Balancing the collection: A logistics puzzle

As Community Services Administrator for St. Louis County Library (SLCL), I oversee operations for 19 library branches in St. Louis County. I was originally drawn to libraries because I enjoyed the challenges and diversity that come with a public service position. Several years after I first began working in libraries, I shifted to a position in library administration. A key focus of my current position is to develop procedures and structures that allow our front line staff to work more efficiently so they can provide excellent customer service.

Due to the economic stagnation that began in 2008, which had a direct effect on public library revenues, one of the challenges we've faced in recent years is increased circulation, yet decreased staff sizes. In 2008, our circulation was 9.5 million items, and in 2011 SLCL circulated 12.7 million items, a 34% increase. At the same time, our staff count has been reduced by over 40 FTE, a reduction of 7%. These factors caused us to look for creative and innovative solutions to make our operation more efficient.

One significant change made at SLCL was the implementation of "floating" collections in 2011. In the past, an item could be returned to any location, but it was always sent back to the owning location through our delivery system. With a floating collection the item stays on the shelf wherever it is returned. This change in procedure led to tremendous efficiency gains, while at the same time, improvements in customer service. Of course, this led to a new set of challenges with certain locations acquiring more material in particular areas of the collection than the shelves could accommodate. We had to develop a method to rebalance the distribution of the collection, but how?

Recognizing the logistics and communication challenges inherent with rebalancing, I turned to a Google spreadsheet to create a unique solution. What's great is that since adopting Google Apps, library managers can use Google Docs to manage floating collections, marking sections green and specifying how much extra shelf space they have if they can accommodate more material, yellow if their shelves are balanced, or red if they have run out of shelf space. Then we can all see where to send items to meet demand. Prior to this solution with Google Docs, we did not have any systematic method of addressing rebalancing. We had to call each other or email and wait for responses. With the Google Doc this critical information is available at any time and it is always current.

We are also using Google Apps to manage our periodicals in each branch to be sure we meet public needs and interests. We use Google Docs to track demand and costs, eliminating a lot of manual effort and errors. These are just two examples of how to cost-effectively run government using Google Apps. We've found that Google Apps is a major asset for government entities such as our libraries. It's cost-effective and flexible enough to meet the increasing needs to better serve our communities.

Google Docs - Enable real-time team collaboration
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