8 Circulation

The library’s Circulation area serves two major functions: inventory control and customer service. Inventory control takes place with the checking in and out of items. At all times, the location and status of every item must be known. Is the item checked out, has it been sent to the bindery, or is it on the shelf and available? But that information is not enough to accomplish the mission of the circulation department. Many other activities take place, such as answering directional questions, referring the patron to other departments, registering patrons, and collecting fines. Depending on the type of library, other unique activities take place.

Traditionally, the physical loaning of items to borrowers has been the foremost means of providing access to their users. As electronic/online access continues to develop, remote access continues to increase as a way to access a library’s holdings. Ebooks, electronic reserve collections, databases, indexes, and full-text periodicals are available through remote access.

Circulation Policy

As with all of the aspects of any library, the processes and activities of the Circulation department are governed by their own policy. A standard aspect of circulation policies is restriction by user type. In academic and school libraries, the circulation parameters for instructors/teachers may allow for more items, longer checkout periods, or access to certain items that are unavailable to students. In a corporate setting, permanent employees may have longer checkout periods than temporary staff.

Circulation may also be restricted by the age of the user. Some CDs, DVDs, etc. may be limited to those users over the age of 18.

With all circulation policy options, the individual user’s access needs must be balanced with the needs of the library’s clientele as a whole. As times change, and new formats and services come into play, policies need to be revisited and revised. Common sense must be used in order to keep policies realistic and sensible.

It has been customary for borrowers who are late in returning items to be charged a fee/fine. The underlying principle behind this practice is to recover materials so that they are available to other patrons. When borrowers register with a library, the policies and fees concerning overdue items should be explained.

Some libraries choose not to charge overdue fines. An alternative option for academic libraries is placing holds on student records – making them unable to register for classes or receive financial aid. School libraries often notify parents or postpone the release of report cards. Another option for libraries is the limiting of library privileges. The libraries that do not charge fines feel that the positive public relations value is an added bonus.

Besides overdue fines, other fines can also be accessed to borrowers. Patrons are charged when they lose or damage materials. Some libraries charge the actual replacement cost of the item plus a processing fee while others have set a flat fee for the various collections.

Patron Registration

The registration process varies from library to library. Public libraries usually have the strictest procedures for registering new borrowers and verifying their identification. Official proof of their home address and official personal identification are two common items that patrons are required to produce.

Academic libraries generally use official campus identification cards and verify a borrower’s status through enrollment databases. The procedures used by special libraries vary from no registration to formal processes involving security clearance. School libraries utilize class lists provided by teachers or administration.

The personal information provided by a patron must be protected. Industry ethics and laws advocate that this confidential information must be safeguarded. The personal data gathered in the registration process and the circulation records of each patron should not be shared with outside agencies or divulged to anyone who has not been authorized by the library to work with these records.

Library Patron and Item Interaction Records

The libraries of past generations used a paper card catalog and checkout cards for their records. Today the majority of libraries own an automated circulation system. These systems link a database of bibliographic records with patron-use records to form an integrated system called an OPAC, which will be discussed in a few sections. With integrated Web interfaces, a modern library’s catalog is remotely accessible to anyone from anywhere.

An automated circulation system is able to:

  • Record and track three key elements
    • The person who borrowed the item
    • the exact item borrowed
    • the time the item was borrowed and when it is due back
  • Track the status of all items in the collection individually
  • Track the status of all patron accounts
  • Match requests for holds with incoming items
  • Provide statistics relating to the circulation of items

Library Security

There are two areas to consider when discussing library security:

  • Offenses concerning library property
    • theft of library materials/equipment
    • mutilation or intentional damage to library materials/equipment
    • vandalism to the building
  • Offenses against people (staff or patrons) that take place in the library
    • abusive conduct
    • assault
    • indecent exposure

Those individuals who commit the crime of theft or mutilation of library materials come in many forms. There is the student with no money to use the photocopy machine that tears out pages or steals the book/journal. There is the kleptomaniac with no real need, but feels the need to steal. There is the self-appointed censor who believes the library should not provide access to certain materials. And there is the professional thief who is out to make a profit.

The first electronic theft detection systems have been used in libraries since the 1960s. These systems deter theft but are by no means infallible. When used in combination with vigilant staff efforts, theft can be reduced by as much as 80%. RFID Tags have been put in library items since the early 2000s to track whereabouts and circulation data. This has assisted library security in supporting circulation procedures.

Libraries open to the general public are those that are most likely to encounter “problem patrons.” The most common problem-patron behaviors are:

  • Nuisance behavior – lonely or elderly people who monopolize reference personnel or carry on long-winded monologues
  • Criminal behavior – vandalizing materials, stealing materials, performing sexual lewd acts
  • Or other bizarre, unpredictable, or threatening behavior

To aid in addressing these problems, many libraries provide special staff training conducted by experts or law enforcement personnel. These training sessions could include:

  • Conflict resolution
  • Safety issues
  • Defusing difficult situations

Circulation Designations

There are three terms used to differentiate between the circulation statuses of items. The term Circulation Reference is used to designate that the item is available for in-house use only. These items are usually handbooks, dictionaries, or other items that can be consulted briefly for facts or overview information. These items may also be expensive, rare, or frequently used and using them in-house only serves the greatest number of users.

