Tech Tools: Reopening and Beyond

Even before the pandemic emerged, libraries were investing in new technologies designed to save time and improve efficiency by supporting customer self-service, freeing up library staff to focus on more strategic work. COVID-19 has accelerated this trend and in the process, is transforming how libraries function in the 21st century.



Even before the pandemic emerged, libraries were investing in new technologies designed to save time and improve efficiency by supporting customer self-service, freeing up library staff to focus on more strategic work. COVID-19 has accelerated this trend and in the process, is transforming how libraries function in the 21st century.

Many products and services released in the past year make it easier for patrons to check out and return materials and complete other transactions without having to interact with librarians face to face. “There is a lot of demand right now for contactless ways to engage with patrons,” says Scott Livingston, executive director of OCLC.

Other new technology tools are intended to help libraries manage occupancy to ensure safe social distancing or engage with their communities more effectively in this time of need.

Many of the changes that libraries have adopted are likely to continue once the pandemic is over. “We’ve seen contactless engagement increase in other areas of society, such as food delivery services like DoorDash®,” Livingston says. “We believe that’s something that will continue for libraries as well.”

Here are some of the new technology tools that libraries can use to provide services safely during the pandemic—and beyond.

Unique Management Services

For more than 25 years, Unique Management Services has been helping libraries with material recovery and patron communications. The company is perhaps best known for its Gentle Nudge® recovery service, which has recovered more than $1 billion in overdue materials and unpaid fines for libraries worldwide. Its latest service, Curbside Communicator, facilitates the safe delivery of library materials to patrons during the pandemic.

Curbside Communicator is a two-way communication system that allows library staff to communicate with patrons via text message to support a seamless curbside pickup process. Patrons reserve an item through the library’s website as they normally would. Once they’re notified that the item is ready for pickup, they pull into a designated spot and send a text message to the Curbside Communicator number.

The program asks the patron a few questions, such as their name, library card number, and parking spot number. Librarians can see this information on the program’s desktop console, from the safety of the library. When they are ready, all staff have to do is carry the reserved items out to a patron’s car, keeping face-to-face interaction to a minimum. Curbside Communicator provides this two-way communication without the need to use a librarian’s personal cell phone or a library-purchased phone.

“The service doesn’t require a big change in patron behavior; they can simply pull and send a text message,” says Director of Business Development Rob Klaus. It increases the throughput for what libraries can do in a contactless environment.”

Another product, UniqueChat, helps libraries engage with their customers online more effectively through a live web chat feature. It’s a mobile-enabled widget for a library’s website that supports two-way communication with patrons, enabling libraries to deliver assistance in a way that’s faster and more convenient than using the phone or email.

“As services have shifted online during the pandemic, it’s important for libraries to deliver high-quality customer service through their website,” Klaus says. “Being able to answer patrons’ questions through a live online chat service is a significant enhancement.”

Yet another tool from Unique, MessageBee, helps libraries send automated notifications to patrons via rich, engaging emails rather than plain, text-based messages. Currently, libraries are using the service to keep patrons informed about the latest COVID-related changes and other news. But this year, the company will be adding features that integrate with a library’s ILS to deliver more targeted, customized messages to specific groups of users.

All of these products make it easier for librarians to meet patrons where they are, including online, without requiring extra time or effort. That could become especially important once libraries resume normal in-person activities.

“Now that libraries have expanded how they serve customers during the pandemic, such as implementing curbside pickup, it will be very hard to walk those services back when the COVID-19 threat is over,” Klaus observes. “Librarians are going to become very busy—and our products can help them pull this off.”

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Kingsley is a leading supplier of equipment for handling and returning library books. The company’s SafeSystem outdoor book returns support contactless service by allowing patrons to return materials from the convenience of their vehicle or through a walk-up return on the sidewalk—with no staff interaction necessary.

Kingsley’s KwikDrop design enables patrons to make no-contact returns. Users simply push the materials through spine first without having to pull down any doors or touch the receptacle. In addition, the units are made of virus-resistant materials.

