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Mystery Shopper: Requesting a New Book at the Free Library

If there's a book you want that's not part of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s collection, will they add it to the catalogue? In the latest installment of our Mystery Shopper series, one of The Citizen’s (many) resident bookworms finds out.

Mystery Shopper: Requesting a New Book at the Free Library

If there's a book you want that's not part of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s collection, will they add it to the catalogue? In the latest installment of our Mystery Shopper series, one of The Citizen’s (many) resident bookworms finds out.

Everyone remembers the librarians of our youth, whether they were shushing us as we giggled with classmates, or gently guiding us through rows of shelves to our desired book. Sometimes the tome of our dreams was well within reach, or simply checked out by another student.

But what about when the library—gasp—straight up lacks a copy of the book you’re looking for? That’s a rare occurrence at the Free Library of Philadelphia, which is the 13th largest public library system in the United States. But in the unlikely event that the system doesn’t have the book you want, you, as a Philadelphia citizen, have every right to request an addition to its collection.

Here’s what happened when we tried to do just that:

Steps taken to request a book at the Free Library of Philadelphia

  1. The first, and maybe the most difficult step of this process was finding a book the library didn’t already have in its collection. It already has multiple copies of Jennifer Weiner’s newest hit, That Summer (although, I was told, there is a 103 -person waitlist). I finally decided on Sisters in Arms by Kaia Alderson, historical fiction about the true story of the Six Triple Eight, the only all-Black battalion of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. I realized the library didn’t yet have the book by plugging titles into the search bar on its website and choosing the “catalogue” option.
  1. To get the book, I begin by calling my local branch, Mantua’s Charles L. Durham Library, and was directed to the Central Branch of the Free Library along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. I never got through to a real person, though, so I figured there must be an easier way.
  1. I log in to the Free Library of Philadelphia’s website, and navigate to the “Contact Us” section on the site at the bottom of the homepage. Here you can “Ask A Librarian” a question by submitting it and providing your email address electronically (you do not need to provide a library card number or mailing address). The site said that a staff member would reply within 72 hours.
  1. A librarian got back to me in less than 24 hours, although she said that my local branch couldn’t accept any new shipments due to Covid-19 staffing shortages. Fair enough.
  1. I realize that when asking for a book to be added to the Free Library’s collection, it might benefit you to not ask for it to be added to a specific branch’s collection. Unfortunately, not all of them are fully operational due to the pandemic. But the library network does share a wider collection of books that you can place on hold or join a waitlist for via the website.
  1. After Librarian Laurie checked that Sisters in Arms was not on order or already in the collection, I was notified that in order to have my request forwarded to the Acquisitions Department for consideration, I would have to provide a description of the book.
  1. I email back with all the info I can find about the book.
  1. Almost exactly one day later I received an email that “Our fiction selector took a look at your recommendation and has decided to order a copy of Sisters in Arms by Kaia Alderson for the collection. An item record should appear in the online catalog by the end of next week on which you will be able to place a hold for the title.”

Result: It was that easy! And now I can get the title that I want, for free, just in time for my next vacation.

Time spent: An hour or so over the course of two days

Takeaways: The process of making a request to the Free Library wasn’t as tough as I thought it might be, and the staff member I communicated with was responsive and helpful. I will definitely use this service more in the future.

Lightning bolt rating: ⚡️⚡️⚡️⚡️⚡️

RELATED: Be your own librarian by creating a little free library in your neighborhood

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