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

Who Empties Your Bookbox?

   January 25th, 2011

Library Return BoxesThere's a situation at my library that doesn't seem to have a good solution, and a recent conversation with a friend prompted me to just ask other librarians how you handle it: who empties your book drop box on long weekends?

I work in a busy library, and on regular days, we empty the book return box (the one in our parking lot) about twice three times a day. We aren't open on Sundays* but the book box we have is generally big enough to accommodate any materials that get dropped off. Monday morning there's a lot of stuff to check in, but the box isn't overflowing.

However, on long weekends when we're closed on Monday, someone needs to come in to empty the book box - otherwise, it would overflow and patrons would just have to leave items sitting in the parking lot.

And by someone, I mean me. I inherited this duty when a former Assistant Director left the library, because:

  • Historically, it's always been a guy that wheeled the box in. It's always full and heavy, and although we got a new book box that is much easier to roll, it still can be a lot of work. I know this sounds sexist, and I know some of my female coworkers do occasionally bring it in during their shifts, and I absolutely welcome them to do it
  • Of all the guys on our staff, I'm the only one that isn't one of the maintenance guys - which means I'm the only guy who can also check in all of the items in the box. If the items aren't checked in, then the Tuesday morning desk staff has a two-day mound of items to check in, plus the crush of patrons who haven't been able to get into the library for two days - plus, or course, all their normal work
  • As a department head, I have keys to the building to let myself in on the weekends
  • I live relatively close to the library, so it's not that big a deal for me to come in - except that I can never go anywhere on three-day weekends

I don't mean to sound like a martyr, and certainly don't want to be one - which is why I'm posting this. What do other libraries do on long weekends? Do you not make any special arrangements? Do you just let everything build up and deal with it on Tuesday?

This seems like a common problem for libraries, so I'm hoping the wisdom of the crowd can help free up my weekends. Thanks for any suggestions - please put them in the comments below.


*Not being open on Sundays is a whole separate issue for me, so don't even get me started.

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33 Responses to “Who Empties Your Bookbox?”

  1. Meghan Says:

    I’m the Stacks Supervisor at my university library. My office is in charge of emptying the drop. When the University closes for long holidays (Christmas, Easter, etc.), we have a meeting with entire Access Services department to see who is around to empty the drop.

    I come in 50% of the time, but usually someone else in the department helps out during the longer breaks. We all have keys and passcards to get into the building. Checking in books at this time is optional since I can backdate check-ins to the date the items were collected.

    Also, since our bookdrop is not huge, we post a sign at these times asking patrons to not leave items outside the drop if it is full. We do forgive late fines if the patrons were unable to return their items because the drop was full.

  2. Andromeda Says:

    I would actually love to get you started on not being open on Sundays; I am deeply frustrated that my public branch library (15 minute walk from my house!) is not open on weekends and has limited evening hours. The main branch has weekend hours (actually I think the Sunday hours are new, so that’s great!) but it’s way more annoying to get to. Upshot is I go to the public library two towns over, which is near my daughter’s preschool (and prettier). Part of me wants to be all bitchy-patron about how inconvenient the library 15 minutes from my house is, but I don’t want to go overboard with that without knowing the other side of the story, you know? Maybe there are all these constraints from the librarian/admin/city side that I’m not seeing.

    (I mean, from my perspective, scrapping, say, ALL the Tuesday hours and replacing them with half as many hours on the weekend sometime would still be a win. But it’s not going to happen. So I would love to be enlightened by your rant.)

  3. Winnie Says:

    Usually, it is the librarian who lives closest and we are lucky that one of our number lives literally around the corner. However, if she is going to be away, someone else does it. It is never me since I live considerably further away than the other three staff. The job is just to empty the book return – not check stuff in. Meghan’s comment about meeting and deciding who is going to do it seems sensible to me.

  4. jpetroroy Says:

    Luckily, we have a circulation substitute who lives in town and is always looking for more hours. She has volunteered to come in on Mondays and empty the drops, check books in, and arrange them on the ‘to shelve’ carts. Makes all of my staff’s lives a whole lot easier on Tuesdays.

  5. Anne Says:

    Most of our staff has keys, so anyone who is not a page could do it. Usually an email is sent out a week or two before the holiday and volunteers are sought. I don’t think there has ever been a problem finding someone to bring in the book drop. The books are not checked in then, but are left for the next day the library is open & then backdated.

