August 21, 2014 in City

Automated checkout system approved for Spokane Public Library

By The Spokesman-Review
Dan Pelle photoBuy this photo

More time at library: Haley Hofstee, 11, works on writing a thank-you message to the Hillyard Library on balloon-shaped paper, and her sister, Jamey, 13, creates colored bookmarks Tuesday during the Spokane Public Library’s Hillyard Branch open house to celebrate new extended hours. The Hillyard, East Side and Indian Trail libraries are now open noon to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays through Saturdays. The branches were in danger of closing but were spared after a special library levy passed in February 2013.
(Full-size photo)

Getting materials at a Spokane Public Library will become simpler next year with the installation of new checkout and tracking technology.

But library patrons eventually will lose the option of checking out with a library staff member – and perhaps 10 jobs will be lost.

The library’s board voted 3-2 this week to purchase a system that will use radio frequency identification instead of barcodes to track material coming in and out of the library. That system, library officials say, will allow them to eliminate checkouts with staff.

The library already has a self-checkout option, but less than 10 percent of patrons use it. Library Director Andrew Chanse said the system works poorly and often misses books that people thought they had scanned. It also requires users to take off protective cases from DVDs and other material.

Chanse said the technology already is used in about a quarter of libraries across the country. He said with an improved checkout system, 90 to 95 percent of patrons would choose self-checkout.

“It’s not sustainable for us to continue doing business as we’re doing business,” he said, adding that the new system will be faster.

The board voted to pursue a $425,000 contract for the system with EnvisionWare, of Duluth, Georgia. On top of that price, the library will pay up to 10 percent of the contract price each year to maintain it.

The two library trustees who voted against moving forward with the contract said they like the idea but believed it needed more public input. Tuesday was the first time the full board was presented with the plan.

“The new technology sounds like a really wonderful way to improve our library users’ experience,” said trustee Anne Walter, who proposed delaying a decision for a month. “I just wanted to make sure we took the time to hear our users’ opinions.”

She said she wonders if laying off employees after voters approved a library tax last year might confuse the public or if patrons prefer interacting with library staff for checkout.

“It’s an important part of the experience for me. I always check out with a human,” said Walter, a former Spokesman-Review assistant city editor. “But my kids don’t.”

Chanse said there still will be plenty of staff to answer questions and assist patrons with computers, finding material – or even using the self-checkout system.

The change will “create other opportunities for interactions with staff in more meaningful ways,” library board Chairwoman Janice Marich said.

The library plans to borrow the money for the contract from other city funds and pay it back with about 2.5 percent interest over a few years. The loan must be approved by the City Council.

The bid was about $90,000 higher than the lowest bid. Trustees, including the two who voted against the plan, said they were satisfied that the EnvisionWare product was worth the extra cost.

Chanse said he expects the technology to be implemented in 2015. Four part-time jobs could be eliminated at the end of this year. One full-time and five more part-time jobs could be cut later. The plan could save the system up to $300,000 a year. He said the library will work to help those losing positions find other jobs within the library or elsewhere in city government.

“The personal lives of our staff are important to us and we want to ensure that we’re there for them in any transition,” Chanse said.

Trustee Jim Kershner joined Walter in opposing the plan without more public input.

“There’s only one real downside to this and that is it will involve layoffs, and that’s significant to me,” said Kershner, who writes the daily Spokesman-Review local history column.

Marich was joined by trustees Mary Starkey and Nathan Smith in supporting the plan.

“You’re always looking to stay relevant and current with technology and the opportunity to serve our customers,” said Marich, vice president of community relations for Spokane County United Way. “No one ever likes to make decisions that impact people, but we have a responsibility at a higher level.”

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