“Our problem is that we just have too many copies of our most popular books to go around!” said no librarian ever. Well, probably. There might be one or two for whom a happy administrative error added seventeen zeros to their annual budget, but this is the exception, not the rule. Demand outweighs supply, sometimes despite a library’s very best efforts, and the solution is rarely as simple as buying more copies. If you ever want to see an English Faculty Library staff member pale on cue just mention that you’re looking for Wyatt, Surrey and Early Tudor Poetry – needed by dozens of students, and the one single second hand copy available anywhere won’t come cheap.

It might make us uncomfortable to admit it, but for the library demand like this is a good sign: better, surely, to have students queueing for the right resources than ambivalent about the wrong ones. It means we’re doing something right, even if we could do it righter. (It’s a word.) For our students, though, it’s definitely NOT good: at best a source of annoyance, and at worst one of genuine anxiety and something that might ostensibly affect their studies.

It’s hardly a new problem, and we all have potential solutions at our disposal. We shove ‘ref only’ stickers on things. We buy more copies, and keep our eyes peeled for ebooks. At EFL we encourage students to use the holds system, let them reserve books by text message, offer advice on alternative sources to find equally good resources, or help them approach other libraries for access. But the trouble is that unless you have Professor Xavier as part of your library team (or, to be honest, any telepath would do), nearly all of these require a student to interact with a librarian, or a library system, in one way or another. These routes aren’t guarantees, and certainly at EFL they don’t appear to have reached critical mass. Put simply, they’re neither quick enough, or dirty enough.

So it’s hardly surprising that the students have developed their own solution: sub-lending, or micro black markets for books. They set up Facebook groups (other platforms are available), invite their mates to join, ask them for the books they need, and then share the resources amongst each other. It’s kind of like The Wire but with more books, though I admit I’ve never heard the library described as the place to “crew up for a re-up”. But compared with library-owned solutions, it’s more immediate (i.e. quicker) and less bureaucratic (i.e. dirtier). But – and it’s a big but – it’s still no guarantee, and it has its limitations. Two, in fact.

First, it only works if you have a lot of friends, and it works best if these friends happen to be super organised and very generous. The ethnographic research done here showed that this sort of book-swapping tends to happen intra-college, so if you’re the only student doing your subject in your college then sub-lending is going to be a fairly lonely and fruitless experience. And second, if you’ll forgive me for coming over all librarianly (also a word) for a moment, it means students become accountable for their friends’ library decorum (or lack thereof) because, as I’m sure most librarians have chanted unsympathetically at some point or other, ‘if it’s on your card, you’re responsible for it’.

This is where WhoHas? comes in. It’s the macro version of these little college crews for sub-lending, and one which doesn’t necessarily differentiate by college. It’s also the macho version of these groups because it’ll be administrated by library staff. This bit is important: we’re getting in on the action. So if we see a book change hands then, subject to certain criteria like knowing who the hands belong to and what the book is called, we’ll change it officially on the Circ system. The hope is that a bit of librarian mediation will work towards resolving its limitations, and that it’ll be more inclusive, but that it’ll also retain enough of its quickness and dirtiness to stay attractive to students.

We’re running our WhoHas? pilot at EFL through a Facebook group, which has been promoted to our 200ish first years. At time of writing about 70 of them have signed up. Wolfson College and the Medical Library are having a crack at it this term as well. The pilot isn’t one-size-fits-all – our users are totally different, with different needs and priorities and concerns. In fact, one of the best things we’ve figured out in the pre-pilot planning workshops is that WhoHas? is totally tailorable (okay, I did make that one up). It can reflect how an individual library does things, which for us at EFL is hugely important.

Before the pilot started we all attended a few workshops, covering tons of stuff – trying to predict workflows, identify potential hiccups, and ways to recognise triumph or disaster. But we’re going in with a definite eyes-wide-open approach – we know we can’t actually account for everything without giving it a good go first. So that’s where we’re up to with WhoHas?, and I’ve no doubt you’ll hear plenty more before the pilot’s out.

Helen Murphy
English Faculty Library