Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Librarianless Libraries of the Future

A Kind Reader sent in (sort of) this link to an article about an initiative in Irish libraries. Under the new initiative, patrons will be able to access libraries and check out books, even after hours when there are no librarians or other staff. They’ll even be able to use the computers all night.

The patrons will be monitored like crazy, but if Ireland’s anything like the U.K., everyone is used to that whenever they walk out on the street anyway. Here are some details of the plan:

Under the pilot scheme, selected library buildings will be fitted with automatic doors. Users will gain access to the library by using their membership card and a pin number. They will be tracked as they move through the building by both prominent and discreet security cameras. Radio-frequency identification tags will be attached to books, which will have to be scanned prior to removal.

If American libraries try this and it catches on, we may see the final nail in the coffin of professionalization among public librarians.

The professionalization squabble shows up sometimes even in the comments here. Somebody posts about the menial job duties of some public librarians and questions why the libraries even need professional librarians for that.

Some academic librarian will point out that his or her job isn’t at all like that, so don’t paint us all with the same brush. Librarians are a sensitive bunch.

But we already live in a world where many, perhaps most people who use libraries don’t know the difference between the professional librarians and everyone else, regardless of what their actual job duties are.

A middle aged woman in a frumpy sweater is a middle aged woman in a frumpy sweater from the patron’s point of view. Or, to update the stereotype, an overweight tattooed hipster is an overweight tattooed hipster, whether she’s writing code or reading shelves.

Imagine a new world not that distant, where people go into libraries and don’t encounter anyone. If they could do it at night, why not during the day as well. Self-check out everything.

The only people running the place would be the few librarian overlords behind the scenes manipulating everyone into thinking they’re enjoying themselves. The Wizards of the Library Oz.



  1. I used to volunteer at my fairly sizable church library and church staff would regularly enter the library, take something and leave without a trace. We were forever frustrated that materials were missing and never came back. I don’t see how a bunch of fancy cameras are going to fix this problem. News flash — patrons can still walk in and take out books without “checking out” even with fancy RFID tags. Like they are going to care if the gate beeps at them! How is this supposed to stop vandals — its still a mess whether its on camera or not. And I would personally be afraid of some bad intentioned person following me in and assaulting me. I predict this will be a gigantic failure.

    • Did you ever try asking them to please sign materials out? If they balk at that, tell them the only way that you can tell which materials are popular is by the circulation stats (which I assume you keep). Continue by saying that if it looks like a particular topic isn’t popular, you’ll stop buying materials on that topic. They really need to be signing materials out! I had to ask our church staff to do the same thing – and I think they are complying.

  2. Midwest SciTech Librarian says:

    Actually I can see academic libraries adopting this model faster than public libraries. A lot of college and university campus libraries are in closed environments for students and staff only.

    Most public Libraries are too poor to buy all the security apparatus that is needed. Plus how many women would want to be browsing the shelves in a nearly empty library with only a security camera around? The situation just sets itself up for assaults.

    • LongTermBorrower says:

      My college library had a self-checkout scanner & rfid tags in books as the only means for checking books out, since it was very small and didn’t have a permanent librarian/staff person to man a desk and check things out. The self-checkout machine didn’t work half the time, so it was pretty much “on our honor” that we return the books–needless to say, I don’t think it worked well! (I know I took a couple of books and kept them long past when they should have been returned. I did take them back eventually!!)

  3. Cut Both Ways says:

    “Imagine a new world not that distant, where people go into libraries and don’t encounter anyone.” (today’s column)
    “Then again, it’s not hard to imagine just about any future at all. It’s not hard to imagine paper books remaining popular for another century. Two can play at this game.” (“The Library’s Ending Again,” 10/17/2013)

  4. The article mentions Denmark and they were doing this in early 2009. One article referred to the arrangement as a “pretext” for municipalities to cut costs. Hours for librarians were reduced plus local branch libraries were closed. Circs went up at some places but only because there were fewer libraries over-all. New libraries were built apparently at the expense of eliminating local, small branches.
    The librarians’ union is against the scheme citing two reasons: people need/like a non-commercial meeting place that contributes to a sense of community; library users need guidance in navigating all the resources available. Some municipalities added bookmobiles in response to closures.
    As of 2013 the program has government support but some statistics show the number of visits and circulation have dropped.

    • People like ‘value added” services – like, personalization and people. That’s an indicator of $$ support for libraries.

  5. I love this. Exactly what I’m talking about. I can do my own library stuff without most of the twerps they hire and save my community a lot of money. Plus I won’t have to look at all the pierced faces my local library director loves to hire.

    • Frumious Bandersnatch says:

      Except nothing ever works that way… I guarantee that by the time they installed sufficient security cameras, security gates, card swipe door locks, and hired or contracted people for remote monitoring, then paid to cover the almost certain increase in stolen and damaged material, your community wouldn’t come out ahead. You’d simply end up with what you get whenever the bureaucrats try to “improve” anything…less service at greater expense.

