At today’s Talis Bridge Day here in Talis’ offices, Karen Reece set the event off to a great start by facilitating an excellent discussion of the drivers behind self-service in academic libraries.
Karen was first of all interested to know whether RFID offered any significant differences over electro-magnetic tagging. Liverpool Hope University have fully adopted RFID and find that it speeds up the process when users are at the self-service machine, especially when large numbers of items are being processed. Manchester Metropolitan University had found that certain types of publication were simply not amenable to electro-magnetic tags. And Birmingham City University wanted automatic detection that all parts of multi-volume sets had been returned.
Self-payments also threw up some interesting issues. Birmingham City University, who are planning to introduce ePayment facilities, wanted to offer a seamless experience for the student by enabling payments at the device, as opposed to a scenario in which the student has self-issued an item but is asked to go elsewhere to pay outstanding fines. De Montfort University, which now offers online payments on its website, had decided that minimising cash handling on campus – particularly bearing in mind cost-saving and security implications – was the overriding consideration.
This threw up a more fundamental question for libraries – namely in the context of online transactions, how exactly do we define self-service? It’s not simply about the provision of self-service devices, and so we need a broad definition in keeping with the pervasive nature of self-service in society. Against a backdrop of the 24/7 expectations engendered by the Internet, then, it’s all about being able to help ourselves.
De Montfort University recently procured an RFID-enabled self-return sortation unit, and although they have experienced some teething problems, there are undeniable benefits. They are effusive about the efficiencies gained in the reshelving workflow, as it’s now simply a matter of taking a bin to the relevant section. However, if there are any problems, then the library has to double discharge all items, thus undermining those efficiencies. They weren’t interested in using the facility as a marketing tool – this was an approach that UCLAN had taken by displaying the workings of the sortation unit that they acquired a few years ago, but apparently the students soon got bored of it.
Newman College asked other participants how they had promoted use of the self-service machines. At Dublin City University, librarians at the counter bring users over to the machine. Other libraries have made a conscious decision to promote the services now available at the devices, and feel that students might not otherwise adopt self-service.
Karen Reece pointed out that findings repeatedly emphasise the importance of one’s first experience of a self-service unit. From personal experience, she noted her ongoing reluctance to use Tesco’s self-service units following their failure to work the first time she’d tried one. This met with strong agreement; De Montfort University pointed out the importance of immediate usability.
Is a fully self-service library achievable? There seemed to be consensus that 70% is practicable at this stage, although 80-90% would be ideal. Birmingham City University has made a decision to set targets for specific library sites which will in any case have different levels of self-service and maybe different types of user. They also pointed out a problem that has largely been overlooked and that is keeping the lines of contact open with users.
To this, I would add that the library’s regular contact with and understanding of students is now an important value proposition to the wider institution that it struggling to keep abreast of the rapidly changing and diversifying student body. So although the benefits of self-service are now clearly understood, the relationship with the user base needs to be safeguarded in the absence of the more basic customer transactions that self-service is replacing.