Free DVDs for Everyone!

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

Pop quiz, folks. It's a story problem.

You're the chief librarian at a major downtown library. You've just spent $90,000 on a new security system, plus untold labor hours sticking tags in books, CDs, and DVDs. The system doesn't work right - lots of confusing false alarms and embarassing interactions with nice patrons.

Do you:
A) call the security vendor and demand a fix or a refund?
B) visit your local Fred Meyer and see how they do it?
C) turn it off, pretend it still works, and after six years, act shocked - SHOCKED! - that there are folks walking out the door with library materials.

Apparently, at Multnomah County Library, the correct answer is C.

Annoyed by false alarms on new security gates installed at the Multnomah County Library's central branch, the then-chief librarian turned the power off six years ago.

Since then, about 6.5 million patrons have passed through those dormant anti-theft corridors. It is anybody's guess how many books, CDs and DVDs also walked out of the Central Library or 16 other branches in the county system.

Incidentally, in case you're keeping score, the library is still being run by Molly Raphael - the library director that was SOOO good that County Chair Diane Linn just HAD to boost the pay for the slot by $33,000. To be fair, she wasn't there when the decision was originally made - but it's her library now.

As a progressive who believes in the power of libraries to educate and in the power of the people to collectively do great things through our government - I'm appalled and outraged that they can't even seem to get the basics right. How can we progressives make the case for reasonable funding for government services, if you can't even figure out how to turn a security system on?

Look. You run a library with millions of dollars in portable hand-held assets. Why wouldn't you do just even the most basic thing and set up a security system? It's not like it's a novel problem... just visit any of dozens of stores downtown and just buy whatever they have.

Instead, what's the Multnomah County solution?

Library access services coordinator Cindy Gibbon, who as Central Branch director made the call to shut the security gates off, says what the gates lack in actual theft prevention they make up for in "visual deterrence."

"It's like the wooden police car," she explained. [Library director Molly] Raphael said there are no plans to reactivate the security gates.

Wooden police car?! Are you people insane?

  • (Show?)


    Incidentally, choice B isn't a very good option either, especially if you're black. Fred Meyer may have found a use for all those frozen peas--icing the bruise it received when a store clerk in Salem searched the bags of state Sen. Margaret Carter, an African-American Democrat from Portland, a move that critics call racial profiling.

    click my name for another story...

  • iggir (unverified)

    perceived security can actually be a deterrent...i heard once that half the security cameras in a bank were actually dummies that were just there to scare you into thinking you were being recorded. if you think you're being monitored, you're less likely to break the rules -- i haven't tested that theory, fyi.

    besides, do you know how many times i've walked out of a Fred Meyer and had the alarm go off because some clerk forgot to de-magnetize my purchase? i've never stopped when it beeps and i've never been stopped by security. it's a fairly ridiculous system that only prevents paranoid people from walking out with the goods.

    maybe they should invest in some RFID tags and just track the books with satellite. how cool would that be - the library police could dress in SWAT uniforms and bust in through your window. "stick 'em up! that copy of Moby Dick belongs to your local library scumbag!"

  • Jonathan (unverified)

    In all of the hype attacking the library, has anyone bothered to ask or find out whether theft from the library is actually much of a problem (and I mean walking out with something, not someone who checks out an item and doesn't return it). Of course, with the media push on this story, it may all be irrelevant, because whatever deterrent effect there might have been has now distintegrated.

  • glenlivid (unverified)

    I always wondered what purpose those security gates served, but at the same time, isn't the library the last bastion of the honor system anyway? I mean, what motivation could you possibly have to steal from a place that let’s you borrow stuff for free? Everything is marked PROPERTY OF MULTNOMAH COUNTY LIBRARY all over it, so you can’t exactly sell it.

    I’m sure there will always be a few bad apples, but you’d have to be pretty dimwitted to steal from a place where everything is free. Maybe instead of security gates you should pass through an area where you are forced to read a small paragraph stating:

    “Everything here is free…even the internet. You can borrow up to 45 items at once (I made that up), you can renew over the phone or the internet and even if you’re late, our fines are only 50 cents a day per item. Why is everything free? Because it’s donated or paid for with funds from our county budget.

    Here’s the thing: this only works because people don’t steal things. As soon as you steal from the library, that item is no longer available to others. There is no reason to steal (because everything is free) but as an additional dissuasion, everything is clearly marked “PROPERTY OF MULTNOMAH COUNTY LIBRARY”. If you find yourself wanting to steal, please leave at once, go home and think about your pathetic life: you are capable of being a better person!”

