Self-Service to the People
The California State Library GoLibrary Project uses automated materials vending to aid underserved populations in new ways
By Susan Kantor-Horning -- Library Journal, 8/15/2009
It’s called GoLibrary in the United States and Bokomaten in its native Sweden. Patrons know it as Library-a-Go-Go in Contra Costa County, CA, but whatever its name, the automated lending service this materials handling machine provides has proved a tremendous aid in addressing underserved segments of this sprawling community.
Commuter and resident benefits
It’s not hard to imagine that nightmarish daily commutes might leave residents with little time or inclination to visit community libraries. Though not necessarily a point of pride, a recent national report indicated that Contra Costa County workers have the tenth worst commute in the nation and the longest commute west of the Mississippi River. The library can’t help with the commute, but it does have a ton of materials that could make passing the time a little more pleasant—if patrons can get their hands on them. That’s where the GoLibrary machine enters the picture.
The Contra Costa County Library’s (CCCL) strategic plan conducted in 2004–05 identified residents as looking for a library experience that was fast, available at convenient hours, welcoming, easy to use, and customer-focused. Luckily, a former deputy county librarian of public services saw the book vending machine in operation at the Stockholm Public Library in 2006 while traveling to her native Sweden. According to Distec, the Swedish company that created the machine, GoLibrary could fit CCCL’s needs, requiring only a location, a dedicated high-speed Internet connection, SIP2 (Standard Interchange Protocol, version 2) integration with the ILS, and RFID tags on books circulated from the machine.
Thanks to a generous 2007 Library Services and Technology Act–funded grant through the California State Library, commuters taking Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and residents living in an underserved area of the county will have immediate access to a wide variety of books at three locations (with a fourth in the works). Two of the current library materials vending machines have been installed at BART stations in the district and a third machine at a well-trafficked shopping center, which was additionally paid for in part by a grant from the Bay Area Library and Information System (BALIS). Two out of the three machines are accessible 24 hours a day.
Vending nuts and bolts
The Library-a-Go-Go service consists of a stand-alone machine, with access to a self-contained collection of approximately 400 paperbacks, that handles both checkouts and returns to authorized cardholders. The customer logs in to the system with a library card and uses the touch screen to make a selection, which is delivered by a robotic arm. The item arrives in a plastic case through an open slot, with a receipt. To return materials, the process is reversed, and the item is returned in its case through the same slot. A second-generation machine installed at the Sandy Cove Shopping Center does not require the plastic cases.
CCCL decided to test the service by circulating books only. For the machine at the shopping center, the library agreed to a “no compete” clause concerning video or audio materials in deference to the nearby Long’s drugstore and Blockbuster. However, anything could potentially be put into the plastic cases, such as iPods, DVDs, etc.
While holds cannot be placed on materials in the machines, CCCL hopes soon to allow patrons to renew materials checked out from the machine through their accounts. However, there are concerns that the range of materials available to other patrons would be even more limited if renewals are allowed from a unit that holds only 400 titles.
The collection is updated every quarter. In terms of collection development, Library-a-Go-Go customers demand a greater range of titles than expected, and thus money needs to be allotted for refreshing the collections. Still, because all items are paperbacks, refreshing collections costs far less than expected. To stretch the collections further, the library no longer orders large quantities of a few titles but rather one to three copies of many titles.
So how are patrons taking to the Library-a-Go-Go service? “Now the library has come to me!” said one satisfied patron. “I find that I am able to read more now,” said another, “since I commute to San Francisco daily. Thank you!” According to a small survey at the time of the first launch, 67 percent of respondents said they use the service primarily for materials to read during their commute, and 84 percent rated the service as excellent. Seventy-three percent even said they consider a machine their main “branch”!
In its first year of operation, the initial Library-a-Go-Go machine launched at the BART station has seen 1,624 circulations, an average of 135 per month. At any given time, 25 percent of the items are checked out at this location. The second machine, launched in late May at the shopping center, had 333 circulations during its first month of service. The third, which debuted in June at a major transit hub for over 8000 daily commuters, had 468 circulations during its first two weeks in operation and 30 percent of its collection checked out at any given time.
