With carefully crafted thank-you speeches and an assemblage of local VIPs, grand opening events demand a certain level of patience and decorum from the curious public who gather to watch. But, of course, things don’t always work that way. On May 1, California’s Fresno County Public Library (FCPL) held the grand opening of its new Sierra Vista branch, a 400-item book and media vending unit installed in a high-traffic area of the Sierra Vista Mall in Clovis. As County Librarian Laurel Prysiazny spoke, a young couple with a child—apparently oblivious both to the ceremonial ribbon in front of them and the presentation going on behind them—walked up to the new machine and started checking something out.
Prysiazny loved it.
“It was hilarious! We couldn’t have scripted it,” she says, adding that the impromptu, mid-speech transaction helped illustrate how easy and quick the vending library is to use.
To give the Sierra family some credit, the vending unit—an Envisionware 24-hour Library—had been online and available since its installation and soft launch a month earlier. And despite minimal marketing efforts prior to the grand opening, it had already proven popular, circulating 766 checkouts, receiving 498 returns, resolving 20 holds, and registering 12 new patrons during the month of April. DVDs were especially popular, accounting for about 65 percent of checkouts, weighted toward adult titles. Adult books accounted for 12.8 percent of checkouts; juvenile and young adult books about ten percent; video games 6.8 percent; and “new and now” no-holds, current book titles accounted for five percent.
Its success thus far indicates that the emergence of remote lending technologies could present one solution to libraries that aim to grow or enhance their service area without investing in new buildings, while also offering patrons a convenient, self-service option that is open later in the day than most branches. With its new Sierra Vista vending library, for example, FCPL aims to relieve pressure on a nearby 8,600 square foot branch that serves an area with 100,000 residents.
“The area where it has been placed is woefully underserved,” Prysiazny says. “We’ve got plans to build a new facility, and we’re working on that, but that’s two to three years out. So, in the meantime, we decided to see what we could do to change that [service level].”
FCPL is the fourth library in the country to launch an Envisionware 24-hour Library, following Oklahoma’s Pioneer Library System (PLS), the Milwaukee Public Library, and the San Diego County Library, which introduced the vending units last year.
As LJ reported in October 2013, PLS used its two vending libraries to address needs that it had been working on since 2008, when a referendum to build new branches on the east and west sides of Norman, OK, failed by a narrow margin. PLS has administrative offices, along with a 6,700 square foot branch, that recently opened in a former Borders bookstore location on Norman’s west side. One of the vending units sits outside that branch, offering patrons 24-hour access to reserve materials, while alleviating space constraints for the small library. The other is installed adjacent to a middle school and a city recreation center on Norman’s east side, where a market segmentation study had revealed a large number of library cardholders who weren’t served by a nearby branch.
For more on using vending machines for library outreach, see “Cutting the Cord.”
So far, both units have proven popular, and PLS assistant director and 2008 LJ Mover & Shaker Lisa Wells says that the library system is currently working with OverDrive and Envisionware to beta test a system that will enable patrons to browse and check out ebooks, audiobooks, and other electronic content from the library’s OverDrive collection using the 24-hour libraries.
“Now our customers, while they are there to pick up holds or print items, can also, with the [vending library] screen using the Wi-Fi capability of the 24-hour library, download from our OverDrive catalog,” Wells says.
A lighter approach
The Envisionware units cost about $200,000 to purchase, install, and stock. While clearly costing much less than a new branch, this is still a significant investment in order to address needs in one part of a library’s service area. The Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL), KS, which serves a 550 square mile area surrounding Topeka with one central branch and three bookmobiles, is considering this type of stocked vending solution to enhance service but, in the interim, recently opted for Bibliotheca’s new smartlocker remote lending solution, launching its first product in January at a community center.
Bibliotheca’s smartlockers are very similar to the new product lockers that Amazon has deployed at convenience stores and other retail locations in many U.S. cities. Apartment dwellers who can’t be home during the day to receive packages can choose instead to have items delivered to a local Amazon locker rather than to their home address and pick up their purchases anytime within a three-day window, using a touch screen interface and a simple code that is emailed to them upon delivery.
Similarly, Bibliotheca’s smartlockers require patrons to request items or place holds in advance via the smartlocker or a library website and pick up materials later, via their library card and PIN to unlock one of 39 bins containing books, DVDs, or other media that the library has delivered. But while these units can’t offer
the immediate gratification of a vending library, the significantly lower price tag of $25,000 to $30,000 appeals to TSCPL community services manager Thad Hartman, who plans to use these machines to offer convenient retrieval points for TSCPL’s widespread patron base.
