Library Innovation Is a Win-Win – for Patrons, for the Library

Libraries frequently innovate out of necessity to serve patrons as technology changes or during challenging times – pandemics, for example. But necessity isn’t the only mother of library invention.  

Sometimes, the “usual” way just isn’t good enough.   

For instance, when a patron wants a book that the Library doesn’t have, the usual process of requesting it through interlibrary loan (ILL) can be tedious and take weeks. And for the Library? ILL is expensive. More expensive than buying the book.  

In April, the Library won the 2023 Urban Libraries Council Top Innovator Award in the Operations & Management category for revolutionizing how patrons request and receive materials. The system is called Request It: Collaborative Acquisitions and is easily accessible to anyone with a Kansas City Public Library card, giving patrons a voice in shaping the collection. 

Each year, publishers release tens of thousands of new books. No library has the capacity or budget to purchase all of them. Instead of buying everything – not even the Library of Congress does that – a rigorous collection development system is in place to determine what materials the Library acquires.  

Director of Library Collections Deborah Stoppello says that when her team decides what to purchase, it weighs “relevancy, currency (how current it is), demand, and (answering the question) is it authoritative? There's a whole list of criteria. Is it appropriate for our community?” 

Her team excels at the selection process, and the Kansas City Public Library’s 800,000-volume collection is one of the most diverse in the country, according to a recent assessment by a library industry vendor. But part of what’s great about Request It is that it involves patrons in the acquisitions process. Stoppello says she’s seeing requests for books that are very niche or released by small, independent publishers that may not be on her team’s radar.  

Collection development saw a 150% increase in requests for materials and a 700% increase in unique users over the first eight months – that’s 2,429 requests and 1,295 Library patrons. 

But, Stoppello says, “the innovation isn't that we added the button to the user account; that grew it tremendously, and that really helped this process. The innovation is what we do with it once we get the request.” 

Patrons can seek out up to five items each month, which the Library most often buys, adds to the catalogue in a cursory way – inputting the titles, authors, publishers, years, and International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN) – and places on the holds shelf for pickup. 

“From the patron's perspective,” Stoppello explains, “they don't have to go up to the desk and they can check it out at self-checkout. It literally behaves like any other book in that format: three-week checkout, two renewals after that.” 

Furthermore, even when the book is rare or was published decades ago, the copy the patron receives is new and a potential addition to the collection that otherwise would not be available to the rest of the community. 

By simply purchasing the requested items, the Library decreases staff labor time by about 25%; the staff member who’d worked most with ILL borrowing has since been reallocated to another department. Stoppello has also calculated that, in most cases, the new method is five times less expensive for the Library than borrowing a book through ILL.  

Once a patron returns the new material, it goes to collection development to decide if it should be part of the permanent collection. If the team decides it doesn’t meet acquisition requirements, it won’t become part of the collection and is shelved in a staff-only area of the Library where it waits to be requested again. If there’s no additional demand, it eventually will go through the deaccessioning process

For instance, Stoppello says, a patron may want a book about cancer treatment in the 1990s, which she’ll buy but “would never put … on my shelf” because the information is so out of date. On the flip side, sometimes a user request helps the collections development team stay on top of what should be in the collection but has been lost or damaged and not replaced. 

Stoppello says she’ll occasionally see a Request It notification and think: “Why don't I have that in our collection? And then you go look it up and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, all our copies are lost. All of our copies are missing.’” 

She says she’s thrilled to have won the Urban Libraries Council award for something that’s been in the works for years – delayed due to COVID – and makes such a positive impact on the community and within the Library. 

Request It has affirmed that people of all communities and political leanings use the Library. Stoppello says it’s not just the “right” or “left” looking for information. It’s everyone. 

“Publishing is just like news,” Stoppello says. “It’s mainstream for the most part. We take great pains to go beyond that, but that's what's clearly the easiest to find. So, Request It is a way to go beyond that in a very specific way.”