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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > February 2008

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Vol. 28 No. 2 — February 2008
Our Journey Down the Self-Check Road
by Ann Whitney and Adam Garrett

Everyone has had the experience of going to the grocery store and finding that all the checkout lines are busy. You look over at the self-checkout machines, and there’s a free station. You’re in a hurry, so you think, “How hard can it be?” You only have a couple of items. But when you try to scan one of them, you can’t find its bar code anywhere. A clerk comes over to help you enter this item, but as he walks away, the machine tells you that your item hasn’t been placed in the bagging area, and your station light starts flashing. The clerk has to come over again and clear the machine before you can finally finish checking out. After an experience like this, there’s not much chance you’ll try the self-checkout machines again anytime soon.

Although self-checkout technology has been around for about 15 years, cashiers haven’t yet needed to worry about being rendered obsolete. Many stores have added self-checkout, but a clerk still has to be stationed in the area to help with problems. While self-check technology has improved immensely over the years, it still hasn’t caught on to the extent that folks originally projected. In this article, we’ll discuss our library’s journey down the self-check road, share lessons learned along the way, and offer tips for making such an experience more successful.

Our Services and Needs

The Health Sciences Libraries at the University of Washington (UW), a state-supported, 4-year research-level school, has a heavily used web presence. The physical library is also heavily used by students, faculty, and the community. We serve the schools of Medicine, Dentistry, Nursing, Pharmacy, Public Health, and Social Work as well as basic science students. We currently maintain more than 250,000 materials that can be checked out, and we participate in a strong ILL program with other UW libraries and libraries from other institutions. In 2005–2006, we filled 34,932 ILL requests. External circulation for that year was 60,888 items. We answered 49,465 reference questions in person and provided an additional 4,219 answers electronically. The total gate count for 2006–2007 was more than 330,000, with 79.5 service hours a week.

In our library, we perform checkout at a central information desk, which is usually staffed with two employees at a time. In addition to handling materials checkout, these staff members answer all reference and informational questions as well as phone queries. They can direct complicated questions to a reference librarian. Lines occasionally form during peak usage hours.

The Health Sciences Libraries has been using self-checkout for about 7 years. We first tried this technology in 2000 by purchasing a 3M self-check system, which was compatible with our security-gate technology. The original project was a pilot to see if self-checkout could free up time on the information desk so that staff members could answer patron questions rather than check out materials manually.

Around the same time, during a remodel of the library, we changed the name of the circulation desk to “information desk” to reflect our focus on providing information instead of just materials. The self-check machine sat at the desk for a couple of years, being used by some brave patrons. When we adopted a new checkout system using magnetic-strip ID cards instead of bar codes and PIN numbers, we discovered that the 3M system wasn’t compatible. In 2005, we replaced the old technology with a new FlashScan system, which was manufactured by Library Automation Technologies, Inc. This system was more successful because of its better design and compatibility with our magnetic ID cards.

Just like a PC, a self-check unit includes a system board with a processor as well as memory, a hard drive, and software. It also includes networking capability through an Ethernet or optional wireless connection so that it can connect to the library’s checkout software. Our station is set up with a static IP address so the vendor and technical support staffers can access it to run updates and troubleshoot problems remotely. It also has software that allows us to run reports, perform routine maintenance, and load media for checkout. The unit’s monitor displays a customizable video that explains each step in the checkout and desensitizing process with voice prompts. The error messages are also customizable. We added a magnetic strip reader to our system, and a receipt printer produces a transaction record and due dates on a customizable receipt. The screen also has space for system messages and patron alerts.

The New Self-Check Journey

Last spring, we decided to upgrade our portable self-check station to a larger kiosk system with media-dispensing capabilities. We could then move the portable FlashScan station to a smaller departmental library, which is staffed by only two librarians. The main reason for purchasing the new system was to add the capability of storing CDs and DVDs securely, where they could be checked out automatically. This was in response to our loss of more than 60 media items over several years. Originally, we were looking for a self-check system that would store approximately 400 discs, read magnetic strip ID cards, have a user-friendly display, be compatible with our ILS, and provide desensitization compatible with our security technology. We were ready to hit the ground running.