“We looked at a lot of solutions, and the vending machines are still something that we’re interested in, but we are trying to serve a large portion of the county with just the main branch and extending our services outside of the building,” Hartman says. “So we can’t just get one giant dispenser and put it somewhere. We’re going to have to deploy several dispensers in several locations throughout the county. We were looking for something that was less expensive.”
The first smartlocker has proven popular, with patrons at the community center praising it as easy to use.
A small minority of patrons have been blocked from retrieving materials when they have requested items for the smartlocker, then checked out more materials from the main library prior to delivery, causing them to exceed checkout limits. But this is not a regular occurrence, and most patrons have been able to order and retrieve their materials within one to three days, after they receive notifications via email or phone that their items are ready.
At press time, TSCPL was close to deploying its second smartlocker at a 24-hour supermarket.
“You can’t get more convenient, timewise, than that,” Hartman says. “We are just trying to find another way to offer something that’s convenient for people both in terms of location and schedule.”
History and caution
In 2008, Contra Costa County Library (CCCL), CA, became the first library in the United States to experiment with remote vending technology, installing a Bokomaten unit developed by the Swedish company Distec AB at the Pittsburg/Bay Point station of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. In the following months, CCCL installed two more of the 270- to 400-book units in the El Cerrito del Norte BART station and the Sandy Cove Shopping Center in Discovery Bay, CA. Six years later, CCCL’s experience has become something of a cautionary tale, albeit one with multiple caveats.
At launch, the fully automated, touch screen vending units, which CCCL marketed as “Library-a-Go-Go,” were a big success, drawing local and national media attention. During the first unit’s first few weeks of operation, staff positioned on-site to answer questions in the Pittsburg/Bay Point station signed up 117 patrons for library cards, with many new patrons praising Library-a-Go-Go’s convenience. In 2010, the program was one of three nationwide to receive recognition from the American Library Association’s Program on America’s Libraries for the 21st Century for their use of new technology.
Yet in the tech-savvy Bay Area, ereaders and tablets had been catching on quickly with commuters. For many, ebooks and tablet content became an even more convenient source of entertainment than paperbacks vended by Library-a-Go-Go. Usage had been declining steadily before CCCL ran into an even more intractable problem earlier this year.
“All three of our machines are technically not available,” says Cathy Sanford, deputy county librarian for CCCL. “And our options to repair those machines are very limited,” she added, explaining that Distec AB stopped making new Bokomaten units several years ago, and the only company that still services them is located in Milan, Italy. At this point, CCCL would have to pay for an engineer’s transatlantic travel just to see if the seven-year-old units can be fixed. Declining usage prior to the machines’ breakdowns may make it difficult to justify the potential costs of bringing the units back online.
Regardless of whether the service is worth restoring at this point, Sanford says she still considers Library-a-Go-Go a success in many ways. CCCL was the first in the country with a service that was very cutting-edge at the time. The units generated a significant amount of public interest and offered a convenient point of access and outreach to a subset of locals who might not otherwise regularly visit a CCCL branch.
“It’s just like anything. You don’t have any system, or any workstations, or any kind of a service that don’t carry ongoing maintenance [costs], with someone actively working to keep that software and/or that hardware up-to-date,” she says.
Sanford also offered a word of advice to libraries new to remote lending, noting that in CCCL’s experience, its vending units tended to perform best when a library staff member was on-site and available to introduce new users to Library-a-Go-Go, answer questions, sign up new patrons, and guide people through the checkout process when needed.
Although on the surface, this might seem to defeat the purpose of a remote lending solution, occasionally posting staff during peak hours at a remote site could help build the user base for the units and act as a component of a broader outreach program.
Unlike CCCL, the new remote lending solutions at FCPL, PLS, and TSCPL will all have access to U.S.-based support staff, which, in the near term at least, will protect them from facing the maintenance issues that have emerged with Library-a-Go-Go. Newer solutions such as the PLS effort with OverDrive could enhance the appeal of vending libraries for ereader and tablet users. And while it remains to be seen whether usage will wane once the coolness factor wears off with these new remote lending remedies, presumably the needs and time constraints faced by the urban train commuters whom CCCL was serving are different from the needs of patrons with limited or distant access to local branches.
“I don’t think [unstaffed lending solutions] are going to replace libraries,” Fresno County Librarian Prysiazny says. “I do think it’s a good thing to do when you know you can’t continue to expand buildings. We certainly can’t…. [Yet] $200,000 for this versus a $3 million or $4 million building…it’s kind of hard to argue.”