March 16, 2018

Open to Change | Office Hours

michael-stephens_newChanges aren’t permanent but change is. That’s a line from Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” a song you might remember if you hung out with the cool kids in high school during the 1980s. What felt so philosophical in 1982 now describes the rapid transformation that has touched every profession, including ours. Constant change may invoke feelings ranging from worry to out-and-out alarm.

Speaking at staff development day at the Gwinnett County Public Library (GCPL), Lawrenceville, GA, gave me time to tour a few of the branches with my longtime writing partner, Michael Casey, director of customer experience for GCPL. I had heard about big changes at the library, but to see them in action was inspiring. We can learn some lessons about change from this system in the midst of a striking metamorphosis.


Faced with a decade-old RFID (radio-frequency identification) infrastructure, limited personnel budgets, and inefficient processes, GCPL embarked upon a massive technology upgrade and service model change that saw oversize help desks replaced with tablet- or laptop-wielding librarians, the installation of RFID checkout kiosks able to make book recommendations based on customer interest, the introduction of a new print/PC reservation system, and a new WordPress website. To extend services even further, the system became one of the first in North America to launch a fully self-service off-hours program that allows the library to open without staff.

The Open+ system is in beta at the GCPL main branch, Monday through Friday, 8–10 a.m. Admin staff are housed in the other half of the building and can monitor the 14 security cameras installed as part of Open+. Expansion to Sunday morning is next, with after hours access possibly following, most likely while using a security guard or similar presence.

Originating in Denmark and in use in areas of the UK, this service (one of a few) provides a PIN to the library door; cameras record activity while the library is unstaffed. Charles Pace, executive director of GCPL, told me, ”The goal of the Open+ project was to expand access to our collections and resources beyond the hours that we could otherwise be open. We are maximizing the value of the investment that taxpayers have made.”


What if something were to happen? Have you encountered this issue as you plan to roll out a new service or a big change to existing services? Maybe it’s prompted a sign or two to go up in the library, such as a book cart I recently saw at a library out east, emblazoned with a STAFF ONLY notice. Did that begin with the thought that “someone might take that book cart for a joy ride…”?

I recorded a GCPL “travelog” for my students, showing pictures and describing the new services. My students didn’t hold back, from excitement to a very honest “this makes me feel uneasy.”

It’s only human to feel a bit of uneasiness about admitting patrons into our buildings unsupervised. Add to that the loss of the reference desk, and you have a big glass of change with a foamy layer of uncertainty on top. The open library model yielded some pushback in the UK that illuminates those fears: Are we losing the human touch? Will library property be destroyed? Is this the beginning of the end of libraries as we know them? Will robots be next?


No one is advocating for empty libraries and android librarians. Extending access during unstaffed hours may meet a need. Pace emphasized that “this self-service model offers many opportunities for libraries of all types to increase their community footprint without adding additional employees.”

GCPL staff told me about Open+ patrons who use the library early, including a homeschooler mom with three children. Almost daily, they share those early hours with serious collection browsers and those using printers and Wi-Fi. I asked what made the transition so successful. While some staff members confessed they were still working through personal responses to significant change, all agreed that library administration had been focused and communicative. “They told us a year ago it would happen,” a branch librarian said, “and they followed through.” Added to that was a willingness to listen to staff feedback and change course as needed through the process. This approach is one to watch.

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

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens ( is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA



  1. Heraclitus,too.