An Open Letter to the Chicago Public Library

Hello everybody. Today we’re breaking history here at the blog: I don’t believe we’ve ever had a guest blogger! So today’s post is brought to you by my lovely wife. Don’t be fooled, she has an ax to grind…

Dear Chicago Public Library,

You stink.  Not literally (maybe sometimes, or at some locations, or some patrons) but your employees certainly have trouble doing simple tasks.  Well, one particular task—checking in books left in the book deposit.  You would think I would have learned from the first, second, third, or fourth times you messed up.  Apparently, I am a bit dense. I have no idea if this is a system-wide problem, but I suspect as much, since it has happened multiple times to me and others at my two local branches (Blackstone and Coleman FWIW).  I have paid all the previous fines until now.  I think they were all $.20 or $.10 (prior to the fine increase), except one that was $2.40.

I can understand a book may slip out of the collecting bucket and you find it the next day so it is one day late (although, you would think any books this happens to would be checked in with no fine, since it was your fault it was missed and you don’t know how long it was lying in a dark corner of the deposit box…There was also the time when the person on the register managed to check out a book to me instead of checking it in but I digress…).

The $2.40 was the last straw.  I promised myself that I would always return books at the register.  This wasn’t a problem when you opened at 9am every day or when I was home every day on maternity leave.  It was less of a problem when I had a car.

So after a year or so of waiting every time at the register for my checked-in receipt, I even foolishly began to trust that when books were returned inside (just left in a stack beside the register because you don’t see fit to provide an internal book deposit), they would actually be checked in, so I stopped wasting paper and my time and just left them there.

Although my memory for this is understandably less detailed, I have had the occasional late book or DVD and certainly respect the system enough to pay my fine.  And if my daughter rips a book to pieces during her “relaxing time,” I have no problem paying for a replacement either.

However, this last mistake has driven me over the edge. 

One day, I get an email that I have a book overdue.  I had recently returned >20 books (to the dropbox, since the library doesn’t open before noon anymore on Mondays).  I checked my account and found that I had one book listed as returned overdue by 3 weeks with a $4.80 fine (Hat Heads) and two books (Babar and Charlotte in Paris) listed as 3 weeks overdue and not checked in.  (Sidenote–Why would you set up a system where it emails someone about the books three weeks after they are due instead of the first day they overdue?  Why bother with the email at that point?)  I did some research online and deduced that Hat Heads was checked out to another patron the day it was marked as checked in for me. Obviously the book had been reshelved and not entered into the system until someone tried to check it out (which somehow doesn’t trigger an automatic erasure of the fine). So, I called you, and spoke to the librarian…who absolutely refused to believe me!

I can understand some initial skepticism.  People lie.  No one likes to pay money.  Library users are probably especially against spending money—they’re either poor or frugal, that’s why they’re at the library in the first place.  However, two times I have checked out books only to find the system shows that the book was never checked in from the previous patron, so, I am obviously not the only person this has happened to.  If you are a public librarian, you are in the business of customer service, whether you like it or not.

Okay, so she didn’t believe me about Hat Heads.  I still had two other books on the list to tackle.  When I looked at my account again, the status of Charlotte in Paris had suddenly changed to being checked in late with a fine of $4.80 and CHECKED BACK OUT TO ME!

In the meantime, however, the librarian went to check for Babar on the shelf. Of course, she swore to me that it wouldn’t be there since it was from another branch and EVEN IF it had been brought back, it would have been shipped to the other branch and put back on the shelf there.  Well, yes if it had been checked in, I am sure that would be the case.  Since it was never checked back in, she of course found it on the shelf. 

Now, she was very apologetic about it, but only for that specific book.  She refused to believe that if one book was missed, it was also likely that the two others were missed as well.  Forget that this has happened multiple times to me before, and also at least twice to books that I have checked out.

Finally, she said that the library powers-that-be required documentation for her to do anything about it.  She asked if I had the paper slip from when they were checked out showing the due date as that could be used for documentation.  I don’t keep those things.  I don’t need any more clutter in my house!  And why would a slip showing when it was due support that I had actually returned it?  I explained that I always renew things online since I don’t make it to the library as often as I would like.  When she asked if I had taken a SCREENSHOT showing the due dates, I actually managed to laugh through my tears of frustration.

I’m sorry but I do not take screenshots of the library web page every time I renew a book and save it to a file on the computer. I don’t think someone with that much OCD has time to read books anyway.   And even if I did, I can’t figure out what it would do to support my claim that I returned the books.

