Bibliotheca Offers Unstaffed Hours Solution

Technology and automation vendor bibliotheca has launched open+, an access and security solution that enables libraries to expand open hours to times when the library is unstaffed. The U.S. launch follows deployment and testing at Gwinnett County Public Library, GA; Hennepin County Library, MN; and Ventura County Library, CA.
bibliotheca open+ logoTechnology and automation vendor bibliotheca has launched open+, an access and security solution that enables libraries to expand open hours to times when the library is unstaffed. The system includes an external panel that scans and authenticates a patron’s library card barcode via the integrated library system (ILS) to admit them into the building; security cameras to monitor activity during open+ extended hours; an integrated public address system to broadcast messages or alerts; power management features to remotely turn on or turn off lights, alarms, or library equipment such as public computers and self-service kiosks; and a web-based scheduling and management interface. The U.S. launch follows deployment and testing at Gwinnett County Public Library, GA (GCPL); Hennepin County Library, MN (HCL); and Ventura County Library, CA (VCL). Each use-case was unique, but officials at all three libraries said that there had been no staff cuts resulting from the use of the system, and that thus far, there had been no issues involving patron misbehavior. GCPL executive director Charles Pace said that open+ was implemented as “one small part of a bigger overhaul” of both the library’s technology and its service model. GCPL dealt with years of budget cuts during the recession that began in 2008. In an attempt to maintain service, the library had developed a system of offsetting open hours at different branches. “The idea was that, if your branch was closed, you could find another branch that was open…. but it was confusing” to patrons, Pace said. So, when he was hired in December 2013, one of his mandates was to expand and standardize hours across the 15-branch system. The library’s operating budget was still lower than it had been prior to the recession, and efforts to obtain ongoing funding for additional staff were unsuccessful. However, GCPL had been planning a replacement of its RFID system, which was reaching end of its life cycle. As the library was investigating its options, “we realized there had been a lot of advancements in RFID technology that were going to allow us to automate a lot of functions that previously had been very labor intensive.” Automation hardware such as self-check stations enabled the library to “completely revamp” its staffing model, removing service desks at all branches and switching to a mobile, point-of-need service approach, and adding 105 open hours across the system. In addition, during this process, GCPL officials learned about open+, which has been used by public libraries in Europe since 2007, and approached bibliotheca about testing the system in the library’s headquarters location in Lawrenceville. “We’ve geared our system around the idea of access,” Pace said. “Taxpayers are paying for these buildings and paying for these collections, so our philosophy is that they should have access to them as much as possible.” After GCPL installed open+ in May 2016, adult cardholders in good standing were invited to sign up for early admission to the Lawrenceville branch, beginning at 8 a.m.—two hours earlier than the public opening time of 10 a.m. Pace said that some library staff are typically already in the building during those hours, doing administrative work. Last fall, the branch also began offering extended open+ evening hours, from 8 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Since no library staff are usually present during those evening hours, a security guard was hired out of an abundance of caution, Pace said. Patrons use the extra hours for a variety of purposes, including picking up holds, using public computers, or reading the library’s newspapers and magazines—Pace said that there hasn’t been a single predominant use. But total door count for the Lawrenceville branch rose about 8.5 percent in 2017, to approximately 200,000 per month. The library is planning to implement another open+ system at its Suwanee branch this year.

Open During Renovations

Hennepin County has been using an open+ system for a more targeted purpose. The system’s Ridgedale branch has been closed since July 2017 for an extensive, $21 million renovation, but open+ has enabled the library to offer patron access to a limited area of the building—formerly the library’s used bookstore—as a reserves pickup area with a small browsing collection. Since the renovation began, patrons have averaged about 1,200 checkouts per week from the location, according to HCL director Lois Langer Thompson. “Hennepin does a high percentage of reserves pickups…and this was more convenient [for Ridgedale patrons]. They don’t have to go to another library,” she explained. The system will be left in place for reserves pickup when the library reopens later this year, and Thompson said that the HCL has been considering other uses for the system, such as creating similar reserves-pickup-only areas at other branches, or possibly implementing a full-branch installation similar to GCPL.

Expanding access

When Ventura County Library opened its new Hill Road Library in December, the county had approved a budget that would allow the new branch to operate 24 staffed hours per week. But library officials thought demand would be higher than that for the collections and services at the 5,100 foot location, which adjoins a coffee shop and is surrounded by government offices, schools, businesses, and apartment complexes. “We saw the need in the community as much larger than that,” said VCL Director Nancy Schram. Prior to Hill Road’s opening, she heard about GCPL’s work with open+ and contacted bibliotheca to ask about testing it at the new branch. Unlike GCPL, however, there are no administrative offices in the building, and unlike HCL, access is not limited to a holds-pickup area. The open+ system allows approved patrons to enter the library from 8 to 10 a.m., when it is completely unstaffed, to borrow materials and use equipment such as the library’s laptop checkout kiosk and printers. Schram said she got a lot of questions about security when discussing the system. “Every person we spoke to, certainly librarians and library staff members, their first initial reaction about this product was ‘how are we going to keep our collections and our public safe?’ and ‘are you crazy?’” Schram said. But, she said the system’s combination of controlled access and high-definition security cameras that are on during open+ hours made her believe that it could be used safely. Also, extended hours are limited to patrons who register at the branch, and staff give each of these patrons a walkthrough of how the equipment works, the library’s code of conduct, and common sense safety advice, like not allowing a stranger to “piggyback” into the building when they open the door. (Like GCPL, VCL limits the service to cardholders at least 18 years old, although parents are allowed to bring their children in with them). Schram said it was too early to give definitive data about the system’s use, but did note that the first day extended hours were available to the public, five patrons signed up in the first hour, despite very little prelaunch marketing.

No substitute

Like any automation solution, open+ also raises questions about staffing. None of these libraries cut positions or hours during these tests, and Pace, Schram, and Thompson all emphasized that the system was being used to offer enhanced access to library facilities, not as a replacement for staff. Still, in the case of GCPL and VCL, the libraries chose to try this solution because budget constraints eliminated the possibility of hiring staff in response to a community need. “One thing I was always really careful to emphasize when speaking to groups about open+ is that, for us, it’s really important to let people know that this is a basic level of service,” Schram said. “They’re not going to get the services you receive with staff—adult literacy tutoring and instruction, early literacy classes for children, story times.” When talking with government officials especially, “it’s important to emphasize this is not staffed service, and this isn’t even our ideal model of service; it’s not our ideal service level.” However, the reality at VCL—and at many library systems—is that “we have very limited resources, and staff are well aware of that,” Schram said. “We must use technology to be innovative and creative in delivering services and expanding access.”
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