March 16, 2018

ILL On Hold In Northern NJ

Update: According to an article in, a contributing factor to LibraryLinkNJ’s selection of Expak Logistics was its bid, which came in at half of the competing bids. LLNJ’s budget has been frozen since 2008, according to the article.

“Bid documents reviewed by North Jersey Media Group show that some LibraryLinkNJ staff and advisers had misgivings about Expak’s readiness to take on a complex delivery system in a densely populated state, but the company prevailed in a scoring system in which the cost was weighted as much as all other factors combined. Points also were awarded for experience, the proposed level of service, references and supporting documentation.”

In northern New Jersey, library directors and staff are digging out from under a mountainous backlog of interlibrary loan items that piled up in enormous numbers through the early weeks of 2018. This meltdown emerged after the newly hired statewide delivery service, Los Angeles–based Expak Logistics, fell far behind in its work, and can do little now except chip away at a warehouse stuffed with boxes of books, DVDs, and other materials caught in transit limbo.

Cardholders accustomed to an efficient network of online holds and timely shipments are being asked to stay patient while the mess is sorted out. Library officials recently reported tangible progress at whittling down the backlog. But at one point in January, an estimated 120,000 items were stuck in the pipeline across at least three New Jersey counties.

That’s a lot of items, but still only about 4 percent of the annual total. The nonprofit cooperative LibraryLinkNJ (LLNJ), which hires the delivery company for the state, estimated that more than 2.3 million packages were shipped for its 413 members between July 2016 and June 2017. With items per package averaging 2.08, that meant about 4.78 million loan items were transported over the 12-month period.

Lacking Logistics

Expak’s problems in New Jersey mushroomed quickly. In mid-December, as the firm began its transition phase working with LLNJ, two key subcontractors unexpectedly backed out of their agreements, LLNJ Executive Director Kathy Schalk-Greene said. As the official January 1 start date approached, Expak suddenly needed to hire more drivers and sorters.

Schalk-Greene said Expak requested a one-week grace period as the company worked to get back to full strength. So LLNJ asked its outgoing vendor, TForce Final Mile of Dallas, to stay on through the first week of January. But that firm declined. As 2018 began, Expak was on its own.

The initial hiccup “started a backlog that Expak just hasn’t got in front of ever since,” Schalk-Greene said. Asked when the vendor got caught up, she added, “They haven’t yet.”

“It never did rectify itself,” Justine Tomczak, director of the Clifton Public Library, NJ, said. “It just got worse instead of better.”

A Northern problem

LLNJ provides delivery service for 413 libraries in New Jersey, Schalk-Greene said, 300 of which are public libraries. Bergen County Cooperative Library System (BCCLS) has 76 members and the PALS Plus consortium in Passaic and Essex County has 20 (including two academic libraries). So nearly one-quarter of Expak’s client base is located in the state’s northern tier.

The region presents special challenges: Bergen, Passaic, and Essex counties are packed with densely populated New York City suburbs, serviced by ribbons of highways jammed with motorists. Sticking to a delivery schedule can be a daunting task. As Michael McCue, director of the Teaneck Public Library (TPL), the largest member of BCCLS, said, what looks on a map like a short trip between two Bergen County libraries can be far more than a driver bargained for by the time he or she is done navigating local byways.

Cindy Czesak, BCCLS’s interim director, “significantly underestimated” traffic patterns in the state’s northern counties, as well as the population. “Also the fact that a lot of our libraries ship an incredible amount of stuff on a normal day,” she said. “Ten to 12 boxes a day, from our medium-sized libraries. Drivers would come in and say, there’s not enough room in the truck.”

Another miscalculation on Expak’s part, McCue said, was the decision to use only one warehouse to store all the loan items in transit for the entire northern section of New Jersey.

The crisis, New Jersey library officials agree, has been restricted to the northern counties. Susan Quinn, director of the Ocean County Library network, which has 21 branches serving 33 communities in the southern part of the state, said deliveries have operated with few glitches since January 1. “Pickup and delivery has been on schedule,” she said.

On January 25, faced with a backlog of about 86,000 materials, BCCLS temporarily suspended loan requests. “Finally the company started up and right from the get-go it was a problem,” McCue said. “You didn’t know when they would come. They would come one day with a load of maybe ten boxes or bins, and the next day it would be two.”

The BCCLS website offers no hint of when service might resume. But it’s a definite disruption for area library patrons. In normal times, BCCLS averages 4,344 loan requests a day.

“We’ve cut them off,” said McCue. “We’ve made them go cold turkey.”

“People are used to getting things in two days,” added  Czesak. “We’re very close to Amazon here. We have also taken this for granted. We just assumed that this delivery system would always be available and it would be fairly efficient.”