We eventually chose Library Automation Technologies, Inc.’s allCirc station. It had all of the above capabilities and more. The main benefits of our new self-check kiosk include the following:

  • Private transactions
  • Automatic receipt printing
  • Compatibility with security-gate technology
  • Secure media storage and dispensing
  • Built-in custom messaging and on-screen announcements
  • Built-in statistics and reporting
  • Wireless capability for placement options
  • Foreign-language support (Spanish)
  • SIP-compliant with ILS

Some Bumps in the Road

As is common for academic libraries, we had to be creative about funding our new hardware. We received a quote sometime in February 2007, and we ordered allCirc in April. The requirement for funding was that the product needed to be delivered before the end of June 2007. The vendor promised that there would be no problem with this date. However, the product we originally ordered had changed, and we had to wait longer for delivery. Luckily, the vendor was able to send us a spare FlashScan unit by the delivery date and promised to get us the allCirc by August 2007. We decided to leave the spare FlashScan unit in the box and not use it for the month we had to wait.

Our new self-check station arrived in August, as scheduled. The vendor’s technicians told us that it was going to take a couple of hours or so for them to get the allCirc up and running. About an hour later, they had moved the unit upstairs and opened the side and back panels so they could inspect the interior and make necessary adjustments after shipping. Unfortunately, they soon discovered that the main power switch had been broken during shipment. We reminded them that we had the spare FlashScan unit in the office, and maybe there were some parts they could borrow from it. Fortunately, they were able to take the power switch from the temporary unit and install it on the new allCirc. The rest of the installation went fairly smoothly. By late afternoon, the technicians were ready to give library staffers some rudimentary training on how allCirc works.

Earlier, we noticed that the machine was missing the optional part we had requested to desensitize material. The vendor told us that even though it was an option for allCirc, it still was not available for installation. Without this part, the process wouldn’t work with our gate-security technology. So after the initial installation and training, we were forced to turn the new self-check station off and wait until we received the optional part. The vendor initially told us that it would install the desensitizing unit in October, but in September we received a phone call informing us that it was very close to being shipped. Apparently, production was not taking as long as expected.

After we received the desensitizing unit, the technician said that it would take about 2 hours to install it onto the side of the allCirc. The installation was simply a matter of drilling a few holes for mounting and then plugging the power cable into the back of the machine. After the technician was finished at about 5:30 p.m., he also ran a software upgrade. We turned the allCirc back on, and everything seemed to work as expected. The technician only had time to give a refresher training session to two staff members, one of whom sent out an email to all staffers with information about allCirc’s basic functions. We proceeded to do a sample self-checkout, which included desensitizing the item. Everything was going fine until the new unit made a grinding noise. The good news was that we were able to desensitize the item. Unfortunately, we didn’t like that noise.

We spent the next hour doing some tests and looking at the desensitizing unit’s magnetic arm to see why it was grinding. With the cover off, the arm worked flawlessly and without any noise, but once we put the cover back on, it started grinding again. The tech­nician finally figured out that the magnetic arm was longer than the box it was designed to fit into. We concluded that a magnetic arm for a larger desensitizing box was inadvertently installed onto ours. With the cover on the box, the arm could only travel about 90 degrees (versus 180 degrees) as it desensitized an item. The concern was that eventually the motor driving the arm would burn out if the arm couldn’t move the entire distance it was designed to go.

It was now getting close to 7 p.m. and our only solutions were to either shorten the arm or have the vendor send another arm. The downside of the second option was that because the technician was only scheduled to visit for 1 day, he would have to come back. Otherwise, library systems staff would have to install the arm. We told the technician that it would be better to cut the arm and have the unit working before he left since we had been unable to use allCirc since we received it in August. We wanted to get past this roadblock as soon as possible.

We opened the desensitizing box and removed the arm. The technician had to carefully mark the magnets attached to the arm so that he could put them back the same way after he cut it. It only took a few minutes for him to cut the arm down and reattach the magnets. Once the cover was back on, the unit worked without any grinding sounds. Our allCirc was fully functional and ready to use. We finally had the green light.

