Libraries hope new book checkout systems are faster, easier for patrons
By Mike Nolan email@example.com March 3, 2013 11:00PM
Erin Flynn, an Orland Park Public Library employee, shows the library's current barcode scanning system used by patrons for checking out books. The library is installing a radio-frequency identification system designed to speed the process for patrons che
Check it out
Used in the I-Pass network and anti-theft tags on store merchandise, radio-frequency identification technology will be deployed by public libraries in Oak Lawn and Orland Park in the coming months. It’s designed to make it easier for patrons to take advantage of self checkout of books and other materials.
A thin, adhesive tag that contains an antenna and basic information about the material it’s attached to is “read” by a device that emits a radio signal. The scanner also deactivates the tag, so, just like at the store, it won’t set off an alarm at security gates in the library. The RFID systems will replace self checkout stations that rely on bar code scanners and are designed to be simpler, faster and less error-prone.
Updated: April 5, 2013 6:02AM
Marlon King’s goal is to finish 400 books an hour.
Not reading them, obviously, but affixing sticky tags slightly thicker than a postage stamp to books and other materials at the Oak Lawn Public Library. It’s part of the prep work for the rollout this spring of a new way of checking out books that is also being introduced at the Orland Park Public Library.
Oak Lawn and Orland Park are among a growing number of libraries using radio-frequency identification, or RFID, technology that’s designed to make it easier, and faster, for DIY-inclined patrons to bypass the circulation desk.
The tags are little antennas and have basic information about whatever they’re stuck to — a book, CD or DVD. That information is read by a device that emits a radio signal.
Both libraries now have self checkout terminals that use a scanner to read an item’s bar code. But that means having to carefully line up the label so the scanner can “see” it, and because books might have more than one bar code, each containing different information, it can cause confusion for patrons.
“There’s too much room for human error,” Mary Weimar, director of the Orland library, said of the current system. “RFID is much more efficient.”
Weimar said the goal isn’t to use technology to replace people, but instead give library staff the ability to help visitors with other needs.
“This will be more efficient for staff time and patron checkout,” she said. “It might free them (staff) up to spend more time with patrons.”
For Oak Lawn, “ease for the patron” in checking out materials is the main reason for installing the new system, Jim Deiters, library director, said.
His library currently has one self checkout station that uses a bar code scanner, at the main circulation desk. The new RFID-based system will have five terminals located throughout the library.
Orland now has three self checkout stations, and that will expand to four with this new system. Initially, Weimar said, the stations will likely be in the library lobby.
The technology the libraries are using isn’t new. Familiar applications of RFID include anti-theft tags retailers attach to merchandise, and the I-Pass system has readers deployed along the toll roads using the technology on a larger scale to gather information from transponders mounted in vehicles.
Falling costs associated with installing the systems have made it easier for libraries to adopt RFID technology. Weimar said that when the Orland library moved to its current home eight years ago, officials considered it but balked, partly due to the fact the price of the tags themselves was more than $1 each. They’ve since dropped to under 25 cents apiece.
“It just wasn’t feasible” at the time, she said, noting the library has nearly 270,000 items that will have to be tagged.
Oak Lawn library officials, in 1995, also considered it, but the high cost was one factor in holding off, said James Baker, the library’s head of technical services. Also, Baker said, each vendor’s system was proprietary, meaning should a supplier of RFID equipment go out of business, a library that had bought that system was stuck paying for a new one, which happened to a few libraries after one vendor went bankrupt.
To save money on converting to the new circulation system, Oak Lawn hired its own subcontractor, DecisionOne, to tag books and other materials, and is using off-the-shelf equipment, including computers, wherever possible, Baker said.
King is one of eight people, working in two-person teams, employed by DecisionOne. They’ve been told to hit a target of 400 tagged books each hour and, with more than 300,000 items in the library needing a tag, the job should hopefully be finished by the end of March.
Once the system is operating this spring, patrons using self checkout will scan their library card and lay books on top of the reader, while a touch-screen computer displays instructions. The process should take a matter of a few seconds, and patrons can have a receipt printed, emailed to them, or both.
Although Orland Park is using a different RFID vendor, the procedure should be virtually identical at that library.
Even with the cost-saving measures, Oak Lawn will spend in the neighborhood of $300,000 to implement its system, while Orland is investing about $175,000. The library, however, hasn’t yet decided whether it will rely on staff or an outside firm to do the actual tagging of books, which won’t be done until spring and could add to the cost.
Deiters said Oak Lawn’s current self checkout station isn’t heavily used by visitors, but the library is hopeful patrons will embrace the new system.
“We’ll have to see how our patrons adapt,” he said.