Around this point, she noticed that Charlotte in Paris had magically been checked in and checked back out while I was on the phone with her. She broke down and agreed to fix everything.  I’m not sure why she had a change of heart.  Maybe after 35 minutes of listening to an increasingly frustrated person while she is pumping at work with people banging on her closed door because there are two add-on patients for her to see, she realized that no person would put herself through that if she were lying.

Anyway, the fines were removed.  Babar was marked as returned on time.  However, the magical self-checking-in-checking-back-out book couldn’t be checked back in since it was from another library and must be on the truck to that library right now (because, you know, nothing could go wrong with the system).  The other library would have to check it in when it was received.  I was told to call back in a week if it was still not checked in. 

Today, after waiting 15 days without it being checked in, I finally called.  After being forced to call back once and then refusing to call back the second time, I was finally transferred to the same librarian who helped me before. 

At least I didn’t have to explain too much of the story before she remembered me.  She reluctantly went to look for Charlotte in Paris on the shelf, and lo-and-behold it had MAGICALLY APPEARED! All three books, all showing up where I said they’d be, completely unrelated to each other, each one a surprise.

The librarian was very apologetic.  I appreciate this, but you can’t really apologize enough for me to feel better about the whole debacle.  It certainly caused a difficult day at work and gave me a lot of angst over the past couple weeks.

Other than making sure I return books and get a receipt, I am not sure what I can do about the problem.  If it ever happens again that I check out a book that hasn’t been checked in, I will be sure to talk to the librarian about it immediately because I would sure love to save someone the trouble I have gone through. I still don’t know why this doesn’t trigger an automatic removal of the fine.

Chicago Public Library, please figure out how to improve your system.  I know that you are a huge library, but between myself and my husband, we have never had a book not checked-in correctly at Kent District Library, Allen County Public Library, Tippecanoe County Public Library, Greensboro Public Library, Montgomery County – Norristown Library, or Radnor Memorial Library.

Your continuing patron (yes, I have been back during this ordeal),



11 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the Chicago Public Library

  1. AHHH! Sara, I feel your pain! This sort of thing happened to me a few times when we lived in Florida, and that library was tiny! A few times, after the librarian swore that she looked on the shelf and it wasn’t there, I went in myself and looked because I knew that it had to be there….and of course….there it was! If you would’ve just believed me and ACTUALLY looked on the shelf in the first place, we could have avoided me having to make a special trip to the library, lady! It’s always your fault and never theirs!! I always tell people that my life would be much easier if other people would stop making it more difficult for me! Frustrating!


    • Ok, resident librarian here (well, other than Sara’s mom). Misshelving does happen. It’s BOUND to when a library is checking in hundreds (if not literal thousands, like my library) of books a day. Once something is misplaced in a library it’s almost impossible to find. We’re talking needle in a haystack here people. Yes, it will most likely eventually make it’s way to the appropriate spot, but it might not get checked in when it’s found 10 shelves away from where it’s supposed to be. Should it? Yeah. But this is reality. It depends on who finds it, whether they have the big picture, and whether they care. Sometimes we’re just lucky they even move it to the right spot. ESPECIALLY childrens books which are conveniently located for enthusiastic small people to yank off the shelf and shove back together randomly. I remember one time when I was 22 and responsible for shelving the kid’s section. I came in one morn and the entire easy reader’s section, probably at least 1,000 books had been rearranged a-z. Someone had literally taken handfuls of books throughout the section and swapped them. A’s were in T’s, W’s were in H’s. The entire section had to be dismantled and put back together. I was in tears. And no, I didn’t check the books back in before I fixed it.

      Some more context: Library patrons lie to us EVERY day. Most of them conspicuously. Especially when fines are a factor. At least a quarter of them then come back and apologize when they find the item wedged under the seat of their car. BUT, having known Sara for er, oh, something like 18 years, and having heard her complaints about CPL for a few years now, I *know* it’s not her.

      What this situation sounds like is that the Integrated Library System, the software that runs the actual library collection, has some serious issues. The library I work at just awarded a company a contract for our new ILS. We’ve been with the same company that currently appears to have the CPL contract, only with their older software, for 20 years (so I hear). Upon looking at bids, this company was eliminated in the first round for our new contract. Obviously, this is a good thing, if it’s behaving like this.


      • Jackie, you know what a calm, reasonable person Sara is. And I would say we know more librarians than the average person, so we obviously give them the benefit of the doubt. The frustrating thing is that, though this happens time and time again, they just refuse to believe us. Everybody that we know who goes to these libraries has had the same problem multiple times. As you said, there is a lot that can go wrong. So why, after 2 out of 3 books are proven to be in error, would you just absolutely refuse to believe the 3rd book could have been an error? Why can’t they just be honest and say, “You know what? We do have this happen sometimes.”

