changes was the happy development that, as of April 1, patrons would be allowed to keep material -- the usual gamut of books, CDs, audiotapes, maps and videocassettes -- for three weeks, an extension of the prior two-week limit.

But the news was not so good for a small but active minority of the library borrowership. In addition to placing regulations on the previously unlimited number of times that materials could be renewed (books can now be rechecked only three times, while videos must be returned after one three-week period), the DPL capped the number of items that can be checked out to any one patron at a time. The limit? Three hundred items -- a figure that certainly seems generous, if not absurd, especially when it is compared with the circulation policies of the bulk of the country's bibliothèques.

In New York, Chicago and Phoenix, for example, checkouts are halted after thirty items; even Seattle, which allows its cardholders to amass one hundred, is still volumes behind Denver when it comes to the per-person lending allowance.

The new item limit won't hamper the borrowing habits of the average card-carrying bookworm who, according to the DPL's Patricia Hodapp, is likely to have about ten library books in his or her household. But to the small minority of customers who count hundreds and hundreds of publicly owned books, maps, reference materials, magazines, DVDs, tapes and periodicals among their household objects -- and the very small number who have hoarded more than 1,000 -- the change in policy could mean a shift in lifestyle. Or at least a good spring cleaning.

"We've seen a lot of activity since that notice came out," Hodapp says. "You see them lining up at the return desk with bags and bags full, carrying backpacks and such. Lots of people are making return trips to their cars to get more books."

"I think a lot of the people didn't even realize all of what they had," adds data-training system coordinator Lorrie Ann Butler. "They were sort of reminded to take stock of what they'd borrowed. They checked the shelves, you know, and looked under the bed for titles they may have forgotten."

According to Butler, this isn't the first time the library has limited customer use. Ten years ago, the cap was set at 99 items. But that policy was nullified when the new Central branch opened on 14th and Broadway in 1995, meaning downtowners who use it have never known anything but ultimate freedom in their borrowing.

In a library system that includes millions of items, customers have always been encouraged to read and check out stuff -- even a whole lot of stuff. "There have been times when I've been working the circulation desk and people have asked me, 'How many books can I check out?'" says Butler. "I never told them that there was no limit. I always told them, 'Don't take any more than you think you can handle.'"

There's certainly enough material to go around: The DPL, which serves more than 500,000 Denver citizens, is the custodian of 4.5 million objects, including microform materials and government documents. But customers who check out hundreds of books at a time take a hefty chunk away from what other people can look at or check out. Since 50 percent of the library's circulation activity comes from customers who find titles while browsing out on the floor, Butler says the new item limit represents an effort to return library lending to a state of equilibrium in which patrons who enjoy "shopping" for titles have as much access as those who know exactly what they are looking for.

"When we first opened in this [Central] branch, the big books racks in the front were delayed because of a problem with the manufacturer," Hodapp says. "People walked in and they didn't see the books right away. The anger level of the customers kind of rose. People thought that, because they didn't see the books right away, that we didn't have any. That kind of thing really lets us know that people like to see as many titles as possible. They feel more comfortable when they are surrounded by them."

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