Top of page

Librarians on the hunt: Finding a missing book among thousands

Share this post:

Everyone that has used a library, public or private, has had the experience of searching for a book. In days past, that could involve consulting the card catalog or a librarian with a seemingly mystical knowledge of all the collections therein. As time has gone by and the vast collections of libraries have grown, the use of computers and cataloging systems have made the experience much easier for the library patron. What if the book in question, though, is being sought by the library staff themselves?

A regular book within the collections of the Library of Congress has many different routes it may travel before it reaches a shelf or the hands of a patron. It may come to the Library through the Copyright Office, private donation, or purchase, such as through the Library’s overseas offices. Once it arrives at the Library, it becomes part of a chain of possession that may take months until it reaches the shelves.

For a patron, the standard search for a book may begin with a subject, title, or author, then ultimately end at call number. For Library staff, call number may be the beginning, or the use of two internal tracking numbers, the Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN) or the 11 digit item barcode.

LC Catalog Record - A Study in Scarlet
This catalog record from the Library’s online catalog includes the LCCN and other identifiable information about the book, such as height and page count. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin

When books are registered with the Copyright Office, the LCCN is assigned, and will stick with that specific title, written in the system’s bibliographic record and on the back of the title page. For a title with many volumes or annual updates, the LCCN stays the same for each, and the call number shows only a minor change based on the enumeration or chronology.

For the barcode, each individual item receives the barcode when it is catalogued, affixed to the upper right hand corner of the back cover. That barcode follows it throughout the Library and ties directly to its item record in the Library’s Integrated Library System (ILS), which is then given a status based on its location. For patrons, a book on the shelves holds one of two statuses in the ILS, charged or not charged, meaning a patron has it or it’s on the shelf. Prior to that there are a dozen statuses to choose from, with In Process being its most common status.

Bound books in transport trucks
These books have been bound, reviewed, and loaded for the Asian Division (left) and African and Middle Easter Division (right). The individual item barcode can seen on these items as reproduced by the bindery. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin

For staff in the Processing and Preparation Section (PPS), every book that comes through is changed from In Process to At Bindery. This happens whether the book is leaving the Library immediately or waiting months depending on the binding schedule. It’s only when the item returns on site and has been properly reviewed for quality that the status is changed back to In Process or to Not Charged. On rare occasions, an item may be reviewed but failed to have the status change, and that can lead to a breakdown in the tracking system for that book.

With the millions of books in the collections of the Library of Congress, it is to be expected that a few items may be temporarily misplaced while they are In Process. Often when that happens, the staff of PPS are one of the first stops to track it down. At any given time, PPS may have upwards of 5-to-10,000 books on hand. The old adage of a needle in haystack doesn’t quite apply, but rather something more akin to finding a needle in a pile of needles.

UR lot ready for shipment
This unlettered recase (UR) lot has been prepared for binding and awaits shipment. There are 300 items in this lot, all less than a centimeter thick. Knowing the physical dimensions of a missing book will keep a PPS staff member from having to look at all 300 items. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin

For over 15 years, I have been seated right in front the main entrance to PPS and have spent a not inconsiderate amount of time tracking down these missing items. Our first stop is the ILS. The staff member searching for the book will most likely have a printout of the Bibliographic record. That record, which is viewable through the online catalog, contains all relevant information about the specific book. In addition to the LCCN, title, author, or call number, the record should also include an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) or International Standard Serial Number (ISSN). It also includes the height of the book in centimeters and the page count. This information becomes the basis for our search.

I’ll start by checking the ILS, searching by the LCCN; this will give me the 11 digit barcode that should be attached on the upper right hand corner of the back cover of the item. I’ll check the status – if it is In Process or At Bindery, it means we may have it. I can also check the item notes, which may include Library Binding Completed, or Deacidification Completed, which could help pinpoint its exact location.