    …and as an added incentive, it could say, at the bottom (right next to the box you check to say that you read the paragraph)

    "There is a special place in hell for people that steal from the library. In that place, you can expect to spend eternity being sodomized by a giant goat while having to listen to Garrison Keiller read the bible to you. Forever."

  • (Show?)

    perceived security can actually be a deterrent

    Maybe so but doesn't the deterrent pretty much vanish when the public learns that the whole system is a sham?

  • Gregor (unverified)

    If all that money was spent for a genuine system, it should work. It seems the big theft is that we pay a Director who ignores the issue, rather then one who would demand the system work and that any costs related in making it work be borne by the vendor. As the Director, she could have even assigned that task to another and not had further hassle herself. Why don't we expect things to work anymore? And if it wasn't intended to work, why didn't we buy a wooden deterrent and save that money to put to some meaningful use?

  • iggir (unverified)

    Suzanne -- possibly, but i still haven't robbed that bank...well, as far as you know ;)

  • (Show?)

    Jonathan, maybe it's not a problem, maybe it is. Here's another great tidbit from the O story:

    The county not only has no functioning security system, but it also has no reliable way to track missing or stolen materials.

    They have no idea. Here's what we do know, from the O story two days ago:

    The first time Binh Huu Hoang walked out of the Midland branch library with a DVD in his pocket he made a discovery. No alarm went off. ... As the 19-year-old would later tell police, he couldn't resist going back for more. He went back so often that he had hundreds of DVDs and CDs stacked to the ceiling in the bedroom of his Northeast Portland home...

    And we only know that because an off-duty cop got curious about the dumb kid trying door handles in a parking lot.

  • glenlivid (unverified)

    "Annoyed by false alarms on new security gates installed at the Multnomah County Library's central branch, the then-chief librarian turned the power off six years ago."

    I'm curious about whether or not Fred Meyer is still turning theirs on. I've been at Freddies when the gates are going off for every other person walking through and it is really annoying. The system becomes overkill because you need to constantly stop people and look through their merchandise, but what good is that if they are hiding something in their clothing? In the case of the library, one person would have to stand by the door at all times just to handle the alarms.

    Should they have known what they were getting into when they bought the goddamn thing? Yes. Can I understand why they decided not to use it? Yes...but now they will have to revisit the whole thing because word has gotten out that it doesn't work. I hope they have been keeping up with putting magnetic tags on everything (after all, that is part of the charade). Thankfully, they do keep most of the new media (DVD's and CD's) behind a counter where you can't get them without checking them out.

    One more thing while we're talking about security: the library doesn't ask for any ID when you check things out. They take it on faith that your library card is indeed your library card. Should they also close that giant theft loophole?

  • iggir (unverified)

    "He arrived at Northeast Everett Street and met Hoang, who at first denied being at the parking lot but then later offered to show the officer his 'jiggle keys,' or filed-down keys that thieves often use to get into cars. The jiggle keys were in Hoang's bedroom. Fields followed him there and discovered the cache of CDs and DVDs."

    that kid must be mentally handicapped...he offered to show the cop his "jiggle keys", wtf.

  • Craig (unverified)

    As for the question of whether theft is a problem in the library, as a library mangager I would answer with a very loud, "YES!"

    Given the opportunity, a certain number of patrons in most mid-sized or larger public libraries will take materials, especially audiovisual items. In our system, which I would consider mid-sized, we have no anti-theft device. We originally placed all DVDs in their cases on the shelves, and the theft rates were astronomical. I'd say that, with some titles, we would lose half of our copies to theft. Now, we keep the empty cases on the shelf, and our circulation staff has to spend much of their time filling the cases when patrons are ready to check out.

    Not only is the Director here irresponsible for having turned off the expensive equipment that I'm assuming was installed for a reason, but it's absolutely ridiculous that they haven't done any kind of inventory to find out how much theft may have taken place. This is something that isn't difficult to do, and it would certainly be an argument in their favor if the rates turned out low. If they didn't, then they'd have a clear incentive to reactivate the gates.

    It's frustrating as a librarian to see this theft, and I think that taxpayers whose dollars support their local public libraries should speak up about it. We work for you, and it's disappointing to see such disregard as shown by the library system in this article.

  • djk (unverified)

    They don't have any idea how much has gone missing? Their budget doesn't tell them how much is going to replace "missing" items every year? How can you not track your losses to theft? I've seen a whole lot of items marked "missing" when I was trying to put something on hold.

