Tracing Group Tracks Down Widener's Lost Books

Jim Hodgson  
Jim Hodgson, Tracing Supervisor, holds up one of the "shelf lists," old handwritten ledgers that used to record the items coming into Widener Library.

March 1, 2007 – With 3.5 million books shelved in Widener and Pusey libraries, it’s inevitable that occasionally a patron roaming the stacks can’t locate one, at least not where HOLLIS says it ought to be. So how does one find a single missing volume among millions? Widener Access Services relies on its two-person Tracing group, which has this task down to a science.  

Patrons who cannot find a particular book are directed first to the Circulation Desk. If Circulation staff can’t locate the item, Tracing takes up the case, handling approximately 3,000 missing requests each year. Leading the search with 26 combined years of experience in Widener are Jim Hodgson, Tracing Supervisor, and Joanne Handwerger, Tracing Assistant.

The process of hunting down a lost book is methodical and thorough and begins, not in the stacks, but on the computer. There are any number of reasons a book may be missing—loss, transfer, a record error introduced when the card catalog was converted to electronic format. Possibly Widener never even had it, due to catalog confusion that can arise from owning some, but not all, items in a monograph series.

"We first look to see that we own the book, and then to see if anyone has checked it out," says Hodgson. That, at least, gives Tracing some proof of a book’s existence and more hope of finding it. "Although even if HOLLIS says we own something," adds Hodgson, "we don’t necessarily believe it in all cases."

If he can’t solve the problem through HOLLIS, Hodgson’s recourse is to consult the old library shelf lists, rows of handwritten ledgers that note all the books bought by the library and their cataloging information. Some of the shelf lists pre-date Widener entirely, going back to Gore Hall. They’re no longer updated since HOLLIS readily contains all requisite record information, but they’re very useful when Tracing has to track an older book’s history and determine where else it might be.

Ultimately, says Hodgson, "If we believe the book is owned and not loaned out, we turn to a physical search in the stacks. Some small percentage of the time, the book is right where it belongs."

If it’s not, however, the search expands outward, with a book-by-book check of the immediate area in case the item was shelved incorrectly. They’ll search through books with the same initial call number digits. They’ll painstakingly search a shelving section to the left and a section to the right, and pull all the books adjacent to the missing one’s slot because sometimes books get pushed behind the others.

If that still yields nothing, Tracing gets creative, transposing call number digits in case a trick of eye made someone misinterpret 8660 as 6860. "Everybody makes mistakes," says Hodgson understandingly, explaining that he does pay attention for common errors that occur over and over, so that he can point them out to shelvers.

At this point, Tracing has often found the missing item, but if it simply isn’t there, they put the search on hold. "A lot of things will fix themselves in a week," says Hodgson. "The book may have been returned just a few days ago and not be back on the shelf. Or someone may have taken the book without checking it out to their carrel. Or if a professor made a reference, one student may have run out right after class to check it and then left the book somewhere to be reshelved. We have to account for that."

Once a week has passed, they search again. "Whatever the outcome, we try to give people an answer in seven to ten days," says Hodgson. About 80 percent of the time they find the book or have an answer as to its whereabouts, and about 20 percent of time they declare it missing.

"The hardest thing is learning to let things go if you can’t find them," says Hodgson, "And it’s frustrating, especially when you’ve seen evidence of activity in a book’s record. We readily refer people to Interlibrary Loan, so that helps, but if the missing item is rare and valuable… that’s frustrating."

And with the miles and miles of stacks, one thing the staff members of Tracing know is that nothing is really the final word, except actually having the book in their hands. Fortunately, thanks to a finely tuned search process, most of the time Hodgson and Handwerger do find exactly what they’re after.