    No one actually wheels the cart out. We just bring shopping baskets with the library logo on them out and put the books in those. Those book drop carts are such a pain to maneuver!

  6. Megan Says:

    In December of every year we set up a schedule amongst Circulation staff. Everyone has to take at least one long weekend. If somebody has to take two, they only need to take one next year. It generally works out pretty well, and it evens the burden.

  7. Alison Says:

    I am a circulation staff person at my academic library. On long weekends (and holidays) my supervisor (head of circulation) comes in and empties the drop. Sometimes, the night circ staff person will do it, but he broke his leg so he can’t at the moment. I do wish this (and other things, not just circulation work) was something that could be shared among staff and librarians, but I don’t think we’re at that point yet.

  8. Will Says:

    Only one of the libraries I’ve worked in didn’t have this problem. That library had a book return that was just a slot in the wall, which emptied into a small room. Interestingly, this wasn’t really by design; it was just an old mail slot, left over from whatever the building was before it was a library. But it worked better than any book box I’ve ever known, and it was a good deal cheaper (have you priced book returns lately?).

    It is my opinion that we’ve all been going about this wrong. This is not a staffing problem; it’s a book return problem. That is to say if your book drop can’t hold the returns from a 3-day weekend, that book drop is too small for your library. The solution is not to impose upon staff who happen to live near the library and/or don’t have the self-esteem to say “No, I’m not coming in to work on a 3-day weekend when literally nobody else is going in to work.” The solution is more book returns. Or bigger ones. Or cutting a hole in the side of the building instead of putting a box out front.
    Having staff–very often the same person every single holiday weekend, because s/he lives nearby and asserts that s/he doesn’t mind–come in on a scheduled holiday because of a book return deficiency is exactly the kind of petty, undermining, if-you-really-loved-me-you’d-do-it abuse that libraries get away with all the time because their employees believe in the greater mission of the library. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, though, and this just isn’t right. Every library administrator has a responsibility to his/her employees to make certain that this doesn’t continue.

  9. Kathleen Says:

    We are regularly closed on Thursday (half the branches closed Thursday/half Friday), so I come in twice each Thursday to make sure the chute doesn’t clog or accidentally lock itself – yes this happens occasionally. On long weekends, the Assistant Branch Manager and I (I’m the Branch Manager) split it up. If we’re closed more than a couple of days, I ask our temp, who always needs more hours. We just pile things on carts and do a “special” check-in on the first open day. When customers say they turned stuff in and it’s still on their record, we explain that it’s waiting a turn to be checked in and they’re usually OK with that.

  10. EMR Says:

    We only have a drop box that drops into our building via the work room, we just allow the books to pile up until Tuesday morning, and then all of the staff pitches in that morning to get everything shelved before we open. When we have an extended holiday, our part-time staff of high school/college students are scheduled to work a couple hours with the supervision of either our Director or Assistant Director to check-in and shelve books. This allows all of the full-time staff to enjoy a long weekend away.

  11. Michelle Says:

    I think the ladies need to pitch in here! What about a rotation among key holders? It doesn’t seem fair to always be the one stuck with the job. You have a right to go on vacation, too.

  12. Caitlin Says:

    We also have a bookdrop that has an outdoor slot that empties into a room in the library. We have a cart that sits under the chute most of the time, but on long weekends we remove the cart and put a blanket on the floor. Since this can put a lot of pressure on the books that are dropped off first, we usually have someone come in at some point during the long weekend just to put some of the books on a cart behind the circulation desk to be checked in on the next day we are open. If this person is a department head (such as myself–I’m head of circulation and therefore responsible for this or finding someone to do it), then we take a little bit of time off during the week before to compensate. All staff have a key to the building and are willing to come in occasionally so I only have to come in once in awhile.

    Andromeda, I understand your frustration, but I think the best thing would be to discuss it with your branch manager and the director of all the branches. They can advise you on how to best go about getting Sunday hours for your branch. It will involve some advocacy on your part but in most cases this sort of thing needs to come from the taxpayers.

  13. Coral Says:

    I work at an academic library now, but back in the day I did circ and reference for a small public library. Every morning we were open one or two members of the circ staff (all female) would go out with a book cart, load it up from the book drop, and check in the books, usually at least half an hour before we opened. Like one of the other commenters, we left a sign above the book drops on long weekends (and tended to be pretty liberal about waiving fines, in general–I don’t know if we offered fine forgiveness on our sign, but even if we didn’t, our patrons knew we were reasonable).

