or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Public Library For Personal Use

   June 26th, 2008

lockersThis isn't a new issue, but it's happen three times this week, so I thought I'd mention it: people using the library for storage.

I don't mean the library collection. I mean patrons using the friendly and easy-going atmosphere of the library as a safe place to either leave things, store things, or transfer things to someone else.

So far this week, I have been involved in the following situations:

  • A patron who routinely leaves her notebook and text books at the library. She knows we clean up each night and hold things like this at the lost-and-found at the desk, in case someone comes to claim them. She said she knows they are safe, and it's easier than her lugging it all home each night
  • A patron who emailed me important files from his home computer, because he was sending it out for service and didn't want to lose them (I won't even try to explain that he could have emailed them to himself instead of me, not to mention backing up to disk)
  • A patron who uses the library as a drop-off point: for instance, if she needs to get some documents to someone else, and they can't meet personally, she'll leave them at the desk with that person's name on them and tell the other person to pick them up at the library

It says a lot that people not only trust the library like this, but also think of us in these situations. That's being an important part of the community.

But it's also annoying, you know? The library cannot take responsibility for these items, so it worries me that people rely on good natures and good fortunes. I could understand if we had public lockers for these purposes, but we don't (then there are the stories of library lockers being used for drug deals and who knows what all).

All of these exchanges involve staff time, which is another concern. A few times a month is no big deal, but if more people routinely use the library to store their personal property, or to pass along items to other people - or worse, as daycare until their child can be picked up by someone else - this kind of thing could easily get overwhelming.

Or am I wrong? Should libraries do whatever patrons ask of us, and make it part of our mission to offer this kind of service? I fully support the idea of library as community center, so perhaps. It just seems something like this needs to be decided deliberately, and not just be some patrons getting special treatment on the sly.

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7 Responses to “Public Library For Personal Use”

  1. Noreen Fish Says:

    Speaking of relying on good natures and good fortunes, I see unattended cell phones plugged in and charging all the time. If I had the inclination, I could probably make a fortune selling them to people who make a lot of overseas calls. :^) This in the same library where we recently had to move lost-and-found from a public area to a non-public one because people were helping themselves to things.

  2. Holly Wolf Says:

    You’re right–there needs to be an overall policy decision about patrons’ off-label use of the library as safety storage. The first time I ran up against this expectation, it was a large engine part a patron had ordered delivered to the library because he was not going to stay home all day to receive it!

  3. Kate Says:

    People do take advantage of libraries. Here we have a person who isn’t even a student at this university who has taken up residence at one of our carrels – a big row of textbooks and other personal items. While I like the idea that our library is appealing as a place to study, it is still disrespectful. Before Fall semester, I suspect we will be asking for the removal of the items. Students are forever charging their cell phones. And they use the library as a drop off point too.

    It also always bothered me when I worked in a public library that we had to hire a part-time worker for the sole purpose of watching the unruly after school kids. Your tax dollars at work. Arg!

  4. Winnie Says:

    As a librarian in a small town library (we serve 4,000) it is quite normal for people to drop things off for others to pick up. In some cases we are “official” – Cancer Agency canvasers can leave there stuff in a sealed envelope – but in others it’s just ad hoc. We don’t have people leaving stuff behind on purpose, but we are usually the first place people come if they have lost something, I think since they are comfortable putting things down while they browse. We did have a man who lived in a cave (no, really, he lived in a cave!) and used our bathroom. Parents call looking for their kids when they are late home from school and I once had a woman call and ask if her husband was here. When I said no, she said “When he comes in ask him to bring home some milk.” While this works in our community, I imagine in a larger town it would really get out of hand.

  5. Dave Says:

    This is really interesting. I am a library professional in a business that serves libraries. I constantly hear that libraries have to make themselves relevant in the Internet / Google age and perhaps this is one way of doing that. Of course workable policies and procedures have to be put in place, but the same is true when adding a new format to the library collection.

    If your users want this service and trust the library to provide why not figure out a way to do it?

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    I think the strangest thing I’ve been asked along these lines was to hold a bunch of VHS tapes for a patron that he didn’t want his mother to find when she came to visit. I had to say no.

    In regards to Noreen’s comment about the location of the lost-and-found, ours is actually deliberately in a public area. This is due partly to save staff time from digging through it, and partly so the library is not responsible for left items. We only hold things obviously personal or valuable at the desk (flash drives, wallets, cell phones, etc), and try to contact owners when possible (which happens a lot with papers left on the photocopiers).

  7. RR Says:

    I think that the liability aspect is most disconcerting.

    It reminds me of a friend’s struggle with her “postal center.” While she may not get paid for handling pre-paid Amazon, BN, etc. packages, shipping businesses have no choice in receiving these materials–it is within their contract. If those items are stolen or damaged, it directly impacts the business’ insurance and storage/security considerations. For her industry, it is a major issue.