Saturday, May 1, 2010

Circulation Workers, Beware!

Americans like to think we are a very independent people. As such, we often like to do things for ourselves rather than rely on a middle man. But does the expediency of self-serve programs really make our lives better? When did the self-serve wave begin? The elevator assistant has long been banished. Except for a few gas stations on the west coast, everyone pumps their own gas. We pay at the pump. We wash our own cars. Fifty percent of the time, I scan and bag my own groceries. If I want a cashier I have to wait in a longer and slower line. I can get lunch out of a vending machine. I get money out of an ATM. I do all my banking on-line. I can easily go through an entire day without speaking to another human about any of my needs. Is this good quality service? I don’t know. I like having options - the option to get in the cashier line, the option of speaking to a bank teller. I like knowing who to speak to if I have questions or problems. So, why am I talking about this?

In the spring edition of American Libraries by the American Library Association, an article entitled "A Circulation Renovation Cuts Expsenses" praises a public library for implementing technology that replaces the need for circulation workers thereby cutting costs significantly. This machine checks books out, in and sorts the returned materials into appropriate bins. Kudos to the engineer of this thing. I understand the economy has caused many libraries to cut budgets, cut jobs and look for ways to serve their communities without cutting programs. But honestly, as a circulation worker myself, this article scares me. I have worked at my college’s circ. department and plan to work there this summer. I’m the first person most people go to for any and all questions – not the librarians’ reference desk. As a student, I am often able to answer patron questions that the librarians don’t know how to answer. Not that I’m dissing the librarians. They know more in general than I do. I guess I don’t feel appreciated knowing a machine can replace me. It makes me uneasy every time technology puts more people out of a job. And I feel like my options are being limited.

What do you all think? Am I being paranoid? What are the up-sides to self-serve check out?


  1. It's unfortunate, but I don't think you are being paranoid at all. Technology is replacing jobs in numerous industries. I've not used the self serve check out in the library as its usually not very busy when I'm in there. I have used them in the grocery store and can appreciate them as I usually have just a handful of items. It is more efficient to do it myself than to wait behind someone with a large order.

  2. I've heard rumblings that our local library is heading this way as well. As you say, I like having the option of working with a real person.

    I wonder if one potential positive (aside from libraries being able to cut costs) is that patrons would feel more at ease when checking out certain books? And I don't necessarily mean (only) "adult" books -- maybe someone needing to practice 7th grade math in order to get a GED, or something like that?

    I think I'm mostly with you, Chelle. But then, I'm a Luddite that way. ;)

  3. Our library already has one "self-check out". It is the new wave and it's inevitable that we will see more of it. IMO, colleges will be slower to replace circulation staff, as students depend on financial aide and so those jobs should remain for a while.

  4. I agree with Diane. The branch of the library that I just retired from had 3 self-check machines, 2 in the adult section and 1 in the children's area. They were busy a lot and we encouraged that. Our branch was the busiest in the city except for the main library and we were overwhelmed even in winter. Summer is insane. As there had been hiring freezes and such, the self-checks were needed. Many people did still have to come to the circulation desk for library cards, to pay fines, renew their account, reader advisory, check out a book that wouldn't work on the self-check. I think it will be a while before circulation staff is unnecessary in most libraries. The focus of the staff may be on other areas though.

  5. Buffy - You make a really good point about self-checks making patrons comfortable. That idea never crossed my mind!

    Kay - It sounds like self-checks were invalubale for your library. Mine is busy but never overwhelmed like that!

    I think my job is fairly secure although last year there were several cuts to fulltime and sudent positions. My circ dept was consolidated with the media and the media student workers all lost their jobs. It was a sad time. So, despite the finacial aid our jobs aren't solid.

    Thanks for all the imput!

  6. A very thought provoking post which is I think coming to pass in a lot of developed countries. In third world countries where jobs are desperately needed I doubt it happening for a long long time. Its only the ATM machine I can identify with and I do know lots of people by pass this and go to a teller at the Bank!

  7. You know, a lot of libraries have gone to the electronic check-out system. It's convenient in a lot of ways, but I don't like it. I don't use the library as often as I probably should (I can't bear to part with books I've read -- I have a very cluttered house as a result!), but this was something that disturbed me when it first began to happen -- libraries used to be a very personal place, and they are becoming less so.

    I'm really sorry to hear that it's getting worse. :(

    I have an award for you today... I hope it brings a smile to your face!

  8. Couldn't agree more with you, Chelle. I avoid the self-service checkouts on principle...cuts human jobs. I'd rather pay a few cents more for an item and see someone keep a paying job, especially in this economy.