April 20, 2018

The Off-Site Librarian | One Cool Thing

When one of the bookmobiles at the Fort Vancouver Regional Library (FVRL), WA, wore out, spending a quarter of a million dollars to buy a new one was not an option. Yet patrons in remote, rural locations in Clark County still needed library service. The innovative solution was the Yacolt Library Express (YLE): a building that is open to the public nearly 70 hours a week, yet staff only spend about ten hours there during the same period.

According to The Oregonian, before its cancelation the Clark County book­mobile program had dwindled from a peak of 270 stops in the 1970s to a mere six and from twice to once a week. So while there isn’t a Library Express at every location served by the bookmobile, the availability of seven-day-a-week library service nearby is a reasonable trade-off. The 400 square foot YLE is located in a 100-year-old building that was formerly Yacolt City Hall and before that served as a garage for the fire truck and was also the local jail.

The branch opened in September 2012. “All in all, the process went from ‘What should we do?’ to ‘The door’s open’ in about nine months,” Sam Wallin, rural services coordinator at FVRL, told a local newspaper. Wallin presented on the creative concept at this year’s Association of Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL) conference, held in September in Tacoma.

Trusting technology

To make the building accessible to patrons without staff yet maintain security, Fort Vancouver turned to Telepen, a UK-based vendor that allowed the system to use existing library cards as keys. Once inside, security cameras keep an eye on things, and door counters let Fort Vancouver know when patrons enter and exit. Standard self-checkout stations have been modified also to allow patrons to check in books. Two computers provide access to the Internet (in addition to a 24-7 Wi-Fi hot spot), and the telephone lets patrons connect in real time to staff at other Fort Vancouver locations.

Staff support

YLE hours of operation are set to match those of the most extensive schedule at other system branches, so that patrons are never in the library without access to real-time, if remote, support. Every weekday, staffers bring holds, tidy up, and reshelve the books that were checked in by patrons.

The plan as originally conceptualized had the building running on only a few weekly hours of staff time, but Fort Vancouver quickly realized that model was unsustainable. Today, the YLE takes about 40 to 50 hours of staff time per week, though not all of them are spent on-site. Wallin estimates start-up costs for the Yacolt branch at $50,000 to $60,000, mostly outlaid for security. Ongoing expenses, including utilities, staff time, travel, and insurance, come to about $50,000 annually.

ON THE TOWN A security camera “captures” a young patron at play (l.); the 100-year-old building  now stands for library service

ON THE TOWN A security camera “captures” a young patron at play (l.); the 100-year-old building
now stands for library service

Expanding service

The YLE dramatically increased usage compared to the bookmobile that it replaced. An average of 80 visitors per day come Monday through Friday, while weekend visits range from five to 50. In comparison, the book­mobile served only about 70 to 80 people per week.

With a collection of 2,500 to 3,000 titles on the shelves and an average of 700 holds picked up per month, ­the YLE circulated 50,000 items in 2013 and is on track to hit the same number this year—almost as many as Fort Vancouver circulates from its smaller, fully staffed locations. (The inspiration for the project, King County Library System’s Library Express at Redmond Ridge, which opened in 2009, circulates between 5,000 and 6,000 items per year.)

The YLE even hosts the occasional event, such as poetry night. As well, it boasts its own Friends of the Library, with some 25 volunteers.

One size fits some

The YLE is not without its issues. It doesn’t work as well for remote patrons outside of Yacolt as the bookmobile did, though it is still better than the drive to the nearest staffed branch in Battle Ground, WA, which can take nearly half an hour in each direction. The YLE can’t accept payments or allow interlibrary loan pickups, so patrons still need to visit Battle Ground to access some services. Technical problems can take a long time to fix—though Wallin tells an ingenious Mission Impossible–style story of convincing a patron to pick up the phone via a terminal in order to talk through a remote trouble­shooting procedure. Also, it is difficult remotely to police unruly patrons, including the teens who managed to lock one of their number into an old disused jail cell.

In addition, Wallin is clear that a largely unstaffed outpost wouldn’t work equally well for every location as it does for Yacolt—a small town with a low crime rate and no homeless population who might seek an overnight stay.

Nonetheless, Wallin feels the model is worth exploring. He shares a variety of other remote service offerings on his Pinterest and offers to talk personally with librarians considering implementing a similar outpost. Check him out at swallin@fvrl.org.

Meredith Schwartz is Senior Editor, News & Features, LJ

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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