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Library Achieves 100% Self-Service: Farmington Public Library, New Mexico

November, 2011

by Mark Wolf
Farmington Public Library

"I’m a little SelfCheck, short and stout,
Here is my scanner; let’s check you out!
When you lay a book down I will shout,
Thump, thump, thumpity! You’re checked out!"

The clerk in the homemade cardboard costume bopped gently back and forth while he sang the song and improvised a dance step. Promoting the 3M SelfCheck System during the family reading program was a wonderful idea. All the kids and their parents loved it. I knew they would.

I first heard of the 3M SelfCheck System sometime in 2000, and no one was more skeptical than I was. I had worked in public and academic libraries off and on since beginning college in 1976 and I knew that some things were simply beyond the capacity of a machine.

"That’s impossible," I told the library director. "I don’t care how glossy their sales brochure is. Patrons can’t check out their own books."

Take my advice. Never say "impossible" where library technology is concerned.

The 3M Self-checkout System Arrives

A trio of 3M Self-checkout machines arrived in March 2001. We decided to place them directly in front of the circulation desk where everyone could see them. Visibility was one big key to our success with the technology. I just didn’t realize it at the time.

At first we regarded the machines more as a novelty than as the workplace revolution that Fate – meaning the library director – had determined they would become. Our first machines were basic and scanned barcodes. They could not check out cassettes. We still kept CDs hermetically sealed in heavy plastic security cases, so CDs, like cassettes, had to be checked out by hand. Although the self-checkout machines remained an underutilized curiosity, over the following year our self-checkout rate climbed slowly to twenty-something percent.

New Possibilities and 3M Radio Frequency Identification

A new library building was also in the works. Breaking ground in the desert sand occurred on a bright, blustery afternoon in early March 2002. Huge cottonwood silhouettes shivered against a dazzling blue, cloudless New Mexico sky. A fierce desert wind kicked up rolling clouds of fawn-colored dust that surged through the city like a hungry amoeba looking for something to devour. The hungry, dusty wind did not dampen the excitement. The new library was becoming a reality!

In preparation for the changes that we anticipated in the new building, we changed from bar codes to 3M Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags in August 2002. We had seen them at the American Library Association conference in San Francisco the year before. RFID opened up possibilities that made my head swim. 3M RFID was the logical choice. The tags appeared to be more durable and less likely to break. That meant greater cost effectiveness, and we already had a very satisfactory relationship with 3M.

We had also seen a demonstration of the 3M Digital Library Assistant, or DLA. Now, I had grown up with the original "Star Trek" on prime time, and the Enterprise had nothing like a DLA!

We also got the upgraded self-checkout machines to read the RFID tags. Beside RFID, bar codes now seemed clumsy and old fashioned, a dated relic somewhat akin to polyester leisure suits and less charming than vinyl LPs. Suddenly using the self-checkout machines was a breeze. Self-checkout was no longer a workplace novelty. It was a revolution, and we were enthusiastic about the possibilities. Because we were excited about the technology, it was easy to get patrons excited.

The Library Director’s "Impossible" Challenge to Me

"Impossible," I mumbled to no one in particular. "We’re already doing nearly 40% on the self-checkout system. How can the director think we could possibly double it to 80% before we close the old building in June? That’s only six months!"

The library director’s challenge was twofold. First, we had to double patron use of the self-checkout system. Second, we had to improve our customer service. And we had six months in which to make it happen.

With RFID, patrons could now check out their own audiotapes, which immediately gave us an extra percentage point or two. We also removed the CDs from their protective plastic cocoons. Why not? CDs were actually less expensive than most books and, with a 3M Tattle-Tape Strip, just as secure. Checking out CDs on the self-checkout machines yielded a few more percentage points.

Increasing Patron Usage of the 3M Self-Checkout System

To promote the self-checkout machines, we stationed circulation workers next to them. Part teacher, part librarian and salesperson, they encouraged patrons to try self-checkout while circulating among the patrons to coach them and chat with them and make sure they had a pleasant experience. We discovered immediately that without the barrier of a traditional circulation desk, patrons were much more open to talk and ask questions. Without realizing it, we had stumbled onto another component of our success.

"Come on and let’s check out your books," I said cheerfully. "Got your library card and PIN [Personal Identification Number] handy? You don’t have to wait in line to check out any more."

"It’s okay. I have fines to pay," she countered, a bit defensively.

"If you try the self-checkout machine I can waive your fines," I said in my best puppy-dog voice. She quickly acquiesced. "Put your card here and now let’s enter your PIN." I had already been through the routine many times. "Just put the back of your book up against the machine and watch what happens. See? You checked out your book! Is that awesome?"

"Is that all there is to it," she asked, mystified.

"That’s all there is to it," I replied, feeling suspiciously like Glenda the Good Witch revealing The Secret to Dorothy in the Land of Library Technology Oz.

"Oh, I could do that myself," she said.

I smiled. One more patron was converted to the speed, the ease and the privacy of using the 3M SelfCheck System.

Next was one of many senior citizens.

"I don’t think I want to use those computers. I’m afraid I’ll break them. Can’t you just check me out?"

"Sure," I said. "What’s your PIN?"

She fished through a wallet stuffed with credit card receipts and assorted coupons. She found the library PIN card behind her ATM card. I walked over to the self-checkout machine and checked out the books in a flash. "Here’s your date-due slip," I said, and we chatted for a while. We would never have had that kind of opportunity at the old circulation desk.

