Library self-checkout, revised edition

Library self-checkout, revised edition

Self-checkout and I are not good friends.

I try not to be a techno-phobe, but after a long trek through the grocery store with two kids in tow, I’m ready for someone else to do the math.

So when the new Champaign Public Library opened in 2008 with a new self-checkout system, I was dubious but willing to give it a try.

Somehow I managed to set off the security alarm almost every time. The system either didn’t read the books properly, I had too much “help” from my then 4-year-old, or I just didn’t understand the instructions.

I wasn’t alone. Others had problems, too, and the system has been tweaked several times. But I noticed an improvement on a recent visit, and the library says complaints have dropped off and fewer customers need help.

Library Director Marsha Grove says she was shocked to find the library still stamping books when she arrived seven years ago. It was so “last century,” she says.

The library switched over to a receipt system -- you know, a little slip of paper that’s supposed to be tacked up on the fridge but you always manage to lose, thereby ensuring you won’t return anything on time and pay big fees? (I need to adopt a new plan before the library doubles its overdue fines to 20 cents a day.)

As the library started planning for a larger building, Grove explored self-checkout systems. It was already one of the busiest libraries in the nation, she says, and traffic was expected to rise by up to 50 percent when the new building opened.

There were worries about the fairly new technology behind the self-checkout and automated book-return system. Would the conveyors be reminiscent of the Denver airport’s infamous luggage system that ate suitcases?

The self-checkout system, from TechLogic, uses RFID tags -- radio frequency identification to track items. Library customers lay their books or movies on a black pad, and an electronic eye in the checkout station reads a radio frequency on a tiny antenna inside the book.

The automated return system uses the same technology. Books are fed into the basement sorting area on conveyors activated when a customer breaks the electronic beam across the return slots (one inside, one outside).

My favorite part: the Harry Potter “Sorting Hat” on top of the main electronic reader. The reader sorts books into one of 19 “smart bins” (which cost $5,000 each) lining the conveyor, for fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, CDs, etc.

The old checkout system involved bar codes that library staff had to scan, which was time-consuming, Grove says. And six or seven employees always worked the front desk, compared to two or three now for the eight checkout stations (though backup is always available).

With the new system, the library didn’t have to hire any additional staff, even though circulation shot up 50 percent. More than 2.7 million items are now checked out each year -- 7,300 a day.

Since only a couple of people are needed out front, other employees can get items back on the shelf faster, usually within a day of dropoff, says Greg Olson, circulation services manager.

Still, there were problems. The checkout stations had trouble reading the radio signals on thin children’s books and CDs in particular. In some cases, even when employees thought everything was checked out properly, the alarms beeped because the security tag wasn’t turned off.

Many of the complaints involved children’s items, partly because kids’ books make up such a big share of the library’s circulation (22 percent of all items checked out). It’s not unusual for parents or teachers to check out 20 to 30 at a time -- 115 is the record -- and “that’s a lot to juggle,” Grove says.

The staff was told to keep an eye out for people with big stacks of books and help when needed, but “we didn’t always get everybody,” she says.

The system has been updated several times as the TechLogic software evolved. It’s now much easier to tell when an item is successfully checked out. Each item is highlighted in yellow on the screen when it’s been linked to your account, and the bar changes to green when the transaction is complete -- i.e., the security system should not beep.

That change, last fall, “made things a whole lot better,” Olson says.

Several upgrades have been installed since, to make the system work faster and allow patrons to renew items at the self-checkout stations, which wasn’t possible before.

“I think it’s much easier now than it was before,” agrees Amy Campbell of Champaign, visiting the library last week with two of her four children. She says the system wasn’t clear at first, but “I haven’t set off the alarm since they changed it.”

Across town, the Urbana Free Library uses a bar code checkout system, but staff members do it for you. And they still stamp the dates inside the books.

The library’s board surveyed patrons about two years ago and it was clear they “liked having their books stamped,” says Executive Director Debra Lissak. In particular, they liked the personal interaction with the staff, she says.

Lissak has considered self-checkout but says RFID systems aren’t standardized, and that’s a problem when Urbana is part of such a large consortium of libraries. It’s also an expensive transition, she says.

Plus, unlike Champaign, the Urbana Free Library keeps CDs and DVDs, as well as held items, behind the circulation desk for space reasons. So most customers would still need help anyway. And Urbana’s circulation is lower -- about 750,000 items a year.

“Part of it’s just philosophical. We don’t like to give up that personal element," Lissak says.

The big issue under either system is making sure lines move quickly, officials say.

Many harried parents, no doubt, agree.

News-Gazette staff writer Julie Wurth can be reached at 351-5226,, or on


A Harry Potter-esque Sorting Hat sits atop the electronic reader that sorts returned items at the Champaign Public Library.

Greg Olson, circulation services manager, explains the book drop in the lobby of the Champaign Public Library, part of the automated checkout and return system.

News-Gazette photos by Vanda Bidwell

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el annoy wrote on May 11, 2010 at 11:05 am

I love the automated check out system and my kids do too, although they have squabbled over who gets to put the books on the black mat. Does CPL ever give tours of the system? I'd love to see how the sorting works and see books flying around on conveyor belts.

Julie Wurth wrote on May 11, 2010 at 2:05 pm
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I will check on the public tours -- it is kind of cool to see! Thanks!