    I can see a certain level of theft as "acceptable" -- say, if you spend $10,000 a year to replace stolen materials, but it would cost $12,000 to install security to prevent those thefts. Sometimes it's smarter to budget for a certain amount of theft, fraud or waste when the cost of stopping it is more than what you're losing.

    But since they already installed the security systems, and (at least at the downtown library) have a few sheriff's deputies around most of the time, I can't imagine the cost of turning the damn thing on is greater than the cost of all the books and media that go missing every year.

    By the way, a bit more than a year ago I picked up some books there, got distracted, and walked out without checking them out. That's when I discovered the security system had been turned off. Sure, I took them back and checked them out properly -- but if I were a thief, I could have accumulated a sizable collection of CDs, graphic novels, DVDs, videos, magazines, erotica, or whatever else someone with that mentality is likely to steal. Who cares if you can't re-sell it? You steal stuff you want to keep. Or, in the case of the 19-year-old moron the sheriff caught, just steal it because you can steal it.

  • no one in particular (unverified)

    besides, do you know how many times i've walked out of a Fred Meyer and had the alarm go off because some clerk forgot to de-magnetize my purchase? i've never stopped when it beeps and i've never been stopped by security. it's a fairly ridiculous system that only prevents paranoid people from walking out with the goods.

    Technically, even when the gates go off, they aren't ALLOWED to search you anyway. The only time they're allowed to search you is if they see you take the item off the shelf and don't lose sight of you until you leave the store.

    Otherwise, they can just ASK to search you, and you can politely (or not) refuse. The rules would be the same at the library.

    (This works at Fry's, too... don't wait in a stupid line just to let the guy at the door look through all your bags. Just say "no thank you". They know your rights too, and they'll just say "thanks for coming in" and let you leave.)

  • (Show?)

    When I use the computerized library catalog to place a hold on a book, I can look at copy status list and get one from any branch (a marvel of the electronic age). Copy status lists somtimes show items as "lost" or "missing." Not sure what the distinction is. But it should not be hard to use the underlying database to get learn how much material goes missing during a given time period. That would not be an exact theft measure but would be a pretty good proxy.

    However, I wouldn't assume that the annoying problems represented a technical failure of the system for which the county could demand and receive corrective action.

    Probably a better comparison (& source for advice?) than Freddie's might be Powell's or Borders etc.

    I'd assume the security system would require a maintenance budget and also personnel either hired or allocated away from other tasks for monitoring or enforcement. I'd like to know more about the opportunity costs involved. At this point, I think they will be forced into turning it on because of PR, which they seem to be handling ineptly, unfortunately.

    The story spins the issue of turning off the system as the former director having been "annoyed" -- but I wonder how effective it actually was. In the private sector, there are things that get written off as costs of doing business because preventing them, or fully preventing them, would cost more than the losses at stake. The story seems to imply that there was no analysis done of any of this -- is that true?

    On the other hand, response here suggests that there may be a PR benefit to appearing to be trying to stop theft, even if the effort costs something more than the losses. It may make people feel as if things are orderly, even if it doesn't work well. It may symbolize caring, even as this news is taken to symbolize not caring, perhaps unfairly. How much is feel-good symbolism and possibly false sense of order worth when budgets are tight? Serious question -- if lack of it weakens public support for a crucial operation, it might be worth a good deal.

    The bad PR is too bad, because I have been feeling pretty good about the solution the MCL came up with about library hours, fixing an earlier attempt, in these budget constrained times. I love what they did to our neighborhood branch (Woodstock) -- it's beautiful and airy and full of light, and even has part of a Kim Stafford poem in Zulu on the outside (other languages too, but the Zulu is cool and they even got the translation and spelling right). I love that my six year old sees the library as a fun, friendly place. Librarians are so cool, too. At our branch and at Belmont, also recently remodeled, there are no electronic gates, dummy or otherwise

  • (Show?)

    Chris - I'm with ya. I love the library. I've always voted for every funding that comes my way. And that's what makes me so mad - this stupidity probably dropped a good 10-15% off the next library bond measure and/or will force them to delay it by a couple of years.

    It's exactly this kind of story that plays right into the hands of the "government can't be trusted with our money" crowd.

    Even if they just had a big stupid gate that randomly fires off a siren on every 20th patron and a big dumb guy that says "Excuse me, sir?" when it happens... well, that would be a deterrent to the casual thief.