Items with the description of circulating are just the opposite. These items lack the restrictions of reference items and are available to be checked out by registered patrons. But within this area, different time periods may be assigned according to the items. DVDs, pamphlets, maps, etc. usually check out for a shorter time period than books.

The third circulation status is reserve. The status of reserve is generally found in school and academic libraries. These materials are high-use items required for class study. Some items on reserve may be available for in-house use only, while others may be checked out for a short period of time. Electronic reserve collections are growing in popularity. This type of collection provides for the electronic delivery of lecture notes, practice tests, required readings, and other non-book informational resources.

As changes occur in circulation policies and designations, and as collections are developed through expansion, weeding, and relocation, necessary changes in shelf placement must occur. This is mainly the responsibility of the Circulation Department and is called Collection Shifting. It is a vital part of ensuring the findability of library resources, especially with each change that occurs in a collection.

Record Discovery and Circulation

When it comes to circulation designations of physical items in libraries, record discovery, and circulation play an important role in helping patrons find and access the materials they need. One of the primary ways libraries have traditionally managed this process is through the use of Online Public Access Catalogs (OPACs) and Integrated Library Systems (ILSs). These systems have been the backbone of library circulation for many years, but in recent years, a new type of system has emerged: Discovery Systems.

OPACs are essentially an online version of a traditional card catalog. They allow patrons to search for and access information about the library’s physical collection. OPACs allow patrons to search by title, author, subject, or keywords, and they display bibliographic information such as title, author, publication date, and call number. While OPACs are useful for finding and accessing information about physical items in the library, they do have some limitations. For example, OPACs often do not include e-books, digital resources, or other non-physical materials.

This is a type of OPAC that includes eBooks. It was created around fifteen years ago and is one of the first OPACs to include digital items. “PVLD live with SOPAC!” by jblyberg is licensed under CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/?ref=openverse.

ILSs are more comprehensive systems that include not only cataloging and circulation functions but also acquisitions, serials control, and other functions. ILSs are the main system that libraries use to manage their collections, and they are often the primary system that library staff use to manage the day-to-day operations of the library. ILSs like Aleph, Koha, and Evergreen are open source and provide a more flexible solution compared to commercial ILSs like Millennium, Sierra, and Voyager. However, open-source options do not always have the same functions as commercial resources. Also, open-source ILSs often have bugs that are only fixed on volunteers’ or non-profit workers’ free time. Proprietary software often is the better way to go.

Discovery Systems are a relatively new addition to the library landscape, and they are designed to address some of the limitations of OPACs and ILSs. These systems are designed to provide patrons with a more seamless and intuitive way to discover and access library resources, regardless of whether they are physical or digital. Discovery Systems typically include an OPAC-like interface that allows patrons to search for and access information about the library’s entire collection, including e-books, digital resources, and other non-physical materials. They also often include advanced search capabilities, such as the ability to search across multiple databases and resources at once, and the ability to personalize search results based on the patron’s interests and past search history.

One of the key differences between Discovery Systems and OPACs or ILSs is that Discovery Systems are designed to be more user-friendly and intuitive. They often include features such as recommended search terms, suggested resources, and the ability to save and organize search results. Additionally, Discovery Systems often provide a more seamless experience for patrons, as they allow them to access and interact with library resources from any device, including smartphones, tablets, and computers.

In conclusion, Discovery Systems are a modern addition to the library landscape and have proven to be an essential part of ILSs. They offer a more user-friendly and intuitive way for patrons to discover and access library resources, regardless of whether they are physical or digital. While OPACs and ILSs are still important tools for managing and organizing library collections, Discovery Systems provide a more seamless and personalized experience for patrons. The practice of many academic, professional, and public libraries is to integrate the Discovery System into the ILS, either formally or informally. SirsiDynix is one company that offers this service. They are the source of the Discovery Service and ILS for the College of Southern Idaho.


As with all organizations, the library will occasionally need housekeeping performed to keep up with patron use and unanticipated complications. What does this look like for the circulation department? Circulation librarians will often be responsible for tracking problematic occurrences that have to do with patron misuse of books. This sounds offensive and rude, but circulation housekeeping tasks often involve fixing patrons’ mistakes, even those by well-meaning ones.

These tasks include checking for overdue materials and initiating reaching out to the patron if necessary. Related to this process is the responsibility to resolve any “lost book” reports. This may be a case of a patron lying and saying they returned a book when they did not. Other times, they really did return the book and it is lost somewhere in the library. Sometimes, especially with mail-in returns, the book could have been lost through the fault of an external process or party. In any case, librarians in the circulation department should work to resolve any gaps in the collections because of these errors.

Determining if the books on a shelf are in the correct order is one of the most common responsibilities of librarians in the circulation department. This is called “shelfreading.”

Another housekeeping responsibility of the circulation department is “shelf reading.” This is also done by catalogers if the circulation department needs assistance. This is the process of reading the call numbers on each shelf and ensuring that all numbers on that shelf are in the proper order according to a particular classification system. This is done more or less continuously. Once a librarian finishes shelf-reading the entire library, there are new mistakes and other problems to see. Therefore, she starts again at the very beginning, a very good place to start.



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Introduction to Library and Information Science Copyright © 2023 by College of Southern Idaho is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *