The Concept of an Automated Book Drop
By Gretchen Freeman / June 24, 2015 / Categories: #AMH

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, presumably, are checked in at the drop and then fall into one bin of materials. There are two problems with this approach:

  1. Materials aren't reliably checked in because they fall too fast to be read by an antenna or the patron has inserted multiple items (such as DVDs or CDs) with the metal discs blocking each other's RFID tag signal. Unlike with a sorter, the materials aren't reliably un-stacked as they are inserted, or consistently read while passing over an RFID antenna at a controlled pace.
  2. Materials that are checked in using this approach cannot be segregated as to their status for special handling. This is especially critical for patron holds filled by check-in. The ILS checks in the item and fills the hold for the next patron in the queue. From this instant, the next patron's hold is viewed on their account — and in notifications from the ILS — as ready to be picked up even though it is sitting in a bin full of returned materials. This results in an unhappy patron looking for their hold on the hold shelf. For libraries in the United States, holds comprise up to 50% of returned materials, so this is a significant number of items caught for holds at the book drop.

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.

  1. Salt Lake County Library implemented this “prioritized returns” practice in eight of its 18 branches, proving that this workflow modification concept works for both library patrons and staff. It requires re-thinking of processes and reas-signment of staff to the task, but self-checkout easily resulted in the staff ca-pacity to successfully implement this practice. It is a good solution for branches that were not candidates for automated sorting systems due to limited floor space or a low volume of transactions.
  2. Install a small, automated sorting system with a minimum of three bins. With three bins, the system can segregate materials that are ready to re-shelve vs. those that are requested for holds or need other special handling. With this minimal sorting scheme, you overcome the need to check in materials a se-cond time to find those exceptions. Hold slips print automatically on the sorter and staff knows exactly which materials need to be expedited to the hold shelves. The return on investment in an automated sorting system comes both from reduced staff handling which gets materials back to the shelves more quickly and from patron satisfaction with accurate, immediate check-in of their returns.

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.