The concept of an automated book drop with an embedded RFID tag reader was intro-duced in the early days, back when libraries started to use RFID technology. While the concept seemed compelling at first, the downsides of this approach soon became obvi-ous.
With this concept, patrons return materials into an automated book drop which, presum-ably, are checked in at the drop and then fall into one bin of materials. There are two problems with this approach:
Vendors of an automated book drop will claim that a printed "exceptions report" can be printed and compared by staff against the materials in the bin. This is a tedious, manual process costing staff time and frustration.
The faster alternative would be to check in all the materials in the bin again — ensuring that the materials are in fact checked-in and that you have caught holds, transits, lost items and other statuses that require special handling. Hold slips are printed and imme-diately matched to holds checked-in, so they can be expedited to the holds shelves. But there is no gain in staff handling when all materials need to be checked in a second time.
I propose alternatives to the automated book drop:
Redesign the workflow in the back room to prioritize check-in of book drop re-turns. With self-checkout fully implemented (typically after 1–2 months), staff can be scheduled off the circulation desk to back-room processing of returns. These book drops returns are the first priority for handling. If staff check in re-turns, the library can be sure returned materials are a.) checked in correctly, and b.) segregated for special handling by staff. Patrons soon learn that they can be assured that their returns placed in the book drop are checked in quick-ly and accurately by staff — before they are ready to check out more materials. Patrons are served, holds are properly caught and labeled, and materials are accurately checked in once.
Salt Lake County Library's eight branches — each with automated sorting systems — realized a significant gain in workload per FTE over branches without a sorting system. That capacity can be turned to shelf management or customer service and away from routine checkout, check-in and materials handling.
Having managed branches both with and without automated sorting systems, I can vouch for the efficiency and accuracy gain from self-checkout, prioritized returns, and sorting systems with the introduction of RFID. I definitely recommend redirecting the funds earmarked for an “automated book drop” to increasing the number of self-checkout stations or to other RFID tools for improved customer service such as a three-bin sorting system or RFID security gates.
With the alternatives I proposed, the library gets the best return on its investment in RFID and happier patrons now and into the future.
—Gretchen Freeman, Principal Librarian/Strategist, Tech Logic Corporation has over thirty years of experience implementing technology solutions for libraries — resulting in improved workflow and freeing staff from repetitive, time-consuming tasks.