Hello and welcome to Stacking Up, a blog for the "modern" librarian! The great thing about today's librarians is that we are so diverse: different ages, backgrounds, personalities, looks... this blog is here to share this diversity with ideas, insights, stories, experiences and opinions for anything and everything having to do with being a librarian!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Patrons, Computers, and the Red Tape In-Between

I was working at one of the city branches the other day and I had a patron come up to the circulation desk and say that she needed to use one of the computers but she had left her library card at home. My initial reaction was to simply ask her for some form of I.D. so I could look up her card number so she could get on. Simple, quick solution to make the patron happy, right?

Um, well, the branch manager wasn’t too happy. Right after, he took me aside to say that’s not how things are done (at that specific branch—as I’ve mentioned before, all the city branches are supposed to follow the same rules and policies, but they almost never do. I highly doubt this is an issue only in my local library system!). The rule was: no library card, many hoops to jump through to get onto a computer. Ask for I.D. Has the patron already been given a guest pass to use the computers without a card before? Then we can’t give them one again. Is the patron’s account delinquent? Has it gone to collections? Can’t issue a new card. If they want to pay a dollar, they can get a temporary paper card with their library card number on it to use the computers (which is, essentially, what I did—only I didn’t ask for a dollar and I didn’t bother looking at anything besides the patron’s I.D.)

So… I don’t know about you, but I have some serious problems with this whole convoluted procedure of giving patrons access to the computers. Now, obviously, I don’t think it should be a free-for-all where anyone can come in and sit on a computer surfing facebook all day while other patrons need to get on and look for jobs or work on their online classes—but at the same time, I really believe that if a patron comes in and asks to use a computer for the given 60 minutes—we should let them, library card or not. I think we should encourage patrons to get library cards, and I think there should be certain consequences for overdue accounts that have over a hundred dollars worth of fines on them—but I don’t like the idea of taking away the Internet as a way of doing that. I believe having equal access to computers in libraries should not be considered a “privilege” with lots of red tape barring the way to getting on one—it should be a basic service that we offer to anyone and everyone, regardless of the status of their library card.

What do you think? Should we restrict computer and Internet use to only those patrons that 1.) have library cards, 2.) bring their cards, or 3.) have no fines on their account? When is it O.K. to give a patron their library card number in the case where they forget it? Is it a big deal to hand out their numbers if they bring proper I.D. or does this lead to security issues? Should there be a limit as to how many times a patron is allowed a “guest pass” to get onto the Internet without their own card?

These are all questions that I have been asking myself lately, because I think it is important that libraries offer certain things to their patrons that have little to no strings attached—we are here to serve our communities and grant access to information, especially to those that have no other way of getting it. While I can see both sides of this issue, I lean more towards making it easy for patrons to use the computers without lots of red tape. This not only helps them; it also puts libraries in a more positive light, supporting the ideals that we uphold- namely, free and equal access to knowledge and information. As librarians, I think we should be doing all that we can to support this.


  1. We only have one computer and we don't require any form of ID to use it. They just have to let us know they're using the computer so we know when to start timing them. They get an hour, but if no one is waiting to use the computer then we really don't care if they stay on for as long as they want.

    I know the main branch has more rules, but I'm not sure what they are. I know their computers log people off automatically after an hour. I guess I support the bare minimum restrictions that still allow the library to operate efficiently and in the best interests of patrons as a whole. That line will probably vary library by library.

    I don't really see why their fines status should affect their internet use. The point of fines is to make sure people bring their materials back, or to reimburse the library if they don't bring them back. I don't really see how internet use factors into that outside of punishment, and is it really our job to punish people? I don't think so. We should get the money owed (and we can go through collections if necessary), but that's just business, not punishment.

  2. I'm not sure if the branch manager was trying to make it tricky for patrons to get on (I don't think he was) or was just explaining things to me in a really confusing way-- because after the dozen situations he gave me with patrons coming up and asking to use the computer, I was just like, huh?

    I know that some librarians are pretty religious about that 60 minute time limit-- if no one else is waiting to use a computer, I don't even think twice about giving them some extra time.

    And no, computer usage should have nothing to do with the status of patron accounts- which is why I don't see the big deal in giving out patrons card numbers with proper I.D., since that way they don't have to keep coming up and asking us for guest passes. It's not like they can check out new materials with just their number anyways!

    The whole issue of getting patrons' accounts paid down is a whole other issue-- there are many who go into collections at the city branches, and we try our best to work out payment plans with them so they can still check out limited materials as long as they're paying SOMETHING on their card regularly.

  3. At my library, we have two options for patrons that don't have a library card and/or have high fines:

    1. A free 15-minute pass (1 pass per day)
    2. Pay $1 for 60-minute pass (1 pass per day)

    This "rule" seems to keep our patrons happy enough.

  4. That's how some of the branches do it where I am from too-- at least using this system, patrons can always get on. Some of the inner-city branches are a lot stricter though. I usually just do my best to get patrons on the computers if they need them no matter what the "rule" is!