Monday, October 13, 2008

The downside of self-checks?

In today's Post-Crescent, columnist Jim Olski wrote a piece:
Talk is cheap, so why does it keep disappearing?

After taking a copy of Charles Dickens' "Our Mutual Friend" off the shelf, I headed to the checkout counter at the Appleton Public Library.

I placed my library card on the automatic checkout gizmo and placed the book on top of that. A piece of paper printed out and, by golly, the task was done.

"They've got this almost perfected," I thought ...

Gosh, sounds nice. But Olski is not writing to praise the library, but to deliver a jeremiad on the loss of conversation in an automated world. He goes on to say:
I mourn the passing of one more human interaction, the friendly chat while checking out a book.

Sure, it's a big library, and we must be efficient, but the inevitability of progress comes with a cost, and here's what I think it is: The niceties of civil discourse among nodding acquaintances tempered our conversation among strangers, so that we didn't always meet so angrily as My Side and The Other.

Add the librarian to the bank teller and the gas station attendant.
And I get it. The library is about building community, and that means creating opportunities for conversations -- among library users as well as between staff and patrons. Right now, about 25% of our checkouts go through our five self-check machines. Some studies of the library have called on us to increase that percentage number, in the name of added efficiency. We're recruiting volunteers to help teach people how to use the self-checks (and the volunteers will talk with people).

But in looking for more efficiency, its important that we keep that human interaction -- and we have. Olski's concerns notwithstanding, we keep our desk staffed, and no-one is required to use the self-check. Full service checkouts always available.

I responded:
Jim -

Interesting ideas, but two reactions:

1) There are always at least two people working the Appleton Library checkout, because computers are lousy at solving nonstandard problems and giving you human interaction. We agree: it's too important to lose!

2) If the budget and staff would increase as fast as the use, we might not need self-check machines. But they can't. Our circulation last month was up 68% over our circulation in Sept. 2000. Can you imagine your taxes supporting a 68% increase in library staff in 8 years? Efficiency is a mandate, not a choice.

But we still have people for you to talk with, if you're willing to wait in line, and the library works in lots of ways to increase community conversations.

I haven't read "Our Mutual Friend"; how was it?

I'm not necessarily a fan of automating things that can be done with personal service, but I am a fan of continuing to provide good library service to a growing community. Sometimes that means figuring out how to do more work without more staff.

1 comment:

Terry Dawson said...

Jeff Scott commented:

That's often the complaint. Make it efficient and friendly, but the two are often at odds with each other.

Self-check is to get your books and go. There are still are people manning the desks to help you.

[note: the original post, and Jeff's comment, were accidentally deleted; this is a re-created copy]