If the ILS doesn’t give me the answer, the next step is our internal Quality Assurance (QA) database. It holds a record of every book that has been sent and returned from the bindery over the course of the previous 18 months, including items that may be currently packed and ready for pickup. The main screen of the database includes search boxes for LCCN or barcode, expediting the search for any member of the PPS staff. If the book is found in either of these digital searches, it is most likely out of reach to the staff member until it returns from the bindery, a process that takes approximately a month.

The PPS Quality Assurance Database screen
The Binding Quality Assurance Database used by PPS has search boxes on the bottom for quick searches by barcode or LCCN. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin

If the QA database doesn’t have any information, the next step is to review recent processing in the Advanced Bindery to Library Exchange (ABLE) software. This software is used to create the collections of books to be bound, called Lots, and each item has its own binding slip, called tickets. Each lot is 300 items or less determined by similar book thickness and binding style. PPS staff members can create a report of all items currently processed or “Typed,” which will allow us to check through possibly thousands of items waiting to be sent to the bindery. Items found here may still be onsite and easy to track to the specific book truck.

ABLE Reports Box
This dialog box from ABLE allows PPS staff to create digital or print reports across several lots or across a set time period. For searching for items not currently at the Bindery, a lot search is necessary. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin

If the book has not been located at that point, we must go from a digital search to a physical one. This would require a visual inspection of items that have recently been sorted from the cataloging offices and are awaiting processing, items on trucks being processed by staff on telework, or items on a problem truck for items with cataloging errors that need to be fixed. Physical searches could also stretch beyond the PPS office as an item may be sent to the General Collection Conservation Section (GCCS) for repair if it is damaged. Items may also be sent to GCCS if they are not eligible for binding, which happens if it is too brittle, the type is too close to the edge, or it has a specialized casing that needs to be preserved.

Books with identified cataloging errors
These items await review by a cataloger after issues were found in the ILS record. These problems can be found at any stage of the review process by PPS staff, and are noted on slips placed in each item for quick review. Photo Credit: K.F. Shovlin

The whole process in PPS can be done in less than an hour, depending on the amount of items on hand. As a hub for most of the print materials that come to the Library of Congress, PPS is often the first place catalogers or research staff may check as they track down the elusive item. I’d like to say we find everything we look for, but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes the items may not have yet made it to our office, or are otherwise moving through the tunnels that connect the Library’s three Capitol Hill buildings. With over 37 million items in the General Collection alone and over 170 million items in all, it takes vigilance and care to keep track of everything. You never know when that item is the exact one a patron will need.

Comments (8)

  1. I find this very useful, thank you for writing it all down for us 🙂

    • You’re welcome! It happens often enough that we wanted to make others in the Library community aware of the systems we have in place. Thanks for reading!

  2. With over 15 years dealing with these issues, can you think of one search that was the most frustrating or challenging?

    • Most of our searches deal with items that have recently been processed by a cataloger and are just slowly making their way through the system. The hardest one from this set was a book that was already packed ready to go to the bindery. A team of four, including the cataloger, had to cut the zip ties and reopen eight plastic bins and then search the items inside for the specific book. On a much wider scale, there was a large number of books misidentified as At Bindery that had made it to the shelves over a decade ago. The full staff of our office was sent to the stacks throughout the Jefferson and Adams buildings where we identified the items and located several thousand items with the incorrect status. We did a major improvement of our software after that to keep that problem from recurring.

  3. Thanks for this info. Keep up the good work!

    • You’re welcome, and thank you for reading!

  4. Does the Library of Congress ever retire books from its archives of books?

    Why would a book stamped with the Library of Congress stamp be at a general resell shop in Tennessee?

    • Thank you for reaching out! The Library collections policy may designate an item as surplus if we have multiple physical copies already or it is outside the scope of our collection:
      If items are not retained, they typically go through out Surplus Books Program, which may lead it to other libraries that are in need:
      I can’t be certain how one of our books ended up at that location but there are many ways it could have.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.