Studies show that COVID-19 dies up to 15 times faster on aluminum than on stainless steel surfaces—within two to eight hours compared with three to five days. The flaps and surrounding areas on Kingsley SafeSystem depositories are made of aluminum to maximize this benefit, and all powder-coated areas feature an antimicrobial finish that kills or slows the growth of viruses and other microorganisms. “We’re the only ones who have that,” says President and CEO Murray Morgan.

All SafeSystem receptacles include a matching SafeCart for transporting materials into the library. These carts are also made of aluminum and feature an attached, hinged lid that protects books and other media during the quarantine period. The carts fit into the areceptacle and can be pulled out and wheeled into the library when full. They feature a shelf that raises and lowers automatically when weight is added or removed, so materials aren’t dropping from a great height that could damage them.

SafeSystem depositories are available in a range of sizes, from units that can contain up to 250 books to those that fit more than 1,100. All of the units are secure and fully fireproof and waterproof.

Kingsley has two new innovations coming out this year. The BookValet will make contactless deliveries even easier for librarians: It’s a secure storage unit on wheels that librarians can easily roll out to the curb. Each unit will have eight lockable compartments designed to contain materials that patrons have reserved online. When patrons check out a book online, they’ll be given the code to one of the compartments. Then, they can pick up their book at their convenience, simply by pulling up and entering the code.

Also, a new feature called TimeSaver will make it more convenient for librarians to empty the SafeSystem outdoor depositories. It’s a sensor-based system that can detect when a unit is close to its capacity and sends a text message in this case to a designated librarian, indicating it’s time to retrieve the materials.

“With this feature, librarians won’t have to go out and check all the time to see if a unit is full,” Morgan says.

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Comprise Technologies

Founded in 1991, Comprise Technologies sells many products that can help libraries serve their communities safely during the pandemic, including systems for remote and contactless printing, scheduling, and payment.

“Library staff would like to reduce the number of face-to-face transactions if they can,” says National Sales Director Diane Weinberger. “They also would like to minimize cash handling, thus libraries are moving toward self-service.”

Comprise has re-engineered a number of its core products to help libraries re-open safely and continue to operate post-pandemic in the most efficient manner possible.

The company’s flagship product, SAMTM (Smart Access Manager), is a complete solution for managing the use of printers and public-access computers. The software helps libraries enforce safe social distancing in several ways.

For instance, patrons can reserve the use of a computer in advance, then come to the library at the designated time so they are not in the building any longer than necessary. If patrons sign up to use a computer while they’re in the library, they can receive a text message when a machine becomes available, eliminating the need to hover as they wait for a free terminal. In addition, libraries can choose to list only certain PCs as available to create safe social distancing without rearranging their furniture.

SAM also manages a library’s printing services, and the company’s other products evolved from this software. SmartALEC gives patrons the ability to print documents remotely and pick up printing jobs curbside. SmartPAY allows libraries to collect payments online, even if they are closed; patrons can pay fees or manage their accounts for printing, copying, and other services. SmartKIOSK is a self-service kiosk for making payments within the library; it accepts all forms of payment and eliminates the need for staff to handle cash. SmartTERMINAL is simply a self-service credit card terminal. And SmartBOOKING allows patrons to schedule study rooms, time with a librarian, or other resources.

All of these systems are available as standalone products, but they’re also tightly integrated with each other and use a single dashboard to manage information.

Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Library has been using all of Comprise’s products for several years in an effort to move toward more customer self-service. “Their librarians no longer handle any over-the-counter transactions,” Weinberger says. “With our solutions, payments are one of the easiest things to eliminate from the front desk’s responsibilities.” Not only does this help to protect staff from contracting COVID, but it also frees librarians to focus on more strategic initiatives.

Other companies provide self-service payment solutions for libraries, but “Comprise is the only company serving the library market that offers its own independently validated PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) solutions for every point of payment”, Weinberger says—which sets the company apart.

