Although it's easy to view libraries as increasingly involved with digital and electronic resources, we cannot neglect the reality that public libraries continue to thrive on providing print materials to their communities. The Pew Research Center's “Book Reading 2016” shows that while the trends for e-book reading are increasing and print decreasing, the rates of change are quite modest. Print continues as the preferred reading format by large margins. The dominance of print likewise can be seen in public libraries. The number of book loans continues to hold strong for most public libraries. Although the patterns are uneven, some have seen the number of book loan transactions increase, or at least hold steady (see pewinternet.org/2016/09/01/book -reading-2016/).
Public libraries serving large cities or urban areas can circulate tens of millions of books each year. Toronto Public Library reported over 32 million circulation transactions in 2016. The three library systems serving New York City (NYPL, Brooklyn, and Queens) loaned over 64 million items in 2014. Among the members of the Urban Library Council, 30 report annual circulation transactions exceeding 10 million.
These libraries necessarily seek ever more efficient ways to manage their high-volume circulation operations. With tight budgets and expectations to provide high quality, prompt service, they benefit from any available technology to help them achieve optimal service.
Self-service checkouts and returns have become commonplace. A variety of vendors produce self-service kiosks for libraries to help patrons easily check out their selected materials, pay fines or fees, return items, and other activities that would otherwise be performed at a service desk. Self-service has the potential to help patrons avoid lines and conduct their loans with more privacy. Libraries benefit from self-service through reduced personnel assigned to service desks, enabling them to focus on other activities or reallocate budgets. Library workers often appreciate the shift from performing repetitive tasks at the service desk to being able to help patrons with other types of questions or activities.
When libraries rely on self-service, those kiosks then represent the face of the library to many of their patrons. How well they work can impact perceptions of the library, so it's essential for them to offer smooth interfaces with the least possible points of frustration. The public accepts—often expects—to conduct many of their daily tasks through self-service, but the stakes for libraries are high to deliver a nice experience that positively reinforces the image of the library. Some have implemented features that go beyond the basic transaction of checking out an item, such as making recommendations for future reading, promoting library programs, or offering e-book downloads. Over the years in which I have been following self-service products for libraries, the improvements have been remarkable, progressing from very plain screens with basic features to quite advanced interfaces with ever better usability that emphasizes the brand of the local library and promotes its services.
Whether materials are borrowed via a self-check kiosk or service desk, they still require considerable effort by the library to get them back to the shelf to be read by the next patron. Dealing with the high volume of returned items represents a major challenge for busy public libraries. Several types of products have been created for libraries to assist them with this aspect of their operations. This genre of automated material handling includes several types of products, especially in the form of automated returns and sorters. The size and complexity varies, but most can accept an item as it is returned by the patron, scan its identifying number, send a transaction to the circulation module of the integrated library system (ILS) to check it in, handle exceptions, and then perform some level of sorting to expedite its return to the shelf. Some of these automated sorters may have just a few bins, which organize materials into exception categories or general shelving locations. Such equipment can help smaller library systems or individual branches save considerable time and labor. A few of the largest municipal library systems have implemented very large-scale centralized sorting operations. Libraries with tens of millions of returns need the fastest and most efficient technology available. Patrons of these large multibranch library systems appreciate the convenience of requesting items from any branch, or returning materials to any convenient location, which is often different than the one from which it was borrowed. This convenience for the patrons translates into quite an operational burden for the library. A high volume of inter-library transfers usually means that the library needs to establish some type of centralized sorting and logistics operation.
Some libraries have implemented highly automated centralized sorting operations to handle their high volume of returns and routing of materials among their branches. BookOps, serving the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library, and the King County Library System, established centralized automated sorting and distribution operations that showcase the equipment and technologies available.
BookOps established its sorting center in 2010, sharing a 145,000-square-foot facility with its other technical services operations. Considered the largest sorter for library materials, the equipment at BookOps can sort 12,000 items per hour to manage an overall volume of 8 million items annually. A high-capacity sorter manufactured by Lyngsoe rapidly scans items once it is placed on the conveyer and ejects them into the proper bins. The personnel operating the sorter unloads items received in bins onto the conveyer belt and lets the sorter do its work. Bins of materials can then be transported to the receiving branch via delivery vans that make regular rounds among the branches. This facility has resulted in materials being returned to the shelves much faster and with fewer errors than the previous manual sorting operation.
The King County Library System was the first to create a centralized automated sorting center, which came online in 2005. This facility located in its Preston facility not only includes a high-speed Lyngsoe sorter, but also makes use of a computer-driven crane to efficiently move bins of material through the system. This crane relieves personnel of much of the manual work in moving heavy bins of materials and organizes their workflow for efficient induction onto the sorter and staging for the delivery vans. The Preston facility includes a set of racks with storage locations for 2,600 bins. The racks are used for staging materials coming in and out of the sorting operation and to house a collection of lesser used materials that can be requested for fulfillment to patrons at any branch. This facility has a similar capacity of sorting 12,000 items per hour.
