Circulating the county: Who's behind the magic of Milwaukee's interlibrary loans?
Have you ever tried to get a book from your favorite branch of the Milwaukee Public Library only to find out that you’ll have to get it transferred from a different location?
Bubbler Talk question asker Joe Pederson of Milwaukee has been doing that a lot before and throughout the pandemic. He’s noticed that his books usually arrive within a day or two, regardless of where they’re coming from.
“So, I think the first time I noticed I was picking up, I think, a graphic novel from the East Branch. And they only had it in Oak Creek,” he explains. “And it showed up a day later, and I was able to pick it up.”
Pederson wants to know: What is this magic? How are books transported throughout the Milwaukee County Federated Library System? So WUWM went to the Central Library to find the answer.
There, Steve Heser, president of the library system, says while circulation overall has been down in the libraries due to the pandemic — because of less in-library foot traffic — requests for books through interlibrary loan has stayed roughly the same.
“With the pandemic, we're still delivering roughly a million books per year,” Heser says. “So, [interlibrary loan] is a widely used service and the volume is unlike anything else you'll see within the state as you can, as you might imagine.”
It all comes down to four people in a small-but-mighty logistics team from Action Logistics, LLC. They’re at the heart of interlibrary loan.
But first, the process starts with people requesting books. Books are organized and sorted based on codes, like a barcode at a grocery store. People can order books in-person, call a ready reference librarian or online through the County Cat “card catalog” system. County Cat also has an app for that. All these ways put a hold on a book.
If there are no holds on a book, the book is kept at its owning library, aka the library that originally circulates the book. But if there is a hold on a book, circulation assistants like Darrell Butler wheel carts out to get it from the shelves, using a paging slip.
“We’re going to take a cart because we do have several dozen books that are on this individual list,” says Butler, who’s on a book retrieval quest for a David Baldacci novel.
The circulation assistants then put the books through the checkout process.
But if the books need to go to another branch, they end up at the hub of the interlibrary loan system: One big warehousing room in the lower level of the Central Library.
“This is our sorting room,” explains Heser. “This is space that we leased as part of the Milwaukee County Federated Library System from Milwaukee Public Library, space that we use for sorting materials.”
Heser points out two people — from a four-person logistics team the library system has hired — who are stacking and sorting red and blue bins of books.
The two sorters and two drivers take the bins onto a loading dock. That’s where two, plain, white trucks about the size of a medium to small U-Haul sit waiting. The drivers set out on their missions in the wee hours of the morning, like 5:30, 6 a.m., to different libraries across Milwaukee County.
They keep track of the inventory going in and out during the whole process, as each bin has a numeric code identifying the library it goes to.
“So, they know that this particular bin is going to say, 'East at number 13.' And then that way they can kind of keep track of it, but they also have to keep track of stuff that's coming in and going out on the truck. So, it is it's a very involved process,” says Heser.
“It is like a bodily circulation system,” he continues. "And we rarely have a problem with any of these materials coming in. People, I think, kind of take it for granted, and sometimes we do as staff, but I know we appreciate all the efforts that everybody involved in the process does. It really makes a big difference.”
The team includes Manny Ortiz — he’s been a sorter, driver or both for more than a decade. He shares it takes brawn in addition to brains to maneuver the book bins.
“They range anywhere from 20 pounds up to about 100,” he describes. “Sometimes it's a combination of DVDs, CDs mixing with books, so it's difficult to tell. But you can tell which ones have the books because they're excessively heavy.”
Ortiz agrees that it’s so physical, you really don't need a gym when you have this job.
The drivers take books to all 13 city of Milwaukee library branches and 14 suburban locations. There’s also a drive-thru at the Central Library, and even though they don’t sell hamburgers, it could be a good place to get a Big Macbeth or a Shamrock Shakespeare.
Recently, some of the most popular interlibrary loan books have been: The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.
But whatever library book is your next, and no matter where you pick it up, if you’ve gotten it shipped in from another branch, thank the circulation assistants and four drivers and sorters who’ve made it work.
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