“We have all the credentials to handle credit card data safely,” she notes, adding: “That’s huge.”

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Communico began in the U.K. in 2006 and expanded to the U.S. in 2012. The company offers a cloud-based customer engagement platform built specifically for public libraries. Its suite of separate but tightly integrated modules aims to help libraries increase the use of their assets by making it easy for patrons to engage with the library in multiple ways.

For instance, Create is a content management system that helps libraries build dynamic websites without any coding knowledge. Broadcast is a digital signage application that turns any device into a digital sign. Engage is a mobile app that lets patrons do almost anything they can do at a physical library location from the convenience of their phone. Attend helps libraries manage special programs and events. Reserve allows them to manage and promote meeting rooms and equipment through one intuitive interface. Roam is a mobile point-of-sale solution for staff to help patrons from wherever they are, and Check is a self-checkout tool for patrons.

Communico’s latest solution, Schedule, began as a free add-on to help patrons schedule curbside pickups during the pandemic. Since the product’s launch, Communico has built it out into a full-featured service that integrates with Zoom and other web conferencing platforms, so patrons can schedule virtual sessions with library staff and other types of appointments—and the company now charges libraries for this module.

“We have at least 75 percent of our early adopters paying for the full service now, so it has been very well received,” says Founder and CEO Paul Quelch.

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Quipu Group

Quipu Group takes its name from the intricate system of knotted strings the Inca used to store and convey information. “We considered this the first database,” says Melissa Stockton, cofounder, partner, and chief librarian. It’s a fitting name for a company that develops software to help libraries solve problems they face every day.

After developing an early electronic resource management system for members of the Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries, Stockton and her two business partners founded Quipu in 2005. Their first product as a company was eCARD, an online self-registration system that fills a timely need for libraries amid the pandemic today.

eCARD is a subscription-based service that helps libraries verify that patrons who are signing up for a library card online actually live within their designated service area. Quipu works with libraries to develop a customized registration form for their website. When patrons fill out this form to request access to library services, the information is transmitted to Quipu, which validates the applicants’ residence so they can have instant access to online resources.

eCARD integrates with all major ILS solutions, creating an entry within a library’s ILS automatically when a new patron registers online. Libraries can choose to give people partial access to electronic resources if their address cannot be verified immediately. “Librarians decide how the system will be implemented; we provide a service that is customized around their local policies,” Stockton says.

Another Quipu product, PITSTM (Patron Incident Tracking System), helps libraries foster a safe space for everyone. It gives librarians an easy, centralized way to track “problem” patrons: They can create incident reports, upload and attach supporting documentation, and manage and automate the suspension of library privileges for specific patrons.

“During the pandemic, we’re seeing libraries use this service to keep track of patrons who refuse to wear a mask,” Stockton observes.

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For nearly 70 years, Gale has been known as a leading publisher of reference materials and databases for libraries. Over the last decade, however, the company has expanded its offerings to include software solutions that help libraries use data strategically to make better decisions.

“Although it’s in its infancy right now, we believe data will play an increasingly important role for libraries in the future,” says Amanda Winchel, library analytics sales manager for Gale.

Using data to understand the needs of patrons and deliver targeted programs to address them allows libraries to leverage their resources more effectively. This is important at any time, Winchel says—but especially during a pandemic, when public funding is at risk, every dollar counts, and libraries must do everything they can to show why they matter to their communities.

Gale has two key products that can help with this task. Gale Analytics, which has been available for about seven years, helps librarians understand their broader community, so they can tailor their outreach to bring in people who aren’t currently being served. Gale Engage, which the company just introduced in 2020, helps reveal how existing patrons are interacting with the library, so librarians can serve them more effectively.

Although these are separate, standalone products, they complement each other very well, Winchel says. When used together, they give librarians comprehensive insight both within and outside their institution.

Gale Analytics marries data from a library’s ILS with publicly available data from external sources, such as the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. It helps librarians understand who they’re currently reaching, who they’re not reaching, and how to change that.

