December 12, 2019

On the cosmic and bureaucratic implications of library book borrowing limits


Looking back on our year in library reporting, it’s been a wild one. We’ve covered a Chinese library burning books, libraries closing all over the UK, the best little library in the United States, library book theftlate fee amnesty, and so much more.

These stories made us laugh, they made us cry, they inspired in us righteous anger, and they made us love libraries.

But none were so “Kafkaesque”—I’m borrowing the term from Elle Johnson writing for Inside Higher Ed, though I believe the story to be more Coen Brothers-esque—as the story of the University of Florida professor struggling against the school’s library bureaucracy for the infraction of having 728 books checked out at one time. The stated limit is 350.

University of Florida English Professor Richard Burt is often writing multiple books, and building multiple syllabi at once. To succeed in these tasks, one requires many many books to reference—perhaps even more than 350.

As Johnson reports:

“He was initially given some leeway by the chair of Library West, at his request, since he was working on several books at the time,” said Patrick Reakes, senior associate dean of scholarly resources and services. “It was never indicated that there would be no limit at all—the approval was to go over the 350 limit if necessary since he was right at the top edge and the staff at the desk kept having to ask permission and/or get a supervisor to override our system since it doesn’t allow staff to exceed the limit.” (Library West is the main library on the UF campus.)

Reakes said that the excessive amount of books that were checked out had led to hours of wasted staff time and confusion.

Burt had received a verbal acknowledgment that he would be granted some leniency from the library staff, based on his unique borrowing needs. But this summer he received notice that he was going to have to return a tranche of his volumes by October 1st.

Over the years the interactions between Burt and the library staff haven’t always been pleasant, with dust-ups occurring now and then, even resulting in a letter of reprimand sent to Burt.

The policy has the English professor thinking philosophically—what does a limit on library books even mean? After all, The University of Florida library considers itself “in the middle of the pack” when it comes to how many books similar sized libraries allow their faculty to check out.

As Johnson concludes:

Burt describes what happened to him as “really bizarre” and “a story that is almost literary, because it doesn’t seem like it could happen.” Something Kafka would write. The professor marveled that it took so many people and so much time and energy to make sure a professor couldn’t check out any more books.

He said that everything could have worked out differently if he could have just met with people independently and spoken with them in person.

Since this all started, Burt hasn’t tried to take out another book over the 350 limit. He’s worried he’d get a librarian in trouble.

Here’s to another year of entertainment both on and off the shelves at your local library! (And hopefully a Coen Brothers adaptation.)



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.