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Libraries embrace self-checkout

Sandra Feinberg, director of the Middle Country Public

Sandra Feinberg, director of the Middle Country Public Library, deposits books into the new, automated return station. (Jan. 12, 2012) Credit: Heather Walsh

As libraries work to keep up technologically and financially, the days of circulation desks and book-jacket bar codes might be limited.

The Middle Country Public Library branch in Centereach last month finished installing six radio frequency identification stations that allow patrons to self-check materials. The huge circulation desk is gone. And, while clerks still offer assistance, they are focusing on self-check and self-return.

"Kids love it -- they want to check things out for Mom," said library executive director Sandra Feinberg, adding that three RFID stations are in place in the Selden branch, too.

The process goes like this: A patron places a stack of materials on the scanning pad at a self-check station and slides his or her library card. The scanning pad reads the ID tags fixed to each item and checks them out to the user in one step. Unscanned materials will set off security-gate alarms. At Middle Country, materials can be returned via a covered drive-through attached to the building or in the library, where the circulation desk used to be.

It's quick and easy, Feinberg said, and eventually will save the library money. As users adjust to self-check, staff will be free to work on other projects like programming, a fast-growing facet of the library.

"I would say 85 percent really love it," Feinberg said of the library's patrons. "And I'd say probably 5 to 10 percent say, 'I don't like it, I don't like technology, I don't want people to lose their jobs.' "

Feinberg said there won't be layoffs because libraries have lots of natural attrition -- many employees are part-time, close to retiring, or college students. Eventually, staff departures will be sufficient to keep costs low, she said.

Feinberg estimated the cost of the $1.6 million project will be recouped in three years.

Sachem, Sayville, South Huntington, Merrick, Gold Coast and Manhasset public libraries are among those that have adopted RFID self-check, and another half-dozen libraries in Nassau now are installing the system. Only Middle Country has removed its circulation desks. And it's the only library system with a sorter, an assembly line-like machine that reads tags and sorts returned items based on library section.

It's not new technology but it's new to libraries, which are quickly picking up on it, said Ruth Westfall, administrator for technology services at the Suffolk Cooperative Library System.

"It's a good device for saving time and saving staffing, and it's easier on the staff because they don't get repeated stress injuries like carpal tunnel," Westfall said. "People can set up a self-service center with almost no staff, which is why it starts paying off."

At Middle Country's Centereach branch one recent morning, Sharon Cesa of Lake Grove rolled her double-stroller up to the self-check station armed with two potty-training books for her 2-year-old twins, Jason and Jocelyn.

"It's easy -- with the kids and my bags, it definitely makes it easier to maneuver," Cesa said. At first, she said, she was intimidated, "but then one of the librarians showed me how to use it, and it's a good thing."

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