Saturday 2 March 2013

Does self serve really offer the library user a choice?

Let me start off by nailing my colours to the mast, I fundamentally disagree with the use of self serve (not RFID) in Public Libraries for the following reasons; in the vast majority of cases it's used to cut staff, it's linked to the commercial/retail led agenda prevalent in libraries management and from the evidence (mostly taken from the results of user consultations) that I've seen the majority of users don't want it.
But if it's going to be imposed, and it is up and down the country, then at least it should afford the user a choice. And this is what is really worrying me i don't believe that users are being given a real choice, usage targets are being set at anything up to 90-95% and staff are being trained in how to persuade and influence users, surely an ethical issue? Also desk/counter space is being reduced or removed and staff are being told that this is being done because the public see it as a barrier.

Recently i spotted a discussion on LIS PUB LIBS that highlights some of my concerns;

Subject: [PubLib] Self-checkout percentages

Apologies for any duplication.

Our problem:  we began self-checkout about three years ago, but so far we have not seen our usage levels rise to the desired point.  We're stuck at a system-wide usage of about 30%, with some branches much higher than that and others lower.  We really want to raise these levels because we want to free up some of our staff to do more interesting things than hang out at the circulation desk, but we're at something of a loss for how to do it.  We know that terminal placement in some of our locations is a problem and we're working on fixing that, but we know there are other things we can and should be doing to encourage higher usage.

We would love to talk to some libraries that have self-checkout and also have a usage percentage of 70% or higher.  If you represent one of those libraries and would be willing to share some statistics and tips with us, please reply to this email.  If you can, we would really like to see branch-by-branch usage stats, but we're also very interested in learning how you marketed self-checkout and actually got patrons to use it.

Thanks in advance for any help you can provide.

The first thing to say about this is that there is no recognition that maybe the reason the figure is 30% is that users don't want to use it? It's always assumed that users are happy with self serve and only need to be influenced or pushed to use it, no consideration of political and ideological opposition.
The other thing is if staff are hanging out at the circulation desk then this is a training and supervision issue and isn't necessarily going to be solved by self serve unless they remove the desk altogether but then staff might just hang around somewhere else? To be quite honest I'm really surprised that staff have got the time to hang around, in my experience staff are run off their feet.

Here's one of the responses;

Subject: Re: [PubLib] Self-checkout percentages

Our self checkout is about 75-80% of our total checkout at our main library.
Here are some steps we took to increase use of self check:
1.      Self pick up of holds made probably the biggest difference.
2.      As you note, machine placement--we put ours front and center so they were right by the circ desk.  They are also right by the holds and the new books for the grab and go crowd.   We also uncluttered the lobby so there weren't so many distractions and the machines stood out more.
3.      We had volunteers in the lobby who would pull people out of line and ask them if they would like to try self check and who would walk them through it.
4.      At one point we were using dispensers for feature films, which forced anyone who wanted a movie to use a self serve dispenser. We stopped using those for a variety of reasons, but it did get people trained.
5.      We put one in the children's section and kids loved playing librarian by getting to check out their own books.
6.      We increased our block threshold.
7.      We enabled fine payment on the machines (have had some technical problems with this, but it is a way to remove barriers from use of the machines).
8.      Our vendor provides a remote staff override device which allows us to easily clear things that are preventing checkout, rather than having to wait for a staff member to walk over and help.
9.      Promotional materials to call attention to the service.
10.     We downsized our circ desk and only staff it with one person at a time (partly because of budget cuts) but it did make lines longer and the empty self check machine more attractive.
11.     The ability to key in your library card number in case you remember your card number but don't have your card with you (probably applicable only to library staff or extremely avid users)
12.     We also have self check enabled on our mobile app, so patrons can check out anywhere in the library using their phone or other mobile device.  We don't have a security system.

In general, trying to think of barriers that are keeping patrons from using self check is useful, like having to pay fines, pick up a hold, etc.   You could even ask users in line as kind of a mini focus group.   There are people who will say they prefer interacting with a live human and who love our staff, which of course is a good thing!  Some people mistakenly thought we were laying people off to replace them with machines, which we tried to clear up.

Hope this helps!

The worrying thing for me here is the use of the words 'pull' and 'force' and "We downsized our circ desk and only staff it with one person at a time (partly because of budget cuts) but it did make lines longer and the empty self check machine more attractive.", so where is the real choice here for the user?
Also users are not stupid, although we often treat them as if they are, they can see that staff have been cut and probably know that it's down to a mixture of budget cuts and self serve, why not just be honest about it?
At least they recognise that interacting with a "live human" is a good thing.

Being a library worker, whether you're a Head of Service or a Library Assistant, should be about responding to the needs and wants of the local community not imposing a service delivery model on them that they didn't ask for and then trying to force or influence them to use it. This lack of choice is surely an ethical issue that the profession should be resisting and at the very least discussing?



  1. There is a miscommunication here that "hanging out at the circ desk" referred to staff being idle. I think the writer meant "spending time on mundane circ tasks". The goal is not to cut staff, it is to free up human resources to use for things that really benefit the community, like outreach, computer workshops, etc.

    1. Thanks for your comment Todd. You may be right that the writer meant "spending time on mundane circ tasks" but it's not the way that i read it and anyway what are mundane circ tasks? Are they the things that we have always done in libraries in order to facilitate the smooth running of the service, the crucial minutiae of the profession, if so then surely these are part and parcel of the job, the foundations?
      The other point that you make about self serve not being about cutting jobs but about freeing up staff time i'm afraid in the context of UK libraries just doesn't stand up to scrutiny, even Mick Fortune, an internationally renowned RFID consultant, admits that the majority of UK public library authorities use self serve to cut jobs and as for freeing up time well that's not my experience and not born out by the feedback from front line staff that i've had, in fact most say that it creates more work and less time to spend doing important things like outreach, IT sessions etc and anyway in a lot of cases volunteers now take on these roles not paid staff.

  2. Thanks for the flattery Alan but your use of the word "admits" sounds a bit emotionally charged - almost as if understanding presupposes approval.

    I think the use of self service to cut staffing budgets may be a uniquely English approach - rather like closing down libraries in fact. Most European nations understand the economic argument for maintaining a public service of some kind even if they don't recognise any cultural imperative.

    The argument isn't really about the technology - breaking the looms didn't stop the industrial revolution - it's about philosophy. In times of plenty we welcome labour saving devices that put an end to drudgery. When times are hard we see them as a threat to our livelihoods. The technology is the technology - it's what we do with it that changes.

    I think RFID has much to offer. I also think that most librarians have only scratched the surface of its potential so far. I would like to live in a society that seeks to enrich the lives of all and sees technology as a means to that end. Sadly I don't.

    But that doesn't make me an apologist - just a realist.

  3. Thanks for your comment Mick and i'm sorry if some of the language is "emotionally charged" but i'm very passionate about the the subject of self serve and public libraries as you know. I don't fully understand RFID and it's potential and i'm not against it per se, the only side of it i have experience of is self serve which i see cutting jobs, poorly implemeted and being imposed without a mandate on users (and staff).
    I'm not a luddite librarian, honestly! ;-)