    Filling a book cart up with books and rolling it in the door of the library is not too much to ask a woman to do. I’m not being outraged on behalf of womankind, here, just stating a fact: it’s unreasonable to break that particular job up by gender. Just like it’s unreasonable to expect one staff member to always be the one to come in on the weekend, to empty the boxes.

    I do like the suggestion of closing on Mondays or Tuesdays instead of Sundays! It wouldn’t solve this problem, but it might be a bit of a mitigating factor?

  14. rebecca Says:

    We usually have two library aides or an aide an a clerk come in to empty the book drops. Only a few of our branches have parking lot boxes though. For safety we require two staff to work together.

  15. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Andromeda: I will rant on this sometime, I promise.

    @Will: You’re right about the high cost of book drops – we went from one to two recently, and the price shocked me. However, because of the price, we aren’t able to put in one big enough to cover us for a whole weekend – nor do we have a facilities layout that would allow a drop-right-into-the-building slot. Hence this post – I was hoping for some great ideas on how to fix this situation short of putting a few more thousands of dollars (that we don’t have) into it.

    @rebecca: we do have a two-staff rule, but only for when we’re open to the public. But related to this, having a second person on the Monday holiday to check in books means two people are getting time-and-a-half holiday “pay” (I just take it as comp time), and I don’t know how far we can push that.

    I’m impressed that so many libraries can organize to share this duty – I think I’ll bring that up at our nexrt department head meeting, because it does seem like the simplest solution.

  16. Laura Says:

    I know this wouldn’t solve all the long weekend/book drop problems, but what about adjusting due dates so that books don’t come due for one or two days either side of a long weekend. Again, it wouldn’t solve all of the problems, but it might lessen the load and allow the book drop box to make it through the long weekend.

  17. Barbara Says:

    I am the director of a medium sized library. We are closed Sundays and Mondays due to furloughs. Because of union regulations and the inability to pay overtime for someone to empty the drops on a holiday, I come in and do it. Every time. Our solution is to plan for an automated materials handling system. Fortunately I live within 2 miles of the library, but it sure breaks up my weekends.

  18. Apis Says:

    Every year, circ staff (male & female and they all have keys) are asked to sign-up for holiday duty, to come in and empty the book drop on holidays. If there are not enough volunteers, we assign people according to reverse seniority. Staff are paid for a minimum of two hours – basically enough time to empty the drop, do some check-ins and get things squared away for the full staff to handle on the next business day. Both of our libraries have book drops that empty directly into the bldg so we don’t have to deal with wheeling bins across the parking lot but we do enough volume that the bins cannot be left unemptied for more than a day.

  19. Rachel Says:

    I’m a library assistant at a medium-sized public library. For long weekends, no one is authorized to enter the building, although a few select staff members have keys, or to empty the four external book drops. We just deal with the overflow on the next business day.

  20. Monica Says:

    We’re pretty small and informal, so whenever a 3 day weekend is coming up, a few of us who live nearby will have a discussion about who is going to stop in. Since those usually fall during nice weather when our patrons are the most mobile, we try to stop in twice during the weekend if possible so our drop doesn’t get jammed, and also to check for the donations that are too often left outside the door.

  21. Penny Says:

    As the director of a small public library it is me even though I live farther away than most of the employees. I don’t feel right asking support staff to come by on their days off and none of them have volunteered so I feel it is up to me.

  22. Kim Says:

    Our book drop is the slot-in-the-wall style drop, which empties into a small room. It has to be checked two or three times a day, by whatever staff, male or female, are working at the time. On long holiday weekends, circ staff volunteer to empty the room. Because it it overtime (and thus extra pay) volunteers are allowed to sign up in senority order. Our assistant director used to have to come in if no one volunteered, but since she took another job we’ve had a hiring freeze, so I’m not sure what would happen.

  23. Rick Says:

    I see many issues being discussed but one stands out that could lead to legal issues for a library. Using employee “volunteers” is illegal, unless an employee is salaried and exempt from Federal overtime rules, all other “volunteers” must be compensated for their time. If an employee is hourly and works more than 40 hours a week that employee must be paid overtime or be scheduled to included those hours in same pay period. If this becomes an issue the outside bookdrop is a courtsey, so you can close it for the Monday holiday weekends. Would this really impact customer service, I doubt it.

