Why I HATE RFID and Automation and How Mountain View Library Might Change my Mind #library

Mountain View Public Library
Mountain View Public Library
I’m always a little skeptical of automated library return systems. I’ve had some bad experiences with them and I’m never sure that they have a positive return on investment. So when our library system decided to invest in four at four of our branch locations I was a little worried to say the least. Luckily, our director made the decision to have our branch manager meetings at other libraries in the area instead of within our own library system. This lets all of us branch managers gain a little insight into the tools and techniques of other libraries and in this case, gain a more in depth look at the automated system in the Mountain View Public Library (I will review this automated system and this beautiful library in general in a post to come). This re-look at these kinds of systems made me think of my own personal history and concerns about automation and RFIDs in general.

The first concern is the cost of such a system. In my last library we used the 3M system for RFIDs and automation. The RFIDs cost $0.46 each (we had 180,000), the RFID readers cost a few thousand each (we had almost 20), the RFID printers were rented and still cost a few thousand. These costs don’t include the costs for the servers, wiring, installation, security gates, self check-stations, and software maintenance charges that total some number beyond my comprehension. At that library we didn’t have, and therefore I didn’t include the cost of a fully automated sorting system and all items fell through the bookslot and into one bin.

The second concern is that, in my experience, these systems don’t require less work from staff at all. We were told that, as the items fell through the bookslot, they would automatically be checked-in and all we would have to do is sort the items and put them back on the shelves. However, this was not case. Items in the bookdrops were only checked-in 60-65% of the time requiring all items to be re-checked manually and sorted for holds and ILLs by hand. Also, metallic items such as anything with a CD, or metallic and reflective paint would not be scannable with the RFID system. Our library system also had a second building that wasn’t RFIDed. This is a similar problem found in library consortiums where items can be returned between library systems and different brands of barcodes or RFIDs are used that aren’t compatible. In relation to the amount of work required by automated systems is how much work staff is still required to do. Generally, the items still need to be pulled that are on hold or ILL, they still need to be

My third concern is; how well does the sorting machine actually work? I’ve been to a few libraries that use an automated sorting system that simply doesn’t sort the items in a way that’s even remotely effective. The items are misfed, mislabeled, and missorted to such an extent that the librarians have simply stopped using the system. The complaints from the poor folks who are stuck with these machines are long and plentiful and filled with stories of what could have been better done with the hundreds of thousands of dollars that were spent on the non-functioning machine. Of course the vendors promised the world to these sad librarians and I’ve actually heard the vendors say at conferences that staff will never have to touch a book again! In fact, I’ve had to stop spending time in exhibit halls at conferences because I’ve angered too many venders by my questions that lead them to admit to the Music Man like lie they just blatantly made to the group of librarians who surrounded their shiny new machines that would solve every library problem ever created and sure to come.

My final concern surrounds the ease of use for the patrons who are forced to use this machine. As the librarians are already frustrated with many of these systems, the patrons forced to use them oftentimes have the same experience. Many times the system has a new set of rules that patrons must learn, the system doesn’t work intuitively or consistently, and the end result is that the patron makes a mistake, the machine doesn’t work and the patron gets blamed, feels stupid, or simply doesn’t want to learn. And honestly, who can blame them? They already have to learn how to use ATMs, different self-check systems at grocery stores, smartphones, computer programs, different computer platforms, and the list goes on.

As a side story – I was recently talking to a library director at a conference about their RFID system and she made the comment that items need to be returned one at a time through the bookdrop for it to work but patrons were putting in more. Someone asked how they make sure that items are put one at a time through the bookdrop and she simply said “oh, we made a sign.” I asked her how that worked out for her, and she said…(I’m not kidding)… “it’s a really nice sign that’s made out of brass and engraved” and then looked at me as if that settled the problem and answered my question. I’m not sure that it did, but I gained a lot of insight into how that library works with that statement.

Luckily, I found that the Mountain View Library’s system solves almost all of these problems and is, as a library building, a very beautiful and functional space. Perhaps, one day renewing my faith in library vendors and automated systems. I will be blogging about how this whole thing SUCCESSFULLY!!! works in the days to come.