One small market segment that has emerged in the past few years is the standalone automated library machine, which, at a certain level, draws inspiration from the 24/7 services of an ATM machine, except here we are talking about books (and audiovisual materials) not cash. The number of companies offering a full-cycle machine, that is a machine that checks materials out and checks them back in without staff intervention, grew by one on March 14 at the Public Library Association (PLA) conference in Philadelphia as Duluth, GA-based EnvisionWare launched its 24-Hour Library line.
Despite the presence of two major competitors, Evanced’s BranchAnywhere, which was introduced at PLA in 2010, and the LibDispenser from mk Sorting Systems, EnvisionWare saw an opportunity for another offering.
“The driving factor is libraries’ budgets are all under pressure these days so they’re having to reduce services,” said Ken Evans, a sales consultant at EnvisionWare. “This is a product that you put outside into the community and give 24 hour – 7 day a week service while you are cutting back hours within the manned library,” he said.
EnvisionWare teamed with Seaever, a large provider of RFID in China, and will be acting as the company’s supplier in North America. Michael J. Monk, EnvisionWare’s CEO, said a strong selling point to his mind was the unit’s physical design.
“It’s very well proven,” Monk said. “It was introduced five years ago in China, and it has been widely deployed there.”
The product comes in three models that hold 200, 400, or 800 items. The units weigh from 3000 to 8000 pounds, and they are 8 to 11 feet wide and 7 to 8 feet tall depending on the machine. The machines will check items in and out; integrate with the ILS system via SIP2 or NCIP; permit OPAC browsing; allow patron self-registration; prints receipts; and sort materials. The primary interface is a 17-inch touch screen, and card identification can be done using an integrated barcode scanner or with an RFID reader.
“There are a lot of services in one location,” Monk said, and the machines can be installed in any highly trafficked area, such as a train station or a mall.
Evanced and mk Sorting Systems offer similar features on their machines (all also offer digital signage).
“I haven’t looked at [EnvisionWare’s product] that closely yet, but it’s trying to be in a similar space,” said Rob Cullin, the president of Evanced, which is based in Indianapolis, IN. “The main thing we are focusing on is ours is American made and built, and we took a very robust, industrial approach to the system because long-term maintenance and capability of the system is really important,” he said.
Since its introduction in 2010, Evanced has installed one machine in Plainfield, IN, and it just installed another in Carson City, NV, in January. The machines are ADA compliant and the base price is $135,000 for a configuration that holds about 300 items (adding bays can expand the storage to about 10,000 items).
“For libraries we think basically there’s more budget pressure, and building branches and expanding services is becoming incredibly difficult, if not impossible,” Cullin said. “We see the opportunity that, at a much lower price point, libraries can expand services out to the community. $135,000 isn’t nothing but it is significantly less than trying to build and fund a new branch. That’s the main opportunity we’re focused on,” he said, adding that the emphasis was on this service expansion, not replacing libraries.
The price range for EnvisionWare’s models run from $150,000 to $250,000, and Markus Flory, the president of mk Sorting Systems, said their prices were “100k plus,” depending on the configuration. mk Sorting Systems, which is headquartered in Germany, has installed about 15 machines in various countries, including the U.S., since it introduced the product in 2009, according to Flory.
“It really acts like a library,” Flory said. “When you check out the item you just get the item, you don’t get the item in a box or a case. You get it like you get it in a library. And when you return it you do it in the same way and it makes it immediately available for the next patron to checkout,” he said.
The machine has its own location code, its own collection, and accepts any library return item the same as other branches. Fines can be paid by debit/credit card or cash.
The automatic reshelving Flory described was a clear difference from the EnvisionWare product.
“When we did our statistical analysis we found that so many items are holds and transits to other locations that it makes more sense not to put them on the shelf,” Monk said. “They get sorted for the next destination.” The EnvisionWare unit on display at PLA had 14 sorting bins inside the machine, which become a part of the library’s standard distribution network.
“For us, it’s about helping libraries to deliver better service through whatever efficiencies we can,” Monk said.