To boldly go: Library transitioning to self-checkout

JCPL employee Celeste Smedley applies RFID tags to books in the library’s children’s section. Photo by Jeff Keeling

JCPL employee Celeste Smedley applies RFID tags to books in the library’s children’s section. Photo by Jeff Keeling

By Jeff Keeling

Celeste Smedley was busy at a repetitive task in the stacks of the Johnson City Public Library (JCPL) last week. She’d pull a book, scan the bar code on its outside cover, peel off a radio-frequency identification (RFID) sticker, and stick that on the inside cover. One down, about 100,000 to go.

It’s tedious work, but the task Smedley, other library staff and volunteers hope to complete by the end of October will set JCPL on a path toward many long-term positive results, JCPL Director Bob Swanay says. (Prospective volunteers should call Smedley at (423) 434-4362.)

On the surface, after a three-year investment of $223,000, library patrons will have access to self-checkout – a high-tech conveyor and bin sorting system in concert with the RFID tags having eliminated many of the daily tedious steps of check-in and sorting currently completed by library staff.

“Now, you return your books and a staff member has to retrieve the book, line of site scan the bar code, check it in, run it across a magnet to turn the security off and then walk over and sort it somewhere. Technology’s going to do all of that before anybody has to touch it.”

That labor saving will allow Swanay to redeploy staff time to tasks that help enrich the library experience for users. Swanay understood it was only natural for staff members to wonder whether technology would be replacing their jobs. Nothing, he says, could be further from the truth.

Right now, Swanay says the library is considering expanding its teen services and teen area. “There’s an opportunity to provide staffing support for an idea like that in a way that currently, without this investment, we wouldn’t have the capacity to do.

“Investment in this technology allows us to focus more on providing better service, not get hung up in these processes, let the technology do the grunt work and let us provide great library service.”

JCPL will be the first public library in the region with the technology, but if Swanay had had his way, it would already be in place. In hindsight, though, he’s glad he didn’t have his way when he first lobbied for the changeover coming out of 2009 strategic planning sessions with the library board.

While he didn’t particularly like being told over several years, “the time just isn’t right,” Swanay says a couple of things occurred in the interim. The library pursued other improvements – computer enhancements, remodeling and, last year, purchase of a new, far superior digital catalog system – and the cost of those little tags Smedley and company are applying to each item in the library’s 150,000-strong collection came way down.

“When we first started looking into this, the cost of the tags was north of 80 cents each,” Swanay says. “Now, it’s about 16 cents. Also during that period the technology has been standardized, so now we can take what we have and switch companies and these tags are still going to work.”

In other words, RFID technology for libraries, like most technology, has become continually better and cheaper, to the degree that JCPL is getting a better product for about $100,000 less than it would have six years ago. “On top of that, the new catalog system we have will work much more seamlessly with this self-check technology than the old one would have,” Swanay adds.

By the first of 2017, patrons will be able to have their materials self-checked out just by holding the materials above the self-check machine. The tags and the first machine are costing about $60,000, part of a one-time, investment from the Johnson City Commission.

Next year, the conveyor and bin system will be installed, at first with three bins. In the final year, two more bins will be added and several additional self-checkout stations will be placed at various spots in the library. When all is said and done, the hope is that most patrons will check their items out on their own, and returned items will roll down the belt and be dumped into whichever of the five bins they should be – one each for adult books, adult media, youth books, youth media and “other.”

Swanay says at this point, he believes the staff is “100 percent positive on it. There were some concerns, but I made a point to have meetings and discuss this with every single staff member.

“The ones who are most excited about it are the ones who are doing these repetitive motion tasks. The thought that they might get to do something more fulfilling and more rewarding during their work time at the library is exciting to them.”

For the traditionalists, Swanay says, old school checkout will remain available at the front desk. “You won’t see four people at the desk doing it, you’ll probably see one.” Not only that, he says, but the hope is that the vast majority of users go self-checkout. “We won’t be successful in this investment unless it’s widely adopted.”

“You make this one shot investment and you’ve completely transformed the library going forward forever.”


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