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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.
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."
That feeling is presumably shared by the library's heaviest users, who want to keep their home shelves stocked as well. But with all those books comes the danger of late fees that can add up like numbers on a stock ticker if 300, 400 or even 1,000 titles become overdue at the same time, even for one day.
"We have had some incidents where its kind of gotten beyond someone's control," Hodapp says. "When that does occur, we try to be understanding and work something out. We're not a collections agency."
Certain to breathe more easily under the new policy are the library's circulation clerks, a group whose job sometimes entails long conversations with patrons who wish to renew vast numbers of books. Many frequent borrowers take advantage of the library's online renewal service, but even that is time-consuming, says clerk Diane Tobin.
"I can't imagine sitting on that Web site, waiting for all of those renewals to process. It must be horrible," she says. "But I guess that must be the trade-off, the thing they know they have to do in order to continue using all of the materials. It just becomes part of the routine."
While the notion of any one person possessing hundreds and hundreds of things from the library conjures images of bookish eccentrics or pathological hoarders holed up in apartments surrounded by candles and cats, Hodapp and her staff paint a more reasonable picture of these serial borrowers.
"For the most part, it's professional people: academics, writers working on different projects," she says. "We get a lot of people writing novels or textbooks. We have a group of ladies in Cherry Creek who are putting together a cookbook, and they need so many different materials to research their own recipes and menus."
In many ways, the most active borrowers are the DPL's best customers. They have to be, Butler points out, lest they risk losing their borrowing privileges -- something that's tantamount to losing their lifelines. "People who are regular users don't want to jeopardize their access to the collection," she says. "I think many of them have very elaborate systems of checklists and things, to be sure that they remain in good standing."
"The surprising thing is that those people bring their books back in the best condition," says Tobin. "They really seem to take care and stay on top of what they've got. (Not all borrowers are so considerate: "We had one come back with a strip of bacon being used as a bookmark," Hodapp says.)
So far, response to the policy change has largely been, in true library spirit, quiet.
"I'm not aware of too many grumpy phone calls," says DPL spokeswoman Celeste Jackson. "In a public venue, you get them all. I know that Rick [Ashton, city librarian] got a letter from some people who weren't happy with the temperature of the water coming out of the drinking fountains. That kind of thing is just par for the course."
"I think the library did a good job of sort of preempting any negative reaction," adds Tobin. "They let the people who might be the most affected know that they'd need to get ready to pack up their trucks. Or maybe their U-Hauls."