How libraries are dealing with self-service holds

One issue that can potentially involve a variety of privacy risks relates to the way in which public and academic libraries deal with reserved items.

There are potential privacy risks associated with the way in which libraries inform users that the item or items they have requested are now available for collection. In one case which happened recently, a member of library staff very helpfully called the requestor to inform them that the item(s) they had ordered were now ready to collect. On getting the ansaphone, the member of staff left a message for the requestor stating the titles that were now in the library ready to be borrowed. Where’s the privacy risk? Well, if a librarian leaves a list of titles ready for collection, and if those titles relate to mental health or gender identity issues; or if they cover topics that are religiously sensitive or politically controversial, is it a good idea to leave a message on the user’s phone. If it is a landline, and if the user shares a flat with several other people; or if their partner or another family member picks up the message that could potentially be disastrous.

Another aspect to the ways in which book reservations are handled relates to where and how the items are put, ready for the user to collect. Imagine all the books ready for collection are on a set of library shelves where the titles are fully visible, and where each item has a slip of paper placed inside similar to a bookmark and that piece of paper showed the full surname of the requestor. That doesn’t take any account of the fact that some people have very distinctive surnames. There are several things that could be done better in the instance I have described. First of all, to avoid the book titles being clearly visible to all and sundry, a sheet of A4 paper could be wrapped around the book. And secondly, instead of having the full surname shown on the piece of A4 paper, wouldn’t it be better to show only the first three letters of the requestor’s surname.

Here are examples of what three different UK public and academic libraries do:

Library 1:

On a sheet of paper wrapped around the item:

First three letters of borrower’s surname

Last four digits of borrowers library card

Reservation expiry date


Library 2:

On a sheet of paper wrapped around the item:

First four letters of borrower’s surname

Last four digits of borrower’s library card


Library 3:

Hand written slip placed inside the book showing the borrower’s full surname


Further reading:

Self-service holds in libraries: is patron privacy being sacrificed for patron convenience? By Ruth Stevens, Patricia Bravender, and Caralee Witteveen-Lane IN Reference & User Services Quarterly v52 n1 pp33-43 2012

Self-service holds: a violation of library patron’s privacy by Stacey L. Bowers  IN Public Libraries July/August 2008 pp54-57