Library Spotlight: Harris County Public Library

Harris County Public LibraryHarris County Public Library (HCPL), a TAE/TExpress participant for more than a decade, serves more than one million people in Houston, Texas, and its surrounding suburbs. Over the summer, Interlibrary Loan Assistant Vann Ath incorporated data from Mid-America Library Alliance (MALA) labels into the library's ILLiad system. This has helped each branch of the library save time when processing items for MALA libraries. Amigos interviewed Vann to learn more about this process and how the library utilizes the TAE/TExpress courier service.

Gazette: Tell us a little about Harris County Public Library. When did it first open?

portrait: Vann Ath, Interlibrary Loan AssistantVA: HCPL was founded in 1921. We started as a system of small book stations around the city of Houston. Now more than one million people have HCPL cards, and our collection has grown to over 2.5 million items.

Gazette: How many branches do you have?

VA: We currently have 26 branches. Most are located on the outskirts of Houston in towns that do not have their own library systems. Additionally, we have a pick-up location at the Texas Medical Center Library that serves the needs of TMC patients, employees, and visitors.

Gazette: When did the ILL program begin?

VA: It was at least 40 years ago. That is confirmed by our longest tenured staff member.

Gazette: Why types of materials are the most requested?

VA: I can’t specifically break down the ratio when it comes to genre, but our print material comprises approximately 80 percent of requests, while the rest is audiobooks.

Gazette: What is your role in the library? What are your duties?

VA: I am the full time Interlibrary Loan Assistant. I oversee lending and borrowing (with the help from co-workers in other departments due to staff shortages), process and streamline ILLiad requests, resolve outstanding invoices, communicate ILL news to the staff at the 26 branches, provide workflow training, and troubleshoot ILL issues such as overdues, damaged or lost materials, and duplicates.

Gazette: Do you use other methods besides TAE/TExpress to send or receive materials?

VA: We always try to comply with the lender’s instructions. Besides TAE/TExpress, our mail is shipped via USPS at library rates. When necessary, we ship first-class or FedEx. Two-thirds of our outgoing material is delivered through TAE/TExpress.

Gazette: How long have you been incorporating shipping information into your ILLiad slips? What made you decide to start doing this?

VA: TAE/TExpress shipping information has been incorporated on our ILLiad labels since I have been here. When I first read about the new MALA labels, my initial thought was, “this is going to be a logistical nightmare.” If I didn’t come up with an alternative, I would need to train over 50 employees (we staff two ILL contacts per branch) with conflicting schedules not only to distinguish between a MALA and non-MALA library, but also to discard the original ILLiad address label that was generated centrally and print their own from MALA’s site. Although the process isn’t difficult, I saw it as very time- consuming. So I had to get creative with ILLiad. I finished the labels before the MALA libraries began shipping via the courier service and have been using them ever since.

Gazette: Could you describe the process of adding shipping information to ILLiad? How long does this take?

VA: For TAE/TExpress libraries I simply replace the library’s physical address with the hub and location in ILLiad’s address form. MALA library shipping labels work differently. They require a display of the library’s physical address, the TAE/MALA heading and phone numbers, and the MALA hub code in a distinct format. I had to extensively edit ILLiad’s BorrowingReturnAddressLabels.doc. I found that the majority of libraries do not use their billing address fields in ILLiad. I inserted the billing address mail merge fields into the BorrowingReturnAddressLabels.doc to match MALA’s standard format. This shouldn’t take more than five minutes. But I had to test and retest with font sizes and type for proper printing. The cumbersome part is filling in the ILLiad billing field of each individual MALA library with the heading, phone numbers, and code. I’ve attached an example to illustrate.

library label illustration

Gazette: How has the library benefited from this process?

VA: There was no disruption in our workflow. The only “training” I provided was informing the staff to treat MALA returns as TAE/TExpress returns, utilizing the purple bags and ILLiad labels.

Gazette: What has your experience been with the TAE/TExpress service thus far? Has it been a positive one?

VA: It has been an extremely positive experience. TAE/TExpress customer service is topnotch. Questions and concerns are dealt with in a timely manner. It seems TAE/TExpress is always actively trying to improve the service. The implementation of the purple bags has saved us a few thousand dollars in packaging materials alone. There are occasional hiccups with misdirected packages, but that’s to be expected considering the large amount of materials in transit.

Gazette: Do you have any suggestions for the service?

VA: TAE/TExpress has more than exceeded our expectations. I am very satisfied with the service and have no suggestions at this time.

Thanks for your time, Vann. If you would like your library to be featured the Express Gazette, please contact Liz Wardlaw at