    After all, if the idiot kid figured it out, you can bet that there are much more effective thieves silently extracting the good stuff that doesn't turn up "missing" in the database very fast.

  • pdxchx (unverified)

    Two thoughts.

    1. So thats what happened ot all the "learn rock guitar" tapes I can never get my hands on!
    2. Now I'm really pissed about all those late fees I've paid...
  • Penny Hummel (unverified)

    As the library’s PR manager, I’ve been reading these posts with great interest. While I don’t agree (naturally!) with all that’s been said, I am pleased to witness a lively discussion about the library and what it offers to the community. Like many of you who have shared your thoughts, I believe passionately in the value of public libraries. What I know from working on the inside, though, is that despite the impression given by the recent Oregonian articles, it’s not so easy to create the ideal balance between protecting items in the library’s collection and providing open access to all library customers. So, the first thing I’d say is: if this issue seems like a no-brainer--it isn’t.

    The initial question many people had after reading the Oregonian this week is: Why did the library decide to turn the security gates off several years ago? Here are some of the reasons that led the library director at the time, Ginnie Cooper, to take this step:

    • Effectiveness. Library security systems fail to thwart someone who is really determined to steal. Ripping out magnetic tags, passing books around the gates and other tactics make it very difficult to create a foolproof system.
    • Cost. The expense of maintaining security gates and placing tags on the entire library collection is high, and there is no documented evidence that library security systems actually save more in theft than they cost to operate. • Challenges with gate placement. At Central Library, the security gates were installed at a width greater than that suggested by the manufacturer (36 inches) in order to provide easier access for all visitors and to accommodate customers in motorized personal mobility carts. This step hampered the effectiveness of the gates.
    • Logistics/staffing of enforcement. Even if a security system is operating optimally, a staff member or security guard must be assigned to stand at the door and stop those who set off the alarm, adding more cost to the system.
    • Effect on library workers. When a security system is in use, the check-out/check in process is more labor intensive and creates additional ergonomic problems for staff because of the need to sensitize and desensitize the magnetic security tag as well as check out or check in the item.
    • False alarms were also a daily problem—and were much more than the “annoyance” described in the newspaper. They seemed to be caused when more than one person passes through the gates at a time, when the user is carrying some kind of electronic device (e.g. key card, cell phone, pager) or items rented from a video store. At Central, patrons coming into the library were as likely to set off the alarm as were those leaving, and we were unable to resolve these issues with the manufacturer.
    • Deterring legitimate use. False alarms are a documented problem with theft detection systems, and they drive customers away. A 2004 telephone survey by Leo J Shapiro & Associates found that one in seven consumers (15%) said they had triggered false alarms at retail stores. Many of these consumers have stopped visiting the store where they triggered a false alarm.

    The other question people have asked this week is: what’s the library actually doing to prevent theft? Let me count the ways:

    • We create enhanced security around high-demand items. Currently, media holds (DVDs, CDs and videos) are kept behind the circulation desk at most libraries. Similarly, DVDs are kept at the circulation desk in most locations. The library is moving toward implementing this policy at all locations. And, CDs and DVDs are currently tagged with library identification tags that if removed, ruin their playability (and resale value).
    • We’re working to identify ways to deter theft, including reinstituting the security systems if that is indeed the best solution. This involves working with the manufacturers of our existing security system to determine whether they can be made functional, and researching other options such as RFID.
    • We analyze circulation data on an ongoing basis to track emerging trends in theft of library materials. However, since our current circulation system does not distinguish between items that are misshelved, in use (but not checked out) or stolen, it’s difficult for the library to accurately identify which items have been lost to theft.

    Probably the most effective way to deter theft is to have staff search all bags and backpacks and ask library users to remove heavy outer garments whenever they leave a library. At Central Library this would require us to employ enough security personnel to search in a timely manner the 3,000-4,000 people who use the building each day. Many users would consider this an unacceptable invasion of their personal privacy. So, although there are no perfect solutions, we’re striving to be effective as we can in ensuring the safety of the library’s collection.

    Thanks again for the opportunity to participate in this discussion. I’m very pleased to live and work in a community where so many people place such a high value on their public library.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Ms. Hummel,

    Your post makes me wonder: why did the Library buy this security system in the first place? Were it's characteristics misrepresented by the vendor? Was the library's planning and research lacking? Was the security system free?