Rural benefits, too
Though urban and suburban commuters were the initial inspiration for installing the machines, the potential of automated vending doesn’t end there. Susan Hildreth, former California State Librarian (now at Seattle Public Library), seeing the benefits of GoLibrary for rural libraries with few or no branches, invited the Yuba County Library (YCL) to participate as one of the beta testers and the second recipient of the grant. With over 600 square miles of service area and a population of just over 70,000, YCL’s one facility along with a bookmobile strains to meet residents’ needs. YCL director Loren McCrory enthusiastically agreed to participate in a project purported to require a minimum amount of staff time to maintain and very little overhead. Although McCrory had no prior experience with SIP2 or RFID, she and her one staff member were able to get up to speed with technical support from the CCCL staff.
Califa, a membership-based California library consortium, spent considerable staff time negotiating the contract with Distec on behalf of the project libraries and coordinating the purchase of the GoLibrary machines. (As of April 2009, Evanced Solutions has reached a distribution and service agreement with Distec to resell the machines in other parts of the country). Califa is the sole supplier of this equipment to California libraries and gave various levels of support such as mediating between the libraries and the vendor and working with a U.S. customs clearance agent to expedite the shipments to each delivery point. The machines were flown to California after being manufactured to specifications in Italy.
Technical hurdles bound
The grant project provided significant technical challenges for the pilot libraries since it was the first implementation of a European-developed technology for dispensing books. It did not integrate with any ILS that either Yuba County or Contra Costa County used. Prior to the arrival and installation of the units, there was some general concern about Distec’s ability to program SIP2 to work with each library’s ILS—TLC’s Carl.Solution for CCCL and SirsiDynix for YCL. Yuba migrated from a hosted ILS, through the local community college, to a stand-alone SirsiDynix.net client-server solution and upgraded to SirsiDynix Symphony in order to include enhanced content needed for helping patrons make selections from GoLibrary’s touch screen.
Thanks to the libraries’ efforts, the project extended the capabilities of the original dispenser design by connecting in real-time to the library systems so customer accounts are automatically updated, and books returned are immediately available to others. However, while the improved ILS allowed YCL to establish the SIP2 connection, the networking modifications have been tricky, causing considerable service downtime. CCCL has also experienced intermittent problems with SIP2, including certain titles automatically renewing multiple times, resulting in unreliable statistics and indefinite due dates. While CCCL has been able to deliver the service successfully, one of the units has seen more than 23 days of downtime. Although Distec works at resolving software problems, it still does not have flawless quality assurance testing, which means that new operational “bugs” still crop up and require on-site troubleshooting.
There have been a slew of other hurdles, too. After the equipment arrived, CCCL staff learned that an RFID tag was required not only for the book but also for the plastic case needed for the first-generation machines. This means that when the tags overlap physically they cannot be read, and the machine rejects the book from being checked in or added to the collection. Getting the RFID reader inside the machine to read the 3M tags has been a challenge since the tags use alphanumeric encoding, but the machine only reads tags using numeric encoding. The manufacturer is working on fixing the problem. Meanwhile, CCCL has installed a remote camera inside the machines for closer monitoring and troubleshooting of site malfunctions.
Modifications that Distec has made since the premiere of the Library-a-Go-Go service include programming the interface to show only available copies, the ability for borrowers with blocked cards to return overdue books to the machine, and the elimination of plastic cases to hold materials so users do not have to be responsible for them. This will also negate the risk of failed reads caused by overlapping tags. The size of the plastic cases used for the first-generation machines and the plastic trays inside the second-generation machines proved to be more of a challenge for the libraries than anticipated, as the service was designed to work with books according to standard European publishing sizes and not with the wide range of sizes for books published in the United States. The calibration of the trays that dispense the books in the second-generation machine has also been an issue.
Distec provides a customer checklist for the site arrangements libraries need to make, such as getting the necessary approvals from land and premise owners, finding a location protected from the weather, securing a supply of power, and establishing a dedicated high-speed Internet connection. In addition to the costs of the unit itself and the custom programming required to integrate it with the library’s circulation system, other costs may be associated with changes required at the installation location. Renovations are often needed in order to place the machine in the best possible place for visibility and convenience. Such structural, electrical, and architectural costs vary with each location and must be taken into consideration with each individual implementation plan.