Slowing down, then stepping down

There’s still another problem for on the horizon for libraries in the state.

The Expak Logistics  service, which has been widely blamed for causing the delivery crisis, announced last month that it was exercising an opt-out clause in its contract with LLNJ. It will cease working with New Jersey libraries as of May 29—the eve of the busy summer reading season.

Reached on February 12, Michael Kraus, Expak’s chairman and chief executive officer, declined to comment on the matter. “I’m proud of my company,” he told Library Journal. “I’m proud of the work we do.” Kraus would not say why his company chose to exercise its opt-out clause.

LLNJ now has no choice but to accelerate its hiring process, said Schalk-Greene. It will field bids on a new delivery service and work toward making a hire in three months, she added, which is about half the time the cooperative normally allocates for such a vital process.

LLNJ posted its Request for Proposal on February 8 and asked prospective vendors to submit them no later than March 1. The contract will be awarded March 30, with May 21 targeted as the start date for Expak’s replacement.


In northern New Jersey, meanwhile, difficult times called for a willingness of library directors, and even some patrons, to go the extra mile, sometimes quite literally.

In Passaic County, Clifton director Tomczak recently found herself struggling to assemble sufficient copies of Donna Leon’s The Waters of Eternal Youth for a local book club. She mentioned this in passing to a local newspaper reporter. Within days, a main branch patron—having read the article—stopped by and offered to donate her already-read copy to the cause.

Meanwhile, part of McCue’s daily itinerary now involves driving boxes of books and other loan materials to nearby BCCLS libraries in his 2006 Honda Civic. These, he says, are deliveries Expak is unlikely to catch up with anytime soon. So making a few stops on his own is well worth the hour or more it routinely cuts out of his already busy workday, the director added.

“It’s self-preservation,” he said. “I don’t have the space to store large quantities of stuff that belongs to other libraries.”

On February 5, McCue drove from Teaneck to nearby Hackensack to watch a video simulcast of LLNJ’s board meeting, which was taking place a couple of counties away. He was eager to see what the state nonprofit had to say about the crisis. It was also an opportunity to transact some business. He took along some 15 boxes with materials for ten different libraries, all of which he knew would have representatives at the same viewing site. “I came back with about an equal amount,” he said.

When library deliveries grind to a halt, McCue’s library in Teaneck feels it more than most. In 2017, according to data provided by BCCLS, TPL loaned 71,025 of its items and borrowed 106,842. The total packages the library handles annually number in the tens of thousands; the figure for 2016 alone was 43,555.

“What’s stuck unfortunately in the warehouse is a lot of good stuff,” McCue said. “New books, new DVDs. Not the dead wood. Our primo stuff has been tied up for a couple of weeks at a time, just trying to get back home.”

In demand

There may be one silver lining to this ongoing hassle: officials who spoke to LJ said they’re happy to have real-time feedback from customers who very much want the books and other items they’re waiting for.

“People talk about the demise of libraries,” said Czesak. “Well look at the huge demand! People are rabid to get their materials.”

Recently, McCue said the Bergen consortium’s backlog was pared to fewer than 50,000 from the original high of 86,000. That’s progress, the director said, but not yet enough to resume accepting online holds, though he hopes that will happen soon.

“Certainly we want to turn on the spigot again and start sending stuff out,” McCue added. “And not rely on these exchanges or homemade delivery services, idiots like me in their car.”

Bergen library patrons, officials say, have been quite patient in light of the delivery crisis. Visitors are encouraged to stop by other nearby libraries in hopes of tracking down materials they seek; cardholders have borrowing privileges at every BCCLS facility.

In hindsight

As delivery problems took hold early this year, library officials said some people began questioning Expak’s initial qualifications for the job. The contract awarded was for approximately $900,000, Schalk-Greene said.

State law requires that a new vendor be brought in every three years, and Schalk-Greene defended LLNJ’s vetting process.

“We sought and acted on the advice of our attorneys every step of the way,” she said. “We had a five-person evaluation team that looked at all of the bids. They recommended ExPak on the basis of their bid’s high quality and cost effectiveness, positive presentations and site visits to their subcontractors’ sorting facilities, and strong references on their library delivery work for statewide and regional library organizations in Idaho, Washington state, Oregon, and Tennessee.”

Expak has experience with two other library consortiums, Schalk-Greene said, Tenn-Share in Tennessee and the Orbis Cascade Alliance in the Northwestern United States. Both offered solid recommendations as the L.A. firm was being considered by LLNJ.

“I think that the process was good and thorough and legal,” the LLNJ executive said. “I think that this was a situation that sometimes happens in business.”

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