Here’s how it works: A library uploads its data and then chooses a way to define the area it serves (such as ZIP code, city, county, or school district). The program then uses patron addresses to sort the residents of this defined geographic area into two data sets: matches (those who are users of the library) and non-matches (or non-patrons).

Librarians can filter the data even further using a wide range of data points, such as ethnicity, income level, or households with children—and they can use the program to create segmented mailing lists with this information. For instance, they can identify the non-patrons who have young children and then mail a flyer advertising their children’s programming to this group.

Gale Analytics displays data visually as well as in list format. Librarians can view patrons and non-patrons as dots on a map of the area they serve, so they can see where non-users with various characteristics are clustered geographically. This gives libraries many ways to reach non-patrons beyond direct mailings: They could put up flyers in underserved locations, partner with local businesses there, or send bookmobiles to those neighborhoods.

What’s more, the program uses Experian’s Mosaic® proprietary household segmentation system to help librarians understand their community better. Experian groups households into 71 unique profiles, or Mosaics, based on characteristics such as age, income, level of education, and lifestyle.

Each profile includes detailed information about how that group prefers to be reached (TV or radio ads, direct mail, email, social media), as well as the types of programming or activities they’re most interested in. Libraries can use this insight to target their outreach to patrons and non-patrons alike more successfully.

Libraries have always wanted to reach underserved populations more effectively, and during a pandemic this has become even more critical, because these are the people who need help the most. “This has become a guiding light for libraries,” Winchel observes. “Gale Analytics can help libraries not only identify the underserved households in their community but also figure out how to reach them.”

Although the product has been helping libraries do just that for several years now, Gale was hearing from librarians that they still had key challenges in using their own internal data to make better decisions.

For one thing, Winchel says, most library data exists in separate silos, or systems that don’t communicate with each other. Also, libraries haven’t had an easy way to target their messaging to existing patrons based on how patrons are using the library’s resources, while also maintaining privacy.

To address these challenges, the company created Gale Engage, which launched just before the pandemic reached the United States. Gale Engage takes a library’s disparate data systems and ingests all of this information into a single data source, giving librarians a comprehensive view into how patrons are interacting with library resources and services.

Using any of the 100 or so predefined data visualizations that Gale has created, librarians can create segmented groups of patrons by interest—such as romance novels or mysteries—based on their checkout history. They can use these groups to send targeted messaging; for instance, they might send readers of graphic novels an email message alerting them to the latest graphic novel titles in the library.

These targeted email messages can be sent directly from within Gale Engage. To protect the privacy of patrons, their actual identities remain encrypted by the system unless an authorized librarian requests the encryption key. Gale will also work with libraries to create customized data visualizations based on their unique needs if they’d like to segment their data in ways that aren’t covered by one of the predefined settings.

Both Gale Engage and Gale Analytics are available to libraries for a yearly subscription rate that is determined by the size of the population served. Gale also includes training in how to take full advantage of these products: New subscriptions come with a Success Manager, and a marketing analytics consultant is available to help librarians with data visualization for the life of their subscription.

“These are technology tools for connecting with people,” Winchel concludes. “With Gale Engage and Gale Analytics, libraries can connect with people in ways that resonate with them and also reach those who need services the most.”

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OCLC is a nonprofit library cooperative with more than 16,000 member institutions worldwide. The organization focuses on giving libraries more innovation and choice in the marketplace. OCLC’s WorldCat database is the world’s largest collection of metadata for describing libraries’ assets and making them more discoverable. “We’ve been providing this information to libraries for 50 years,” says Scott Livingston, executive director, OCLC Management Services.

During the pandemic, when many library branches have closed and others have limited access to services, librarians have been grappling with how they can continue to engage with their community. OCLC offers a forward-thinking ILS that can help, called OCLC Wise®. “We call Wise® a community engagement system,” Livingston says.