  6. Sarah West says:

    Denmark has 180 open libraries with no staff like you are talking about.

    • Rebecca Cohen says:

      Some of my Danish cousins live in small towns with an open library and they love it! They can access the library at any time with their library card. However, I could only use the library by borrowing my cousin’s card.

  7. feldspar51 says:

    Meget tak Sarah for the Scandinavian Library Quarterly article! The conclusions of the research study referenced in the article were interesting and do not necessarily encourage cynicism if one were to apply the idea in America. Everybody is concerned about vandalism, especially in urban settings. A bigger problem I see is homeless people using the premises as a warm, protected places to sleep.

    • I’m surprised that you’re the first person to mention these issues. The homeless and drug addicted would move into those buildings and live there! Librarians would be finding trash, used needles and bodily fluids in the building as well as vandalism and theft. The library itself would become dirty and rundown and dangerous.

  8. I’m not so sure of any libraries having a self checkout only option. About 5 years ago, more grocery stores were decreasing the number of lanes manned by a cashier and replacing them with self checkouts. It didn’t save the stores that did it any extra money because they still had to pay someone to act as a LP and tech person to help customers when the machine locked up. Plus, it was a LP nightmare.

    I don’t see academic libraries switching to RFID tagging anytime soon unless the books come pretagged by the publisher. At the one I work at, we currently don’t have the security setting to recognize RFID tags. Outfitting nearly 40 libraries with sensors that detect both tattletape and RFID tags would cost money that isn’t there and it isn’t a sexy enough project to get a donor to fund it. Plus the cost of the RFID tags is significantly more than tattletape. I think retroactively going and placing RFID tags in older books, especially in large academic libraries is both a waste of money and manpower. This semester, we got extra money for 20 hours a week for the students to tattle tape all pre 2000 material because of concerns about books being stolen. At some point, the university library PTB will decide upgrade the current gates for security reasons. There’s simply too many items going missing that were purchased with state money. I’m expecting that to happen within the next couple years, probably around the time that materials are moved into the new off campus storage facility.

    Self checkout machines really don’t save the money that the decisionmakers think they will. The machines don’t last as long as predicted because of higher than expected usage. Also, the roles they are intended to replace are probably the positions that cost the least to fund. At most libraries, both public and academic, it’s rare to have permanent FT staff with benefits at the desk. It’s usually students or PT staff. Most get paid not much above minimum wage or if work study, only half their wages come out of the library’s budget. If libraries were really serious about cutting payroll, then they’d look at reference and usage statistics and go from there. That’s why sweeps weeks can be useful in determining how funding is allocated. If most of the questions asked and recorded are directional or technology-related questions, then it really raises questions about whether you need a FT librarian with a MLS sitting there answering questions like where is the bathroom or fixing printer jams.

    • I can just imagine were there to be no “humans” to handle problems at my library – support would tank. Also, machines aren’t foolproof. I HATE self-checkout at the supermarket; it never works for me. Much worse than library checkouts (which the kids love).

  9. feldspar51 says:

    What they’re waiting for is a technology wherein you can just roll your cart through and the scanner will pick up everything and charge it to your bank account.
    And might as well eliminate human checkout at the library – it’s a clerical function and the user derives no informational benefit. But the human contact with another person is another matter and if patrons can’t bring themselves to speak to the librarian then the librarian assistant is the one who gets the questions, directional and otherwise. So we’re talking about maintaining redundant sources of information, which means we care if people get what they want when they visit the library. That’s important.
    I volunteer occasionally and they even ask me stuff.

  10. Perhaps i’m missing the point of this article. Yes, as a means of getting people through the door it ca work. Yes you can make it relatively secure in terms of monitoring with cameras, and yes, there are downsides for the upkeep of buildingd and so on.

    To my mind, however, this move is another phase in the continued and seemingly unending shift towards the de-professionalisation of Librarianship, and a movement towards the supermarkets employment model of managers and minimum wage staff, with nothing between.

    We have long known that few, if any, people recognise that Librarians are professionals, with a vocational degree, and often a Masters.

    It is not the buildings on the line, not the stock – it is you and I and our chosen profession……

  11. KnSC97 – A few years ago the director of the library for which I then worked declared that it was his ambition to make our library “an information supermarket.” Having worked in supermarkets I only felt threatened by that remark for the reasons you describe. “This is the end of the humanist librarian” was another phrase I heard in response to our then-director’s statement.

    The article on self-service public libraries in Denmark I read indicated clearly that nobody was pulling the wool over the eyes of unionized librarians – they are convinced it’s all about cost containment via cutting hours and not concern for providing better library service. But library users interviewed liked the extra hours. From their point of view it was a great idea.

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