Many of us have done it: You place a hold on a library book with the best intentions and then life gets in the way or you decide you’re not interested in the book after all and so you don’t pick it up before the expiration date. On occasion, I get patrons who express shame for — from their perspective — making library workers do meaningless extra work. It’s true that there is a fairly involved process tied to getting a book from its home in the stacks to the hold shelf, but to say doing that work is meaningless if the patron ultimately doesn’t pick up the book is inaccurate. There’s plenty of value in abandoned library holds.
Though the myth persists, the truth is that librarians do not just get to read all day. Despite this, for most librarians (and, sometimes, other library staff), there is an expectation that we have either read every book in the building or at least have a list of every book in the building in our heads, which in theory allows us to recommend books to patrons. This just isn’t reality. But I’ve found one of the best ways to get to know what’s in the collection while still doing work is to work on the pick list (the daily list of books people have requested we put on hold for them) and the clean holds list (the daily list of books that expired on the hold shelf and will either go on to fill another customer’s hold request or go back into the general collection).
The pick list is one way to get a sense of what kinds of books and information people are interested in. The problem with the pick list is that if you work in a library system with multiple locations and the pick list includes books for patrons who use locations other than your own, you won’t necessarily get as granular data about your specific community as you could otherwise. Knowing, for example, that a lot of books about apartment gardening are heading to a branch across the city may be somewhat useful to you (and even be helpful in identifying upcoming trends at your location), but it doesn’t always tell you anything about the community using your branch.
The clean holds list, however, can give you that anecdata. Some might argue that if a patron chose not to pick up a book they requested that it indicates a non-interest in that subject. After observing patrons for many years, I disagree. After all, they put the hold on the item to begin with. And more often than not, it’s not that the patron has lost interest in the book, but that something got in the way of them picking it up, they found an alternative resource, or they decided to put off reading that book for now with the intent of requesting it again later. Even if a patron has lost interest in a subject after placing a hold on it, it still gives staff information about what people in the community are thinking about. For example, you can imagine how many holds were placed on books like Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist around June 2020 (and how, since then, requests for materials on antiracism and related subjects have noticeably fallen off). Removing books that have expired from the holds shelf allows library staff to keep their fingers on the pulse of the community in a way that requires little effort.
I don’t track library holds data acutely. Our integrated library system (essentially, the back end of the library catalog) might, though I’ve not heard of a library that shares that particular information with the general staff. But making mental notes about which books appear on the holds shelf again and again (here’s looking at you, Michelle Obama’s Becoming) can be massively useful when it comes to being informed about the community we serve. And that’s a big deal! Understanding the community that uses your library is often considered one of the major job duties of librarians, so that there is a method for getting some of that information that is so easy is a great boon.
But then what can I do with this information? Why do I appreciate it so much? The answer is simple: It helps me better serve my community. If I start to notice that I’m pulling several books about astrology, it says to me that a display featuring materials about astrology might be of interest and do well. Trending topics aren’t just trending with people who bother to put materials on hold, but also with others who are likely to check out a book on such a topic with the extra push of seeing a book about the topic of interest on display. Often, patrons are surprised by the subjects included in our collections, and unless we push the books through marketing they may never know we have them at all. If I keep a watch on what some people are putting on hold, I can predict to some degree what others in the community might want to know we have.
Beyond the books, understanding and identifying trending materials through library holds (including the expired ones) can also be useful when library staff are thinking about what kind of events to plan. Interest demonstrated through holds in papermaking might suggest that bringing in a local papermaking artisan to lead a craft night could be popular. Or maybe a particular author is showing up on the shelf again and again. The library staff may then consider asking the author to come in for an event at which readers of the community can hear them speak.
Like many library workers, I don’t consider myself an extrovert. I’m able to turn myself “on” to an extent for work purposes, but even then, regular, lengthy conversations with patrons that get at the heart of their interests can be difficult for me (and sometimes take more time than I’m reasonably able to give while still completing other tasks). I still pursue those conversations and, yes, even enjoy them, but watching the library holds shelf is one of the ways I’ve found works really well with my mindset and approach to library service.
So next time you forget to pick up your hold or realize that your kid’s soccer practice is happening the same day your book expires and you won’t be able to pick it up before a staff member takes it down, don’t feel guilty — you’re just helping us learn about you!
(Although, if you really do want that item, most libraries can extend the expiration date. Contact your library to find out if this is possible and the best way to do it.)