  24. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Rick: at least in my library, any staff who “volunteers” for this type of situation does get paid (which they can take either as money or comp hours). For us, Sunday and holiday hours count as time-and-a-half.

    My guess is that the other commenters are using “volunteer” in the sense of deciding who will come in. I volunteer to be the person who comes in, but I still get compensated.

  25. Elizabeth Says:

    Someone always needs to empty the bookdrop at my library on long weekends. It is voluntary (in the sense you clarified) and the director or head of circulation usually does it.

    I don’t think one person should have to do it nor should it be restricted to a male. If the drop is either too heavy, cumbersome, or stationary, one could use a cart or baskets to take in the items. The pool of people who could do it would be restricted to those with keys, and then there could be a rotation.

  26. Jennie Says:

    We have a slot in the outside wall that empties into a book bin in our workroom. During long weekends we pull the bin away from the wall so the books fall on the floor. A couple of times our maintenance people, trying to be “helpful”, have pushed it back under the slot and books back up and people can’t put anymore books in. We’ve told maintenance not to do it but in case they forget, or they have a new person who doesn’t know better, we’ve now have a sign to put on the bin saying not to put it under the slot.

    One of our pages comes in to pick the books up and to check them in Sunday or Monday. Her hours are adjusted for the remainder of the week. It’s usually extra busy the day after a holiday without having to do the weekend books along with the books coming in that day. After the New Year’s holiday it took us three days to get caught up with everything. We waived any fines that may have resulted.

  27. Bobbi Says:

    At the library systems I have worked at this duty was split among the managers (all the people with keys to the building). At the beginning of each year we looked at the holidays and each person volunteered or choose a weekend/holiday with the understand that everyone needed to share in the responsibility.

    We had the same process for time off at the Holidays too.

    it worked well because no one person got stuck with the responsibility and because we chose our weekend and everyone had to do it it was hard to complain. If something came up it was the responsibility of the individual to find someone to cover.

  28. Robert Says:


    From a neighboring library… In Tewksbury, the administrative assistant – who lives VERY close to the library – empties the bookdrops on 3-day weekends. Items aren’t checked in, however, until Tuesday morning when circ staff arives. If the administrative assistant happens to be away, a department head is asked.

    I hope you’re getting farily compensated for coming in over 3-day weekends!


  29. Hollis Says:

    We have one person who regularly empties the book drop and feeds the fish on Sundays and on long weekends. However, if the staff member wants to go out of town over a weekend, we simply make arrangements for another person to step. Since we all have keys and security codes, that isn’t an issue.

    And the matter of shoving a book drop into the building is probably an issue for anyone in a foot of snow–but they really are not that heavy. If the actual bin is too heavy to move, one can haul a section of the books into the building and then roll the (now lighter) bin in.

    I think I would figure out two other people who could step in and do this on a rotating basis.

  30. Katie Says:

    When a long weekend comes up, we usually leave a note on the staff board asking for volunteers to come in on each of the days we are closed. That person who comes in gets paid for the hour it takes for them to empty the drop and check things in. This way no one is “forced” to do it. Also, someone needs to feed the fish when we’re closed! (we have a fish tank in the children’s room)

  31. Liz Says:

    Another box issue occurred to me when I checked out a book recently.

    It was a large, trade format paperback non-fiction book which which had folded and crumpled corners.
    I thought perhaps someone was careless with it (how rude!) and I apologized to the librarian for it having been mistreated (please understand, I’m someone who doesn’t even highlight textbooks or underline in pen).

    She informed me that actually, what had probably happened was that the book had been put in the book drop and then other books slid in on top of it, causing the corners to scuff and fold back.

    This is especially disheartening because I can’t really envision a method of correcting this that allows patrons to use drop boxes as quickly as we now can. Hmm.

  32. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Liz: Yeah, unfortunately I don’t think anyone has a cure for that. Some automated systems have drop slots that feed onto a conveyor belt, which might lessen the book-on-book damage, but anytime things come into physical contact there’s a possibility of wear and tear. Keep in mind, that’s physical contact with anything – other books, patrons, their kids, dogs, coffee, falling off the car roof, etc – the world is a dangerous place for library materials.

  33. Jenny Says:

    In response to Rick’s comment about closing the outside book drop – if patrons found it closed, I honestly think many of them would just leave the books on the ground outside next to it – they wouldn’t be bothered by the “inconvenience” of keeping them and bringing them back later. This would in turn end up being very inconvenient for the library and the materials budget.