Our Self-Check Machine Is Finally Ready to Use

We placed the allCirc near the information desk to ensure that patrons have help readily available and to make it easy for staff members to train users. The station is one of the first things you see as you’re leaving the library, which hopefully encourages patrons to use it. We also decided to move the holds shelf so that it’s located next to the self-check station. We now place holds on that shelf and sort them by patron name. Patrons can easily retrieve their holds and check them out on the allCirc, making the holds process completely self-serve.

A staffer created a login card for administrative access to the machine and gave instructions for loading CDs and DVDs. Fortunately, checking out and loading discs are pretty intuitive, so everyone picked up the procedures fairly quickly. Now, we even teach student workers to load discs into the allCirc station.

Evaluating Our Progress

As we go through the process of evaluating this project now that it has been up and running for a few months, we find that there are several things we would do differently to make the process smoother. Because we didn’t really have a formal training session, we had to learn as we went along. We realized that this wasn’t adequate. In addition, staff members who are not comfortable with the new system hesitate to train patrons to use it. We have found that training by staffers’ peers who are comfortable with the system works better than training by technical staff. We decided to offer a couple of informational sessions to introduce staffers to the basic functions of the machine and to give some hands-on experience.

We have also placed a clipboard at the information desk so staff members can record any problems they have with the machine. Eventually, we will prepare an FAQ document from the questions and comments we receive. We’ll then put it at the desk and post it on our staff intranet. We also printed out a copy of allCirc’s online manual and placed it at the information desk for staff reference.

Some of the machine’s most common problems are that discs are loading and unloading incorrectly, and patrons are having difficulty desensitizing books. Since we do not yet have RFID, desensitization is a continuing issue. The allCirc’s desensitizer is located to the left of the bar code scanning area. Many times, patrons do not place their materials in the desensitizer quickly enough and so they set off the gate alarm when they walk out. We have placed a sign in the desensitizing area and are looking into ways to make this process more successful.

In addition, the voice levels on the audio prompts are too loud. Because of this, some staff members were turning the volume off. But we found, through experimentation, that patrons are much more successful if the voice is turned on. We are hoping to work with the vendor to customize some of the settings, such as increasing the lag time before the desensitizer does a scan, modifying the volume of the voice recording, and changing the video prompts so that instructions are easier to follow.

We’re covering new ground every day. Just recently, we found out that the machine stops working when it runs out of receipt paper. Fortunately, we had one spare roll on hand, but we hadn’t realized how often we would need to change it and had not yet ordered a backup supply. In the future, we may want to disable the receipt-printing function to save paper and just display due dates on the screen.

Compatibility is a big issue. Although the unit we purchased was advertised as compatible with all systems, we found that our regional checkout items require a manual input key before the bar code can be read, which allCirc’s automated system does not allow. This problem should be solved with a pending future release of our Innovative Interfaces Millennium software. But for now, we are limited to using the station only to check out materials from the UW library system.

The Patrons’ Response

Even though several issues remain to be solved, self-checkout is already becoming popular with patrons. We have received overwhelmingly positive response from faculty, students, and community members. The most frequent comment is that the machine is surprisingly easy to use. Usually, after only one attempt at using allCirc with assistance, patrons feel confident the next time they try it. We recently received a comment from a student who had difficulty getting his items desensitized. After describing the problem, he said, “Other than that, it was lots of fun.”

During the first month it was up and running in our main Health Sciences Library, patrons used the new self-check kiosk 813 times, which was almost 20% of checkouts for that month. We have loaded many of our most popular CD/DVD items into the allCirc station and have pulled the rest from the stacks so that theft is no longer an issue. We are confident that in the future, as staff members get more accustomed to training patrons to utilize the machine and as technical difficulties get ironed out, the usage percentage will grow.

Would we travel down the same road again, even with all the challenges we faced? The answer is yes. Overall, our staff agrees that self-check has become an integral part of our library services and contributes to having more efficient and better quality information desk service.

Ann Whitney is the head of systems for the Health Sciences Libraries at the University of Washington in Seattle. She holds an M.L.S. from the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. She supervises the systems staff and manages all computer resources, systems, and networking. She also leads the strategic direction of digital services and projects for the UW Health Sciences Libraries. Her email address is

Adam Garrett
is systems manager for the Health Sciences Libraries at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is currently responsible for desktop support for all staff and public workstations and is also the Windows server system administrator. His email address is

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