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Jefferson Building stacks, 2022. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.

The Lifecycle of a Request at the Library of Congress

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This is a guest post written by Kristina Dorrough, head of the Inventory Management & Document Fulfillment Section at the Collections Management Division.

I come to the Library of Congress from public libraries. In most public libraries, getting a book to a patron is usually quite simple. The patron makes the request through a librarian or an online catalog, the librarian retrieves the request, the patron checks out the book. Perhaps the patron has to wait if the book is coming from another branch, but the process itself is still fairly straightforward.

However, in the biggest library in the world, it’s not so simple. The basic principles are the same, but the process is much different. At the Library of Congress, it takes multiple systems and cross-divisional cooperation to get an item into the hands of a patron.

The process was explained to the monthly reference forum in September. The forum is an opportunity for reference staff and their colleagues from all over the Library to learn and engage with speakers from inside and outside the Library. Sara Arnold-Garza, head of Loan and Reader Registration, spearheaded the effort to present the forum with “The Lifecycle of a Request.” The other speakers were Steve Brooks, head of Collections Maintenance and Stack Management, and myself, Kristina Dorrough, head of Inventory Management and Document Fulfillment. We presented an overview of what happens behind the scenes to get an item in the hands of a requestor.

Sara, Steve, and I worked for months to whittle down a very complicated process into an understandable format for our LOC colleagues. The three of us work together on many other occasions, usually around a request or updating a workflow, so it was easy to come together and plan the content of the forum. “We really do have to work together quite often, so the forum was a good opportunity to build on our teamwork while doing something different,” said Arnold-Garza.

The real story of the presentation, however, was not the “nitty gritty” of how a request is fulfilled, but how divisions across the Library work together to serve patrons and staff. With over 20 reading rooms, four charge (circulation) stations, multiple buildings, and two offsite facilities, the process of request, retrieval, delivery, and circulation of an item is not straightforward. Complicated, though, does not mean ineffective. CMD filled over 79,000 requests and circulated over 100,000 items throughout the Library.

So, how does it all work? Let’s use an example that’s fairly common here at the Library: a staff member requesting a book to take home and read, one of the many perks of Library staff! First of all, the staff member needs an account, just like in other libraries. After contacting the Accounts team and getting set up, they can use our catalog to request anything (well, almost anything… the Gutenberg Bible does not circulate) they’d like. Say they want to read the latest novel by a popular author for a book club? No problem. After requesting it through the catalog, they choose a circulation station for pickup. Here at the Library, we have four.

Then, the real magic happens. The request goes through ACS, our Automated Call Slip system. Since this is a newer item, it is stored in our offsite facility at Ft. Meade. The staff at Fort Meade receive the request through ACS. Then, they open up our warehouse inventory system, LAS, which gives them the exact location of the item.

At Fort Meade. Photograph by Kristina Dorrough, 2021.

As you can see from the photo above, items are not kept on a shelf in call number order at our offsite facilities. Instead, they are stored in their proper boxes for preservation purposes. That box is linked via barcode to a shelf, which is in turn linked to an aisle. The inventory system can tell the staff where any given item is at Fort Meade based on the barcode alone, which is impressive given that almost 8 million items are stored offsite.

The staff at Fort Meade use a forklift-like picker to select the correct item from the shelf. Once the item is retrieved, another staff member compares the item information to what is on the call slip. After verification, the item is charged (checked out) to a special account called “retrieve from offsite” that allows CMD staff to track the item. A notice is sent to the requestor that their item is in transit, and the item is placed in the proper conveyance for transport.

Twice a day, trucks deliver items to and from Fort Meade and the other offsite facility at Cabin Branch. Once the item arrives at the Library, usually within a few hours of the request, is where more staff take over to ensure the item gets to the correct location. The IMDF delivery team sorts the items that arrive from offsite according to pick-up location. Besides circulation stations, there are over 20 reading rooms at the Library of Congress, making delivery of items a precise and important service. The delivery staff then scan the item into their own handheld inventory device, and deliver the item along with other items to the charge station.

But, there’s more. Once the item arrives at the charge station, the staff there send one more notice to the requestor letting them know that their item has arrived. Then, the staff member is free to visit the charge station to pick up their item, which gets “checked out” to them for sixty days. The item, since it is circulating externally, also gets a special charge slip that lets the U.S. Capitol Police know that this item is able to be removed from the Library. This entire cycle usually takes less than 24 hours from request to fulfillment.

So, let’s summarize: to get one item into the hand of an LOC staff member, it takes at least a dozen staff across two divisions from Accounts to delivery to drivers to charge stations to get the item to the patron. And, this is one of the simplest types of requests we fulfill. We also circulate items for InterLibrary Loan, Congressional members and staff, special collections, the U.S. Supreme Court, and more. See below for a map of just a few aspects of our circulation processes. The full map is too large to fit on any given page.

Circulation Process Map. Collections Management Division. August 2022

As stated above, just because the process is complicated does not mean it’s inefficient. Most requests are fulfilled within 24 hours, including items coming from offsite. But the process of a request does require manpower from staff all across the Library. Thankfully, as the reference forum shows, we enjoy working together across divisions to create the best possible services for our patrons and staff.

Jefferson building stacks. Photograph by Shawn Miller, 2022.

Comments (3)

  1. why not install all play store app ?

  2. Thank you for sharing this information to learn how the biggest library in the world organizes and processes the requests in such a timely manner. Great article. I think the last paragraph is the important key on their success. How exciting it must be to be part of this great team.

  3. Such a Great Article. Thank you for sharing.

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