        A friend on facebook said that, when she returns to that library, she goes home and immediately checks online. When some of the books (inevitably) aren’t marked as checked in, she then goes back to the library, goes to the shelf, pulls the books, and brings them to the front desk. This is a common occurrence. Nobody should have to do that!


  2. Well written, Sara. Kudos for being persistent! I understand – it’s the principle of the matter. Sorry you had to go through such an ordeal!


  3. Excellent comment Jackie Parker. I would like to add that libraries all over America have been hit hard over the past few years by lay-offs. In many cases, libraries are busier than ever, but have fewer staff to smoothly run things. Staff are tired, underpaid and jaded. Our tech is often outdated, and we are constantly blamed for decisions we have no control over.
    That being said, I’m sorry for the trouble you went through Sara. You should have had better service, and more understanding. I’m sure if one of those Librarians had just gone the extra mile, this could all have been cleared up in much less time. I’m glad this altercation hasn’t turned you off libraries.
    Ok, I have to say one last thing. I don’t know how your library is configured, but never drop your returns at an un-attended desk! You don’t know if the next staff member to come along will assume they need to be checked in. You also don’t know if the other items sitting there are waiting to be shipped, or put on display, or maybe even deleted. There’s also the chance it could be removed or stolen before anyone sees it. It may take a little longer, but always return your items in a bookdrop; there’s just less that can go wrong.


    • I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’re not from Chicago… 😉 (particularly the South Side). Not being from Chicago, I never could have imagined the apathy, the lack of customer service, the lack of empathy. (I’m not just talking about libraries here, it’s everything…don’t get me started on the post office!) I’ve been as avid a library user as there ever was in a lot of different cities in a lot of different states. Nothing compares to the…customer experience of the CPL.

      Here in Chicago, returning the items to the bookdrop is an ABSOLUTE GUARANTEE that you will have overdue book fines. Guaranteed. The only chance you have is to wait in line to check your books in to a clerk, and then make them give you a receipt, and then double check the receipt. Anything less than standing over their shoulder and triple checking their work, and you will get charged. That’s sort of the point of the post…that the one time we had to revert to the bookdrop, they got us again.


  4. Thanks for all the coments!

    Yes, my mom is a librarian, and I tried to use that in my defense to the CPL librarian on the phone but it didn’t help me convince her. 😦

    In my mind, there are three different issues here:
    1-The software system. There must be something wrong with it to have the books miraculously check themselves in and out. I’m not sure how a person could be responsible for that, so it’s probably a computer glitch. I doubt this will change anytime soon.
    2-Checking books back in. It seems like you should never leave a book just sitting on the counter, right? Like that would be the worst thing you can do? But, for some reason, those books always get checked in. It’s the book deposit books that keep getting missed. That’s why I think this is human error. As far as I know, the software can’t tell if the book was taken from the desk or the deposit. If it could, I guess that would be a way that software could be blamed…
    3-Customer service. Okay, some people lie. MOST people actually don’t lie. The choices are to punish everyone and turn a lot of people off or to let some liars slip by. I’m not surprised that people frustrated by the liars feel like they should never give in. However, in any library system, there must be some errors, and it seems like CPL has more than the average. Since library records are confidential, all past info is dumped and there isn’t anything to support my claims of having these issues in the past and a good return record. In this particular instance, there wasn’t anything to support that I had returned 20 other books the same day. It’s up to the librarian to give me the benefit of the doubt! The two people I have been able to identify as librarians seem pleasant enough. The library pages (is that what they’re called?) tend to be surly, civil servant types.


  5. Pingback: Chicago Public Library, you have let me down yet again « Is this thing on?

  6. After a life time of holding a CPL card, this happened to me. I returned 6 books and 5 were checked in. I looked everywhere at home before I went into the library to speak to the librarian at the desk who has checked out & in my books for several years, and the manager on staff at the time I walked in. One of them sped all over the library searching for where my book might be on the shelves, ie. Adult, Large Print, a bin waiting for transfer… When they didn’t find it, they put a pass on the book. I cannot remember the terminology exactly. I am not held accountable for the book. It will show on my record and come off should they finally check it it or I find it (I don’t have it). This can happen up to 3X before they realize that the patron is the problem and not themselves…? anyway, I can carry on as a patron. Call me grateful. If I didn’t already love the Chicago Public Library in my neighborhood, I’d love them more.


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