    Of course, the phenomenom of a government agency paying for high technology that works poorly is not new - remember the ODMV computer fiasco and the CoP water bureau billing system. It may be that private business has just as much trouble with these systems, but their snafus are not considered newsworthy, or are never publicly disclosed.

  • Harold Cade (unverified)

    You're applying basic consumer standards to software. Software lives in it's own legal world. Pull out ANY license agreement you have and read what it actually says. "This software is not warranted to be fit for any particular purpose...". If it weighs 4 oz and you buy it for a 4 oz paper weight, the manufacturer won't warrantee that it's fit for even that. There are no consequences for bad software. I couldn't get my balance from Bank of America a few months ago, and they said that their system was down. When I asked the details, the rep. said that she usually worked internally in the Fleet Bank Brokerage division in Boston, and they couldn't do any work all day. In any other area, that would be a major business event. I'd bet my last cent that their Director of Information Technology will get the usual bonus this quarter.

    B of A made a big deal lately about your having access to the same systems the personnel do. At first I thought it was great that I'd be accessing their internal data of record without the unreliabilities of some grafted on web server. In fact, the internal systems have been replaced with the unreliable web piece. Every time anyone converts their existing software they never capture 1/4 of the business rules. How many times have you experienced a change in some consumer account, only to call a rep. and hear that they've installed new, "better" software? The NYSE shut down prematurely the other day, due to a "software glitch". If Al-Quaeda had done it world markets would have tanked, but when it's software it's not an issue. How many news outlets reporting on the "Melissa" virus (it's actually a trojan horse), or any of the others in the last 5 years, have mentioned that only Microsoft systems are vulnerable? Could you imagine reporting the Ford/Firestone tire story without mentioning Ford? The same standards don't apply. If congress passed a law requiring you to keep your front door open, would you blithely turn the discussion to the best gun to buy? Why don't you tell MS that you won't buy their crap until they shut the door. If you're willing to go to the pain to pay more for spyware dectors and firewalls, why not use the time/energy to learn and configure Linux and have complete control over the situation. As you think about that consider that corporations are no further along in their thinking.

    I don't know why, but it seems to be particularly bad in Oregon's govermental entities. I can't begin to describe the horrors I saw at OLCC. You wouldn't run your home system the way they do. There's too many examples of systems from the city's to the state's that just don't work.

    Not so long ago, if you went to a boat show you saw new boats, a copy machine show you saw new copiers, and a dental supply convention and you saw new dental drills. Now you see the same old equipment with new software, and it all has the same, none to speak of, warrantee. Cell phones aren't and basically don't work- tower issue aside- mainly due to the software, and people still consider it a social stigma to not pretend that they deliver value to their lives. Consumers have got to regain some ground where software is concerned, but that, unfortunately, involves a level playing field between consumers and corporations.

  • (Show?)

    Ms. Hummel,

    Thanks for posting. A few questions. You write: • Effectiveness. Library security systems fail to thwart someone who is really determined to steal. Ripping out magnetic tags, passing books around the gates and other tactics make it very difficult to create a foolproof system.

    There is a huge difference between a "foolproof system" and one that allows anyone to waltz out with any book or DVD. Your argument could be used to argue against virtually any security system. Why lock your front door? A determined thief will surely find another way in.

    The advantage of some security is that it will deter the vast majority of thieves, and that's what we're concerned with, not the dedicated thief who'll we'll have a hard time stopping anyway.

    • Cost. The expense of maintaining security gates and placing tags on the entire library collection is high, and there is no documented evidence that library security systems actually save more in theft than they cost to operate.

    This claim can be turned on its head -- there is no documented evidence that they don't save money, either. This doesn't seem a good enough reason to turn the systems off, not without some attempt to collect cost and benefit data.

    • Deterring legitimate use. False alarms are a documented problem with theft detection systems, and they drive customers away. A 2004 telephone survey by Leo J Shapiro & Associates found that one in seven consumers (15%) said they had triggered false alarms at retail stores. Many of these consumers have stopped visiting the store where they triggered a false alarm.

    Does this one pass the "sniff test" for you? Does it seem believable? Because it does not to me. The study claims that 1 in 7 consumers say they triggered a false alarm at some point. It's not clear from your post whether the same study showed that "many" have stopped visiting the store (was that another question? or just a claim?)

    This also assumes that a public library, which has few or no competitors for its service, is analogous to a retail store. I don't think the parallel works.

    I appreciate the difficulty you are having with the false alarms, but your statements does not reassure me that the decision was fully thought through.

connect with blueoregon