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Ideas around self-service seem to be very much in vogue across much of the library sector.  Even in libraries where the number of circulation transactions is low the idea of self-service is very much at the front of managers minds. Having spent a large part of the last two years looking at Self-service from the perspective of public libraries it is interesting to start to look at self-service from a different perspective.

For the public library RFID is the preferred form of technology.  With high loan rates the initial cost of tags, tagging and self-service equipment can be justified against the large amount of staff time spent on manual intervention, in terms of modernising services, extending opening hours or reusing staff time more effectively.    Having procured and implemented RFID systems, converted half a dozen libraries to RFID and worked with the cultural changes, quite a few thoughts and issues come to mind which it may be of interest to set out here:

  • Although library systems have changed over the years – library processes essentially have stayed the same – customer takes books to a member of staff -> who does something with the books -> and gives them back to the customer – that has remained the same through Browne, Photocharging, data capture systems and online LMSs
  • By now it is pretty well understood that the cost of systems is easily double the cost of the hardware/software/tags/tagging – take into account changes to the library (and there are many), cabling, power, new furniture, systems configuration, costs of licences/linking to LMS, staff training
  • Self-service is a big cultural change for library staff – involve them in the process and plan to train them in how to work in the new environment – don’t underestimate the sense of dislocation that no longer having a counter to work at leaves
  • Tagging items costs pretty much the same as the tag – use specialist teams if you can – you may/may not want to manage them yourself but you need to be sure to quality control and check their work
  • Don’t underestimate the need to change your routine processes – go through them all carefully – start/end of day processes, what happens with money, returned stock, when tagging is security turned on or off?
  • Connections to the LMS need to be carefully tested – leave a lot of time for this – make sure you test all the transactions and combinations.  Particularly test things that are different or have unusual setup
  • When redesigning your self-service library you need to direct customers to the self-service equipment rather than the counter – take the counter out – replace it with a small desk away from the main traffic flows – 90% self-service is achievable – but it has to be seen as the main means of borrowing/returning – train staff to get them to show customers how to use RFID
  • Be aware that some RFID units have a wider read range so can pick up items sited too close to the devices

For the public library sector RFID has very much been the preferred direction.  There are some issues: the cost is high – (both initial capital costs and on-going revenue costs); and, some customers dislike self-service, much as they dislike any form of technology –  (but many will embrace it, and the majority do accept it).

In reality it is being used as a means of reducing the number of staff needed to staff a library at any one time (which  works at medium/larger libraries or if you plan small entirely self-service libraries).  Although it can pay for itself by reducing the staff cost over five years it remains costly technology and the life expectancy of the tags and equipment is still unclear.  Finding the budget to replace Library Management Systems has often been tricky, finding larger amounts of budget to replace RFID systems may be yet more challenging.

That being said, RFID technology is helping to change the way libraries are run.  It is helping to drive the modernisation of libraries and getting people to think about improving the look of libraries and considering how many of the traditional library rules and regulations are relevant.    Looked at optimistically it does free staff from the day-to-day manual loan/return processes  and allow the possibility of more time to spend in other library activities.

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July 2020

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