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Circulation Technologies From Past to Future

Computers in Libraries [February 2008] The Systems Librarian

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While they're not the most glamorous jobs, checking in and checking out materials are some of the more vital aspects of library automation. This key component operates in the crucial juncture between staffers and patrons. The automated circulation module facilitates our ability to efficiently put materials in our patrons' hands.

Circulation Past

Automated circulation has evolved over the last few decades. I've seen my share of systems, each reflecting the computing era of the time.

While I was a student at Colorado State University in the early 1980s, I didn't work in the library. But as a patron, I was aware of its punch card system. Each book had a punch card in a pocket that the circulation desk attendant would put into a single-card reader. I'm not familiar with the details of the circulation system in place at that time, but it was consistent with the computer technology that I was using for my job in the psychology department. There, I helped process experimental data stored on Hollerith's punched cards. I remember the days of using the keypunch machine to write Fortran programs or SPSS routines, cajoling the card reader in the computer center to read decks of hundreds of cards, waiting hours for the output, and starting over for the slightest error. Computing has come a long way since then. But even the tedious nature of punch card computing offered great efficiencies over manual circulation operations.

My first on-the-job experience with circulation began in 1982 at the Vanderbilt University libraries, where I worked part time while I was a graduate student. We used the MacBee Key sort cards system, a noncomputerized approach that featured cards with small holes punched along the side. To check out a book, a patron would fill out the card indicating the item's title and call number along with his or her name and address. We would then manually notch the cards according to the item's due date. Every day, we would identify overdue items by running a rod through the hole representing the current date. Those cards notched for that day would fall out of the stack, allowing us to photocopy them and send the copies as part of the notice to the borrower.

In the mid-1980s, Vanderbilt adopted NOTIS, a mainframe library management system with fully automated circulation. To implement NOTIS circulation, we placed bar codes on each physical piece in the collection and issued cards with an assigned library ID number to each patron. NOTIS was a textbased system accessed through massive terminals that were connected in a dedicated network to the library's IBM 4361 mainframe. NOTIS's circulation module offered rich functionality, which allowed us to control the circulation period of materials based on the category of the borrower as well as the type of material and its location in the library. It automatically produced printed notices of overdue items, including what we called courtesy notices, which reminded users that items were approaching their due dates. While we experienced occasional glitches with the bar code readers and terminals, NOTIS proved to be a highly efficient system.

About the same time that we began automated circulation, we implemented the 3M tattle-tape system for theft detection. We planted a magnetic strip in each book (or at least in a reasonably high percentage of books), which we had to demagnetize before it could pass through the exit gate without triggering an alarm. This system allowed us to eliminate the intrusive process of inspecting backpacks as patrons left the library. The standard workflow of checking out a book included charging the item in NOTIS and desensitizing it for the exit gate.

Transition to Newer Technologies

Our migration from NOTIS to Sirsi's Unicorn system allowed us to move from the obsolete mainframe to more current client/server technology but didn't radically transform life at the circulation desk. The new system offered a graphical interface that most staffers thought was more pleasant to operate, but some thought it was slower than NOTIS's text screens. As Unicorn evolved with the emergence of the internet and the web, we gained the ability to send notices by email and offer patrons many more self-service options. Through the web, today's users can review the items that are currently charged, perform renewals, request items that are charged to others, and set alerts so they can be notified when we acquire new materials of interest.

These web-based self-service features give more control to the users and reduce the workload at the circulation desk. Patrons appreciate the ability to take advantage of our services without having to make the time for a personal visit.


Today, self-service rules the world. We use ATMs to get quick cash, and we pay at the pump for gas. In addition, all types of retail establishments offer self-service options, including grocery stores and home-improvement outlets.

Libraries have also jumped into the self-service arena. Many have implemented self-check stations, which allow users to charge books in the automated circulation module and desensitize them for the theft-detection system. These self-check stations typically feature a customized computer workstation equipped with readers for the borrower's card and for the materials. As the user positions the item to be scanned, the station automatically desensitizes it for the exit-control system.

Interest in Interoperability

Interest in self-check workstations sparked the development of a standard protocol for interoperability with circulation systems. Self-check equipment is manufactured by companies other than those that developed the circulation modules. Since the selfcheck industry wants to create products it can sell to any library, these products need to work with any circulation system. 3M, one of the major developers of library self-check equipment, devised the 3M Standard Interchange Protocol, which is currently in version 2 (SIP2). SIP2 specifies how a third-party system can exchange the information that's related to basic circulation functions with an automation system. It has been widely adopted by the set of companies that produce library automation software as well as by those that create self-check devices. There is now an international standard, NISO Circulation Interchange Protocol (NCIP), that brings this interoperability, which was initially defined by a single company, into the open standards arena. Today, SIP2 remains the dominant version of the protocol used in the field while NCIP slowly takes hold.