Showcasing their respective capabilities, King County Library System and BookOps have an annual contest for the most items sorted in an hour. The two facilities apparently have quite similar capacities, reflected that in the annual contest held since 2010, neither has won two years in a row.
Other large libraries have established centralized sorting centers. The Toronto Public Library, Hennepin County Public Library, Seattle Public Library, and the Free Library of Pennsylvania each make use of high-performance sorting systems to automate the returns of materials. Each has a different configuration. The Seattle Public Library, for example, has an impressive automated material handling system, which not only checks in the materials and sorts them, but also places them on book trucks ready to be reshelved. The Hennepin County Public Library has an automated sorter in its technical services unit to enable processing staff to conveniently place completed items on the conveyer for sorting and delivery to the designated branch.
One of the key questions related to self-service and automated materials handling relates to the technology used to identify library materials. Barcodes have been used since the earliest days of library automation. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technologies offer a higher-tech approach and have been increasingly adopted by libraries. Both technologies continue to coexist in libraries and can support self-service and automated material handling.
In the library context, both RFID and barcodes provide a fast and accurate way to read the unique identification number of an item. Barcodes require a light beam to scan the item; RFID technology does not require physical contact, but activates and reads the numbers of items in close proximity. While barcodes have to be scanned individually, most RFID equipment can scan multiple items simultaneously. RFID tags can also perform double duty for theft control, using a security bit that sounds an exit gate alarm if not turned off when checked out. Libraries using barcodes usually use electromagnetic strips planted inside the books, which can be demagnetized to clear security gates.
RFID requires complete deployment throughout the branches of a system to gain optimal advantage in multi-branch facilities with high volume of inter-library transfers. Some library systems will phase in a subset of branches as a pilot project or as a longer-term implementation strategy. During this period, handling items can be complicated as materials flow among branches using RFID and those still using barcodes.
To gain a better understanding of the relative capabilities of RFID technologies versus barcodes, I recently conducted a mini-study to gather information regarding adoption patterns. The study aimed to gather data to see which libraries have implemented RFID versus barcodes and to see if observations can be made relative to how either approach supports self-service and automated material handling. I am not aware of systematic data available describing the implementation of RFID in libraries. The libraries.org database that I maintain records the automation and discovery systems implemented by libraries. Although fields are provided for identification technologies, self-service, and automated material handling products, these have not been especially well populated.
For this new study, I opted to focus on the members of the Urban Libraries Council (ULC). This group of libraries includes those serving larger populations and are more likely to have the volumes of circulation activity of their print collections to warrant the investment in technologies such as RFID and automated material handling systems. Each library was asked to answer five basic questions:
- Does your library use RFID tags, barcodes, or a combination to identify collection items?
- How many branches use RFID (and total branches)?
- Does your library offer self-service circulation?
- About what percent of loan transactions are conducted by self-service?
- Does your library use automated sorting equipment for returned items?
A total of 93 ULC members responded to the survey. Of these, 59 reported using RFID, with 43 of these also using barcodes; 34 rely only on barcodes.
It was interesting to note that the busiest tier of libraries tends to rely on barcodes rather than RFID. Of the five libraries with total circulation transaction above 20 million, four use barcodes and one uses RFID (Toronto Public Library). The high capacity sorting operations of both BookOps and King County Library System rely entirely on barcodes. High-speeds laser can read barcodes at very high rates. For operations such as these, the limiting factor can be the speed in which the ILS is able to respond to a Standard Interchange Protocol (SIP) request for the status and destination of the item. Toronto Public Library's use of RFID tags for its large-scale sorting center confirms the viability of either technology.
RFID technologies are deployed in higher proportions among the libraries below this top tier. Deployment costs can be a bit more modest in these libraries. Many of these libraries that are still using barcodes reported plans to phase in RFID technologies.
Self-service seems well supported in libraries using either technology. All but five of the responding libraries reported offering self-service loans. Libraries are not able to effectively reallocate service desk personnel unless they achieve relatively high rates of self-service. Those using RFID reported significantly higher portions of overall circulation transactions performed through self-service. Of the 17 reporting over 90 percent self-service, only 2 use barcodes exclusively. Yet many libraries using barcodes achieve high percentages of self-service. Those reporting lower rates usually noted that self-service was offered only in some facilities or not positioned as the preferred option. More libraries using RFID reported implementation of some type of automated material handling in their branches.
This initial study confirms that efficient operations for the circulation of physical materials can be accomplished with either barcode or RFID technologies. While it is a misconception that RFID must be used for these activities, this limited study indicates it as an effective enabling technology. At the highest end of automated material processing, barcodes seem able to perform well and with lower costs.
Going forward, I plan to increase my efforts in gathering data on these technologies. Future updates to library entries in libraries.org will include these data elements. I encourage libraries to either update their entries or to send me information regarding the use of these technologies. Since public libraries will inevitably continue to see vigorous levels of circulation for their physical materials, I hope to be able to provide as much information as possible regarding the technologies best able to support this aspect of their work.