The Librarian in Black has published a thought-provoking post called A Treatise on the Black Market of Holds. She says that the library hold system has created a two-class system in libraries: those who know about the system and are willing to pay fees to put items on hold, and those who don't know about it and just come into the library to browse the shelves, assuming that what they see is an accurate representation of what the library owns.
What first struck me about this post is that there are library systems that charge a fee to place holds. In Massachusetts, there is no charge to put an item on hold. This includes items at other libraries in our network. (Even an interlibrary loan coming from another state is free.) At my library, if a patron asks for a book that is currently checked out or not owned by my library, we immediately offer to put them on hold. It may not be publicized extensively, but the system is not a secret and not even close to the black market that LIB describes.
Sure, new items aren't on the shelves, but that's because of popularity, not the hold system itself. Without a hold system, those copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows would still have been gone immediately. At least this way, patrons know that they will get a copy at some point rather than having to drive to the library over and over again hoping a copy will be available when they get there, before finally finally giving up and buying the damn thing instead. Come to think of it, without the hold system maybe those copies of HP would have been there - people who really wanted it would just buy it rather than going through all the trouble. Think about what that would that do to our circulation numbers.
There is a lot more to say about this, but LIB's post touches on so many issues that it would take me a week to organize a post about it all, and then it would be so lengthy that none of my 8 readers would get through it. But I do recommend reading her post, as well as the informative and interesting comments. It is a lot of food for thought.