Designed around a library’s users rather than its collection, Wise® is built to help librarians understand their patrons and how the public interacts with library resources. For instance, the system learns each customer’s preferences based on an individual’s borrowing history and the events they attend, so librarians can send targeted messages to patrons that cater to their interests. It also analyzes how a library’s collections are being used and what topics are most popular at each branch. Plus, it can make purchasing recommendations to librarians based on this insight.

Wise® creates a much tighter connection between a library and its community,” Livingston says. He adds: “During the pandemic, parents need help in supporting their children’s learning from home and people need new hobbies and books to read. Wise’s ability to help suggest the right resources can help libraries meet these needs more effectively.”

Another OCLC solution, CapiraMobileSM, is a customizable mobile app that lets users engage with a library and learn about events, services, and resources from the convenience of their phone. Librarians can send notifications about new programs and promotions, while patrons can search the library’s catalog, request or check out items, schedule them for contactless pickup, or pay fees and fines. As libraries begin to reopen, the app’s Self-Checkout functionality allows users to check out materials on their own.

When libraries subscribe to CapiraMobileSM on behalf of their community, users can download the app free of charge.

“Almost anything you can do at a library terminal, you can do from a phone at home using CapiraMobileSM,” Livingston says. “There is a lot of demand for contactless ways to engage with the library now, and this app helps meets that need.”

CapiraCurbsideSM is an intuitive pickup solution that integrates with a library’s ILS and efficiently manages distribution of library materials. It meets community expectations with a convenient option to get the resources they need when and how it makes sense for them, without adding work for library staff.

“Because we focus heavily on cloud-based and open access technologies, we were very quickly able to help libraries provide continuity of services when the pandemic hit,” Livingston says.

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Youngstown, Ohio–based SenSource was founded in 2002. Its first products were sensors that libraries would install at their entrances to count the number of patrons they were serving, so they could budget more effectively and make the case for public dollars.

When the pandemic emerged, “we realized that our platform of intelligent sensors offered tools to help libraries reopen safely by tracking occupancy,” says Director of Marketing Andy Clutter. In April 2020, the company launched the SafeSpace Occupancy Monitor, which uses VIDX sensors equipped with artificial intelligence to calculate the number of people within a library space at any given time.

Sensors installed above each entrance to a library branch, wing, or other public space track the number of people who come and go. This information is updated in real time and appears on a small display outside each entrance, so patrons can see how close the space is to reaching its safe occupancy threshold during the pandemic. An API allows libraries to add this live count to their app or website as well, so patrons can see if it’s safe for them to visit the library before they leave home..

The system can be set up to deliver push notifications to a designated administrator if the safe occupancy threshold is approached or exceeded. What’s more, historical reports are available that show how busy the library is over time.

“These reports are an effective way for librarians to track their most popular days and times, so they can staff accordingly or even post the best times for patrons to visit safely,” Clutter says.

SenSource’s latest product, Face Mask Detection, takes the concept a step further. It employs the same sensors used to track occupancy but calibrates them to look for a face mask when a patron enters the building. If the system doesn’t detect the presence of a mask, the display outside the entrance turns red—and an audio message politely reminds the patron to “please wear a mask.”

“Dedicating an employee to watching the door is labor intensive and can lead to uncomfortable confrontations,” Clutter notes. “We heard from our customers that they didn’t want to subject employees to that type of situation.”

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International Library Services

A former advertising executive, International Library Services founder and CEO Fred Goodman has been coming up with innovative ways to extend the reach of libraries since the mid-1970s. “Making libraries more accessible to people who might not be using them has been our mantra,” he says.

The company’s earliest solutions included kiosks that libraries would install in shopping malls, recreational centers, and other public places. Patrons could access materials from these kiosks with the push of a button.

These products evolved into the Lending Library, a book vending machine that can contain up to 500 books for distribution anytime and anywhere when someone scans a library card, and the Library Media Box, a secure dispensing machine holding up to 3,000 CDs, DVDs, audiobooks, and video games—like an early version of Redbox.

