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woman removing a book from the shelves in the Library stacks
Collection Specialist Kimmera Alson searches the shelf for a special search request.

Special Search: Pulling Back the Curtain on the Library’s Book Detectives

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Kristina Dorrough wrote this blog and is head of Inventory Management and Document Fulfillment and oversees the circulation services for the general collections, which includes circulating items for Congress, InterLibrary Loan, LC staff, and researchers.

It may surprise you that along with the myriad functions of the Library of Congress, we are also a circulating library. Researchers, Library staff, InterLibrary Loan patrons, members of Congress, Kluge scholars, and more have the privilege of checking out collection items. In fact, the Library circulates hundreds of thousands of items a year. With over 25 million items and miles of stacks for the general collection alone, it is no surprise that in the world’s biggest library a requested item can be difficult to find. This is where our special search team comes to the rescue. A unit within the Inventory Management and Document Fulfillment Section in the Collections Management Division (CMD), the special search team, also known as collection specialists, spend their days as book detectives.

Two staff members look at books on a wood book truck
Collection Specialists Jason Davis and Charlotte Brown examine a truck of items with cataloging problems.

How does one become a collection specialist at the Library of Congress? Charlotte Brown’s mother worked at the Library, and over 40 years ago Brown started off as a deck attendant and worked her way up to a specialist position: “the love of books is real, when you grow up with a schoolteacher/librarian you don’t have a choice!” Both Kimmera Alston and Jason Davis started at the Library as contractors and have since gone through a variety of positions before recently becoming collection specialists almost a year ago. In a recent meeting with the team, Alston remarked that they do sometimes get requests that are completely random that they then must ensure are passed to the right people: “people can ask us for anything! We’ve had people even ask us for printer ink, and we just make sure the inquiry is passed along to the right party.”

There is a wide array of valid reasons why an item might require a special search. For example, an item might have been requested and upon two shelf checks the item was not found. Then, the patron can submit a special search request, where the collection specialists perform several checks to locate the item. According to specialist Charlotte Brown, they “do an initial record check to ensure that the item is not charged out, is not offsite, etc.” Specialist Jason Davis explains that they follow this check up with “a third shelf check. During this third check, we look through the entire shelf, even overflow areas. If it is not found in the stacks, we search on study shelves, in distribution areas, etc. If the item looks like it was recently pulled from the shelf, we will go back and check since we leave searches open for 30 days to allow for reshelving times.” The number of special search requests have gone up by over 100% in the past year. Thankfully, the collection specialist team grew from one to three, with Kimmera Alston and Jason Davis joining Charlotte Brown. The team answered over 250 special search requests last year, with an average turnaround time of less than five days. This is especially impressive when you consider that, according to Davis, “we also spend our time fixing (cataloging) problems with the collection and we network with other divisions to field patron and staff requests, which makes everyone’s day because it’s a problem being solved.”

woman sitting in front of a computor
Collection Specialist Kimmera Alson mans the special search queue

Reading room supervisor Penny White is a frequent customer of the special search team. She typically uses the service to “assist patrons who need access to materials that have catalog listings outside the ‘norm.’” She then went on to describe her experience with special search as “phenomenal… I was surprised to hear back from the team so quickly. Each request I have submitted has been met with near immediate acknowledgement followed by updates on progress. The folks I have worked with are great communicators and even hand off materials directly to me.” She recalls a memorable request where she encountered a record with no holdings, call number, copy information, location, etc. She submitted a special search request, and Brown got the request ticket and began searching. She realized that the Library did not own the item, but she took “extra steps to locate copies at other institutions in the area.” White goes on to say that this service “was of great help to the patron… and was also a great help to me. Charlotte took time to explain what the record indicates and how the cataloging is done, which gave me insight into those workflows and helped me better handle questions similar to this in the future.”

man looks at book in aisle of the Library's stacks
Collection Specialist Jason Davis check item information to ensure he locates the correct book.

When asked about their most memorable searches, Davis recalls a time where a patron wanted to show his granddaughter a book that his great-grandfather wrote. Upon initial request, the item was found to be not on the shelf. The patron submitted a special search request, and Davis tracked down the book for the patron, who was “genuinely happy” to be able to show his granddaughter their family legacy. Brown had a case where a patron actually hugged her because Brown located the book the patron desperately needed. Alston reminisced on her first search ever, where she kept the ticket open so she could keep looking and eventually found the book back on the shelf, so she was able to get it to the patron.

When I asked them what their favorite part of being a collection specialist is, Davis said that it is “finding items that patrons requested that other teams couldn’t find.” Brown loves the detective work involved in special search, and Alston loves this too, saying “I like to be a problem solver… there’s always something different to find.” She then added she loves her team and “gets to laugh every day.”

To submit a special search, visit ask.loc.gov/special-search.

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Comments

  1. Early in my career at Congressional Research Service I made the HUGE mistake of agreeing to check out a book on my own account for the staffer in the office of a Famous Senator. (Never ever do that! They can open their own account it doesn’t take that long.) Decades passed and that book kept showing up on my account as still checked out to me. I’m getting ready to retire and that book shows up as still showing up as checked out to ME!! Special Search actually called the archives of the Famous Senator (located at a Famous University) and reclaimed the Library of Congress book, packed away among the Famous Senator’s papers. Thanks to Special Search I got to retire with a clean record! Thank you Special Search!

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