A Circulation Renovation Cuts Expenses

Self-service checkout and return reduces staffing costs

April 8, 2010

With public funding becoming less available throughout the country, libraries are looking for ways to trim their current and future budgets. One library is using popular new technology to reduce staff costs, one of the biggest items in any library’s budget: The St. Joseph County Public Library in South Bend, Indiana, recently renovated the circulation department at its Main Library to make many of the functions self-service.

The library’s architect, Arkos Design of Niles, Michigan, worked closely with the staff to determine how patrons navigated the library as they returned, browsed, and withdrew materials. Several key functions were located at the existing main entrance: Books were returned at a desk that also had an area for patron registration and other interactions; books were checked out at a circulation desk with staff workstations behind the desks that were adjacent to windows near the entrance. The library also wanted a more prominent location for holds and browsing of new books, which were not easily accessible to patrons previously. The library’s wish list for the main lobby also included a vending café.

The library wanted to eliminate the large service desks that required significant staffing and to provide automated services for returns and checkout that would be more efficient for patrons. A new smaller “concierge” desk would be created to resolve all patron issues not related to the circulation of books. The desk would be within view of circulation functions to provide assistance when necessary, but the emphasis would be on self-service.
The library had been using self-checkout stations for about 10 years, but in the past the machines were always a part of an enlarged circulation desk. This created a tendency for patrons to continue to rely on the nearby staff to check out materials, which consumed a significant portion of staff time. However, with self-service becoming more popular at banks and grocery stores, and with many patrons already using self-check at the existing circulation desks, the library felt the time was right to move to full-time self-check. The stations were placed in prominent locations that supplemented the patron traffic patterns. Design features, lighting, and details were aimed at drawing the patrons to the units instead of the desk.

The newest feature, and the most costly, was the implementation of an automatic book return system. This feature allows patrons to place their books on a machine that automatically checks them in; it then transfers the materials to a conveying system that moves them to a particular cart. Additional staff time is saved in sorting returned books to carts dedicated to specific departments. The machine is a design feature in itself, as it was placed behind a glass enclosure that complemented the building design to allow patrons to watch the materials being sorted.
The $351,809  cost of the renovation cost was boosted to $1,000,466 once the equipment was added. However, the changes allow the library to operate with fewer staff. Although the library has not yet needed to release any staff members, as they leave on their own accord they are not replaced. After 10 months, the library reports that self-checkout usage is at 85%; software enhancements in the next six months are expected to increase that figure to 95%.

Other benefits from the changes are a larger patron lounge area near the windows, which was previously occupied by staff workstations that were moved to a more private office area adjacent to the auto-sorting machine. A small vending café, stocked and maintained by a local vending company, was created in an underused study carrel alcove; this provides additional revenue without requiring staff time or leasing of library space by an outside vendor, who stocks and maintains the equipment. New books and holds are now located more prominently along normal patron traffic patterns.