In the age of COVID, these machines are ideal ways for libraries to offer contactless service to their patrons, Goodman says. And with the Library Media Box, patrons can see which resources are available in each machine before they leave home through a software module that integrates with a library’s website. Patrons can place a hold on these items online, then pick them up (and return them) at the appropriate machine. The dispensers automatically hold discs in quarantine for at least three days when these items are returned.

International Library Services also offers an Intelligent Locker System that can be used to distribute items to customers securely and without contact. With these smart lockers, patrons can pick up items on hold at any remote location using their library card 24-7.

The company’s newest solution, the ILS Book Sanitizer, is a cabinet that uses UVC lamps to disinfect books and other materials nearly instantly, so they can be put back into circulation faster. A tabletop model can sanitize six books in thirty seconds, and a tower version sanitizes up to twenty books in about five minutes. “Lab tests indicate our products kill 99 percent of the COVID virus,” Goodman says.

The Bellaire Public Library in Ohio is using the smaller model to disinfect materials as they’re returned. “For the safety of the people who work here and the community, this is a good investment,” says Library Director Mary Roberts.

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LaptopsAnytime sells automated kiosks for checking out laptops, Chromebooks, and tablets to patrons. In essence, the company does for mobile devices what other companies’ kiosks do for books, DVDs, and other media.

Prior to the pandemic, the company marketed its solutions as a way to free up time for busy library staff. Instead of checking devices in and out, inspecting them for damage, restoring their original settings between uses, and plugging them in to recharge, librarians can focus on helping patrons by letting a machine handle these tasks.

With the emergence of COVID-19, LaptopsAnytime kiosks give libraries yet another way to provide contactless service—while getting essential technology tools into the hands of patrons.

“Desktop computers take up a lot of space that can only be used for a single purpose,” says cofounder and CEO Matt Buscher. “Librarians are finding that laptops provide a much more versatile option for giving people access to technology—and our kiosks help libraries distribute and manage these devices in a simple, hands-off way.”

The automated dispensing kiosks are available in 6-, 12-, 18-, 24-, and 30-bay units. They can be customized to support laptops, Chromebooks, and/or tablets from a wide variety of manufacturers. (A library is responsible for buying its own devices.)

Patrons simply scan their library card to access a device from the kiosk. The machine can be programmed to fit a library’s local lending policies, and automated notifications help libraries manage the loaner program. For instance, a designated administrator can receive an email alert if a device hasn’t been returned on time, a kiosk bay fails, or a user reports that a device needs servicing.

When a device is returned to an empty bay in the locked position, it’s docked to a power source for automatic recharging. Institutions can also choose to license Deep Freeze or a similar program for restoring the device to its initial state.

The devices communicate their presence through an RFID card reader built into every bay, and they also communicate their battery life to the software operating the kiosk. A device can only be checked out if it exceeds the minimum battery life set by an administrator. In response to the pandemic, LaptopsAnytime has added a feature alerting the circulation desk when a device has been returned, so that it can be sanitized before being loaned out again.

Libraries pay a base fee to purchase the machines, as well as a service and maintenance contract that allows them to reconfigure the bays every three, four, or five years to coincide with their device refresh cycle.

Laptops Anytime also sells a universal charger that gives patrons a fully mobile power source for their device—and the company’s kiosks can be configured to distribute these chargers as well. About the size of an old VHS cassette, the charger consists of a battery pack with a built-in 110-volt outlet. With this mobile power source, “users don’t have to sit near an outlet,” Buscher explains. “Instead, they can sit wherever they’re most comfortable—which also helps with safe social distancing.”

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A ‘sea change’ in user expectations

Although the pandemic has put a significant strain on library staff and resources, it has also created new opportunities for librarians to reimagine the mix of content and services they provide and how they provide them.

“Not since the emergence of the internet have we had such a sea change in user expectations,” Livingston concludes. As people have become used to the convenience of accessing library services from home, this has now become the “new normal.”



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