In addition, everyone involved in the project agrees that it is essential to have experienced library IT professionals, preferably an in-house IT department, to support the service.
The right staff
CCCL’s Library-a-Go-Go service was introduced in May 2008 and received intense media coverage. Marketing has been crucial to its success. An internal subcommittee led by the county’s public information officer identified key messages, established a marketing campaign, and brainstormed an opening event. In the days leading up to launch of the first machine, library staff were on-site at the BART station to promote the service, and local television stations carried teasers about the upcoming unveiling. The service continues to attract widespread interest from other libraries and media; the library won the California State Library PR Excellence Award for the project.
Library-a-Go-Go has its own page on the library’s web site, and its holdings are included in the library catalog, where each machine is listed as a separate “location” so users can identify the material they can access there. Community outreach staff give hands-on demonstrations to promote the service, answer questions, and provide on-the-spot library card sign-ups.
These on-site registrations have been very successful. For all Library-a-Go-Go locations this year, CCCL has a combined total of 868 registrations. The library signed up 378 new members at the original BART station site, and the second BART installation has proven even more successful, with 150 on-site registrations within the first ten days of service. Also, having staff on-site allows them to witness the kinds of problems people encounter and to assist them in using the machine.
The fourth and last CCCL installation is planned for early 2010 in an upcoming transit village, consisting of high-density housing, offices, and retail space on 7.5 acres. This machine is being funded through Contra Costa County’s Redevelopment Agency and will be a built-in unit.
YCL is currently researching the possibility of obtaining additional technology products to support the county’s efforts in covering its many underserved districts. (See Automated Materials Vending Options for info on a variety of products.)
While pioneering this new service has not been easy, everyone involved feels it has been worth the time and effort to deliver needed new services in areas where they previously did not exist.
|Vendor||Brodart||Libramation||Evanced Solutions*||Frich Corporation|
|Product||Lending Library www.books.brodart.com/ |
|LibraMate libramation.com||GoLibrary evancedsolutions.com/ |
|Library-To-Go** frichcorp.com/Procuct AfterHourHolds.aspx|
|Installation||Freestanding with overhang||Freestanding or built-in; unit is customized||Freestanding with overhang||Freestanding, customizable|
|Plastic cases needed||No||Yes||Versions exist for both scenarios||Yes for browsing collection; not for holds pickup|
|Capacity||Hardcover, 180Paperback, 360DVD/Audio, 400||From 600–1000 items, depending on media mix||From 435–2000 items, depending on media mix||Customizable; price-per-unit-storage from $25–$50 depending on style, quantity|
|ILS integration||Yes||Yes, via SIP2, NCIP, or direct via an API||Yes, via SIP2||Yes; proprietary software links to catalog|
|Base cost||Machine price under $20,000, including hardware, software, first-year maintenance support, freight, and installation; sold with McNaughton subscription (extra cost)||NA||Book system is $100,000–$120,000 for machine; AV version costs less||$80,000 for three units, including software and installation|
|Support cost||After first year, approx. $2000/unit||1st-year parts and labor warranty, thereafter an extended warranty is available at 10% of cost||one-year warranty, service agreement costs will depend on service level||After first year, $1000 for all units|
|More info||Allows patrons to view actual materials through the glass, as opposed to selecting from a list on a screen||Company also makes MediaBank, a standalone dispensing and return unit for AV media has different models with capacity from 500–3100 discs||AV-only units are available that don’t require RFID||Customer chooses title, takes receipt to be scanned into collection/holds unit, which allows correct box to be opened|
|*Info provided by Evanced, which has exclusive rights to sell the machine in most of the Northeastern quarter of the United States. Califa is also an authorized reseller in California.|
**Developed for Mid-Continent PL, Kansas City, MO, adapted from Lock-a-Shelf™ Disc Storage into TwentyFour7™ Patron Reserve Systems
In addition to the products listed here, mk Sorting Systems says it will be debuting a similar materials vending option at the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting in Boston in January 2010. According to the company, the product will hold 800–900 items depending on type of media, won’t require any special containers, and will accommodate both holds and returns.