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Smarter Libraries through Technology: Enhanced Self-service and Automated Materials Handling

Smart Libraries Newsletter [December 2015]

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The companies that provide self-service kiosks, sorters, theft detection, and related products for libraries constitute an important niche within the library technology industry. These products can play a crucial role for libraries, often providing the direct point of contact with patrons through self-service kiosks. For busy public libraries, the additional automation provided by sorters and other types of automated materials handling equipment can provide much needed efficiency and cost savings for processing high volumes of returned materials.

Self-service loans have become routine in public libraries. Library patrons are well acclimated to self-service, which is pervasive in ever more aspects of daily life. Banks gas stations, grocery stores, and an increasing number of retail establishments rely on customers to use automated systems, saving on labor costs. Libraries face similar challenges. While commercial organizations may be more motivated by increased profits, libraries, as mostly non-profits with lean budgets, must also take advantage of any means available to work efficiently and provide the best service. Public library patrons may appreciate quickly and privately checking out their own materials rather than waiting in line for personal service. Library personnel at service counters can focus their attention on those that experience a problem, have complicated transactions, or simply prefer the traditional in-person experience.

Investing in self-service and inventory productivity equipment can enable a library organization to make the best use of its finite personnel budget. Aided by increased automation, the library may be able to increase the quality of its service by focusing less on routine transactions and concentrating on more in-depth research services, more pro-active attention to patrons, expanded programs and services, and additional hours of operation. Such automation should be approached strategically, carefully considering the total balance of costs and its impact on the quality of the library's services it offers to its community.

As self-service takes more of a direct role in patron interactions, it is essential to provide a positive experience that presents the library in the best possible way. These stations have to be easy to use with the least possibility of frustrating technical difficulties, branded to the library, and generally provide the quality of service comparable to a staffed station. The state-of-the-art for self-service equipment has improved enormously since the first models were introduced in the early 1990s. In addition to simply checking out an item, these stations provide personalized experience, including presentation of cover art for items charged or returned, the ability to pay fines and fees, to offer recommendations for future loans, and to place holds on items of interest. These enhanced features increasingly differentiate these products.

RFID technology provides a more robust foundation for self-service and automated materials handling than barcodes. The ability to identify items without physical contact and handle multiple items simultaneously provides a more forgiving environment for self-service and a more efficient basis for automated sorting. It's important, however, to keep in mind that RFID isn't necessarily required for these operations and that equipment is available that works with barcodes. The cost of RFID tags , though declining, can be considerable for very large collections. Large multimillion volume research collections with modest rates of circulation are generally better suited for barcodes than for RFID.

Academic and public libraries, though they share many fundamental qualities, also have become increasingly different. While academic libraries concentrate increasing proportions on access to electronic resources and see very modest levels of circulation of physical materials, public libraries continue to emphasize the acquisition and circulation of print materials, supplemented by e-book lending services. These dynamics translate into public libraries—especially the midsized and large organizations with high volumes of circulation— being better candidates for self-service and automated materials handling equipment. Academic libraries tend to have more of an interest in the security products that help them reduce losses from unchecked items being removed from the library. Electromagnetic security and barcodes continue to endure in academic libraries.

The needs for these kinds of technologies also vary by size of library. Those with small collections and light volumes of circulation transactions are not likely to find as much value in productivity products. The threshold for automated materials handling is generally higher than that for self-service. Even relatively small libraries may benefit from having a self-service station, while implementing a sorting system would be overkill for their needs.

Large public library systems need all the help they can muster in managing returned items. A busy single-building library system can benefit from equipment able to automatically check in materials and sort them into bins for each section of the library, ready for staff to re-shelve. Multibranch systems may have a more centralized processing center where items are collected from each facility to be discharged and sorted. Busy central or regional processing centers must handle extremely large volumes of materials and rely on high-end equipment that may cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even at this level of expense, these facilities can provide considerable savings compared to manual operations. (See study performed by Lori Bowen Ayre “Cost comparison of automated versus manual materials handling operations at King County Library System” January 2009.)

The National Library Sorting Championship illustrates the incredible challenges faced by the top tier of public libraries serving urban areas in managing incredibly large numbers of items loaned to and returned by patrons. The King County Library System in Washington, serving the urban area surrounding Seattle, and BookOps (, a processing center serving the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library, manage the largest volumes of circulation transactions in the country. These two library systems for the last several years have staged a friendly competition for the highest number of items their respective systems can process in an hour. Both BookOps and KCLS have implemented centralized processing centers with top-of-the-line sorting equipment manufactured by Lyngsoe Systems. New York's acquired its equipment for $2.3 million and routinely processes around 30,000 items per day. KCLS installed its equipment in 2005 for $3 million. KCLS, including 28 branch libraries, reports annual circulation transactions of around 21 million. This year KCLS won the competition sorting 12,572 books per hour versus 12,371 achieved by BookOps (as reported in the Seattle Times). While this competition is between organizations at the very high end of automated materials handling in public libraries, it highlights the challenges faced by many other libraries serving large urban communities.

The industry of self-service and automated materials handling products continues to evolve. Not unlike other sectors, it has seen multiple rounds of consolidation where a fewer number of larger companies dominate. This issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter features the recent sale of 3M Library Systems to One Equity Partners and its merger into Bibliotheca. This event expands the strength of Bibliotheca as the dominant force in this sector, though still facing significant competition. Consolidation brings a tradeoff between a narrower slate of companies and the increased capacity for development and innovation in larger organizations. It will be important to continue to follow this sector and observe whether these changes eventually deliver results through the development of products and services benefiting libraries.

View Citation
Publication Year:2015
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 35 Number 12
Issue:December 2015
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Record Number:21512
Last Update:2023-01-20 00:30:07
Date Created:2016-04-20 08:51:58