Modeling the behavior that we want to see in the patrons has been another big key to our success. If patrons really do not want to use the self-checkout System, we are happy to check out their books for them – on the self-checkout machine. Patrons are not required to use the Self-checkout machines, but when they see how easy it is, they want to do it themselves.

Riding the Surge with 3M Self-checkout

At 5:00 on the day "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" was released in June 2003, the downtown library closed for the last time. We had finally hit the 80% self-checkout rate that the library director had assigned. I knew that our customer service satisfaction was through the roof because fewer and fewer patrons were being referred to me to resolve problems. I was proud of my staff’s hard work, enthusiasm and commitment to our success with the 3M SelfCheck System

The new building opened two months later to huge fanfare and community celebration. During the first full month that the new library was open, our circulation tripled and we averaged 94% on the SelfCheck System.

We discovered quickly that we could not manage the ongoing upsurge in checkouts without the self-checkout machines. In the old checkout paradigm we were barely able to keep up with 90 checkouts per hour. There was no time to chat with patrons. They were lucky to get a perfunctory "Thank you and have a nice day." With the old system, someone who needed special attention was like a "fatal error" message; I did not have staff or time to address unusual situations satisfactorily. We made cards and checked books in and out. It wasn’t genuine customer service.

With the self-checkout System in our new building, we are 100% available to care for patrons. Not long ago we watched in astonishment as our checkouts reached 260 items per hour for the first time since the grand opening. At 99.6% self-checkout for the day, two circulation clerks were able to handle that volume with ease.

In addition to the singing, dancing Self-checkout machine, we also had a 7-foot tall yellow duck that waddled around quacking, "Self-check!" Improving our statistics and promoting the benefits of the 3M SelfCheck System became a game that everyone enjoyed.

The Bottom Line:

Improved Customer Service through the 3M SelfCheck System

The self-checkout revolution has afforded us many opportunities for meaningful, quality customer service. This includes greeting patrons at the door and making the library a hospitable, friendly, interesting place to visit. Coaching patrons at the self-checkout machines is ongoing, and it gives us still more opportunities to make our patrons feel first-class. We routinely speak to patrons while they check out. "Is your checkout going all right?" we ask, and frequently bag their books for them. If the patron is walking with a cane or has small children, we offer to carry their bags. That’s a level of customer service that was not possible before we went to the 3M SelfCheck System.

"No, Grandma," a child said urgently. "You check out over there!"

"What’s he talking about," she asked me.

"He means the self-checkout machines. Let me show you." She’d probably started using ATMs before most of my circulation clerks were even born, and self-checkout is easier than an ATM. She caught on to self-checkout in about 10 seconds.

"Is my checkout machine being nice to you," I asked the next patron.

"It’s okay," he replied, barely glancing up. "I just wish we could go back to the old ways. What was wrong with stamping books with the due date?"

"Would you really want to stand in line just for a date stamp," I asked, gesturing back toward the Service Desk. Patrons had formed three lines to get library cards; we open over 700 new accounts each month.

"You’re right," he admitted, really looking at me for the first time. "I’m usually in a hurry like everyone else. I just want to get my books and go."

"That’s exactly why we have the self-checkout machines: so people can get their books and go. That’s a pretty big stack of books, too," I said. "Can I help you get them to your car?"

"No, I got them. Thanks. I sure do like this library."

I thanked him for the compliment and he told me what the library had been like in 1947.

We were thrilled when we finished our first month over 99% self-checkout, and then we set out to beat that figure. It’s a matter of economics. Self-checkout and RFID have saved the library money over the long term. When necessary, fewer people can run the department more effectively. We have additional money for books. We improved customer service while we reduced the risk of repetitive motion injuries and eliminated the tiring drudgery of scanning and desensitizing tens of thousands of books per month. Truthfully, we didn’t have really effective customer service at the circulation desk until we went to the 3M SelfCheck System. From the library director to the part-time shelvers, everyone was on board with self-checkout. Everyone on the staff has been a key contributor to our success.

My "Impossible" Challenge to the Library Director

Pretty typical morning, I thought, beginning with a first grade class for a visit and checkout. "Watch the kids while they check out," I reminded the circulation staff.

Children don’t care about the privacy that self-checkout affords them. They enjoy the independence even when they are so small that they have to reach over their heads to put Clifford and Dr. Seuss onto the machine.

Before long, each of the six self-check machines that encircle the rotunda was surrounded by clusters of wide-eyed first-graders. A fatherly glance over the top of my glasses with a wave of my hand reminded the staff to leave the Service Desk and take their positions to help with checkout in the rotunda.

I listened while the kids excitedly explained self-checkout to one another. At the machine to my left was a little, little boy. At six years old he seemed scarcely taller than my son had been at two and a half. He reached the key pad to enter his PIN. The little girl behind him said eagerly, "Let me do it." "No! I can do it myself," he insisted with a child’s sense of urgency. Then he checked out his own books. He took his receipt and turned from the machine, his face radiant with pride and accomplishment.

The library director came up behind me. "How are they doing," she asked.

"They’re fine," I said. "The kids are cute. You know we did 99.9% self-check yesterday?"

"I’m impressed," she said. "You guys rock!"

"Do you believe that we can finish an entire month of 100% self-checkout?"

"Impossible," she said.

Take my advice. Never say "impossible" where library technology is concerned at the Farmington Public Library.

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