The Role of RFID

The other technology that has gained a foothold in libraries is radiofrequency identification (RFID) for materials. This system involves placing an RFID tag, which is programmed with a unique identifier, in each physical item. You can also program the tag with features that work in conjunction with an exit-control gate, combining both the circulation and security functions. To implement an RFID system, you must place a tag in each item, program it with the unique identifier, and test it to ensure that it can be read later at the circulation desk. The RFID tag waits passively until it comes into the proximity of a RFID reader, which powers the chip that emits its data. An RFID scanner can update the tag, such as setting the security bit to desensitize the item for an exit-control system.

RFID is a flexible technology that offers some new opportunities to automate workflow in the library. While bar code systems require the operator to physically scan each item, RFID tags can be read at some distance from the scanner, allowing multiple items to be read almost simultaneously. At least in theory, an RFID system can charge a stack of a dozen books that the patron brings to the circulation desk without having the attendant handle each one individually.

Although many of the new self-check implementations rely on RFID technology, they can also be employed in libraries that continue to use bar codes. In the libraries at Vanderbilt University, we use bar codes for our materials and have implemented a couple of self-check systems that work successfully with the magnetic-strip patron cards as well as the bar codes. These systems also automatically desensitize the books for exit control.

Although the cost of RFID tags and equipment continues to decline, bar codes and their associated scanning devices are still significantly less expensive. RFID technology requires a higher level of investment, but that may also enable some functional advantages or even cost savings for some libraries through the reduction of personnel expenditures.

Automated Material Handling

Because RFID tags are read and updated without direct physical contact, they offer opportunities for automation beyond self-check. Many libraries have begun to implement automated material handling (AMH) systems to facilitate much of the workflow involved in the book-return process. Such a system might utilize a book-return slot that scans the RFID chip, discharges the item from the patron in the circulation system, and sends the returned items along a conveyor belt, separating them into bins for re shelving or for requested items that need to be diverted back to the circulation desk.

RFID technology and automated material handling systems provide important opportunities for high-volume institutions such as municipal public libraries. The Seattle Public Library, for example, implemented RFID and AMH as effective strategies to keep up with the demands of a busy, large-city library.

Technology Fit for a Purpose

I think it's essential for libraries to make well-reasoned decisions about which technologies they implement or choose not to implement. Introducing a technology that doesn't work well for the needs of a given library can result in unnecessary expense or have a negative effect on services. RFID and AMH don't necessarily make sense for all libraries. I think these technologies are great for institutions with fairly high levels of circulation transactions but are not so well-suited for smaller libraries.

In addition, we must consider what our patrons want. Although some folks really like self-checkout, whether in the grocery store or the library, others appreciate personal service.

I also see a human component as part of the equation. From a purely economic standpoint, implementing an automation system can result in some savings for the organization. Making an upfront investment in equipment can lead to savings in personnel costs. I believe that organizations can benefit from resisting the temptation to over-automate and making the investments in their personnel. When I shop, I'll almost always avoid the self-check lines, even if it seems like it might take less time there. In my mind, it's better for the neighborhood store to provide a few more jobs, although it might mean paying a bit more.

Circulation in Next-Generation Automated Systems

Two decades after our initial implementation of automated circulation, the basics remain much the same. Yet, I think we need to rethink the traditional circulation model in the next generation of automation systems. Much has changed from the days of the original circulation systems. Today's libraries increasingly deal with digital content and engage in ever wider resource-sharing environments. The traditional model of library automation draws distinct lines among local circulation, direct consortial borrowing, and interlibrary loan. Each of these activities tends to be implemented in completely different systems. One way to revitalize circulation might be to blur these lines. This could better put materials in the hands of borrowers, regardless of whether the item happens to be on the shelf of the local library, housed in remote storage, available from a neighboring library, or obtained from a library or other supplier anywhere in the world.

For as long as libraries continue to provide access to physical materialswhich extends into the future as far as I can imagine-we need to continually revise the automation models while looking for opportunities to improve this crucial service to our patrons.

View Citation
Publication Year:2008
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 28 Number 02
Issue:February 2008
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
Record Number:13133
Last Update:2024-06-21 23:39:48
Date Created:2008-03-25 08:24:21