Monday, 25 October 2010

Libraries without librarians?

The Wall Street Journal has produced a somewhat bleak article focusing on the news that to cut operational costs, U.S. public library services are turning to automated mechanisms, sometimes over staff.

Faced with layoffs and budget cuts, or simply looking for ways to expand their reach, libraries around the country are replacing traditional, full-service institutions with devices and approaches that may be redefining what it means to have a library.

Later this year Mesa, Ariz., plans to open a new "express" library in a strip-mall, open three days a week, with outdoor kiosks to dispense books and DVDs at all hours of the day. Palm Harbor, Fla., meanwhile, has offset the impact of reduced hours by installing glass-front vending machines that dispense DVDs and popular books.

The wave of innovation is aided by companies that have created new machines designed to help libraries save on labor. For instance, Evanced Solutions, an Indianapolis company that makes library software, this month is starting test trials of a new vending machine it plans to start selling early next year.

"It's real, and the book lockers are great," said Audra Caplan, president of the Public Library Association. "Many of us are having to reduce hours as government budgets get cut, and this enables people to get to us after hours."

Whilst it will be a while before a walking robot can successfully guide a reader around the labyrinthine complexities of South Front 3 within the UL, it is interesting to note that this is seen by some as a negative or retrograde step.

"The basis of the vending machine is to reduce the library to a public-book locker," Mr. Lund said in an interview. "Our real mission is public education and public education can't be done from a vending machine. It takes educators, it takes people, it takes interaction."

I don't personally read it that way. Many libraries in Cambridge and the world over already use self-circulation machines to cut costs and make life easier for the reader.

The article seems to be placing a negative cutback-centric spin on a larger growing trend for automating basic library services.

Academic libraries have been doing this kind of thing for years. A self-issue terminal that works with RFI tags in books is arguably a much nicer experience than a 10 minute queue ending in a grumpy Librarian. Ditto with being able to get requested books from an external locker any time you like.

Freeing up staff time for more productive action or interaction (of the reader-educational type perhaps?) other than scanning a barcode and stamping a book is never a bad thing.

From my perspective as an evening Duty Officer within the UL, it would be really nice to be able to have some way to cater for those readers who insist on turning up five minutes before closing with a really complex query. These lockers would not work, so where is the robot that could possibly help here?

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