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King County has opened what they call the “Express Library” — a building with no staff available for public service where customers can pick up their holds, browse a small paperback collection, search the catalog on a locked-down computer station, and use a telephone to call another nearby staffed library.  From the Library Journal story:

To get into the building, patrons must scan or type in their library card number, but books can be returned via a book drop outside. How to maintain security? Cameras both inside and outside the building.

My questions really revolve around whether this saves the library much money at all.  In talking with one of my colleagues, we came up with the following costs that still exist at his location:

  • rent of the building & parking lot
  • utilities (lights, heat, phone, broadband for the limited computer access)
  • garbage collection
  • cleaning service
  • materials delivery service
  • staffing on the other end of that phone line to help people
  • Plus you really will need staffing at the location to drop off and organize holds on the shelf, restock the browsing collection, check in the returned items, reboot the computers when they undoubtedly fail, etc.

So, for the cost of some computer cameras and a card-based door entry system, your library can also get rid of all of its staff apparently.  While I am not opposed to a holds-pickup station somewhere in your community, I do think it’s a bit of a stretch to call it a “library.”

It raises the question–what makes a library a library?  And not just because there aren’t live staff there.  There is not a full browsing collection of materials, no internet-enabled computers, no wifi, no rooms to read or study in, no programs, etc.  If someone said “Either you shut down this facility entirely, or take this $40,000 to install security cameras & a door lock and keep it open as a holds-pickup station,” of course I’d take the money and have something rather than nothing.  But I truly, truly wonder how much this facility actually saves…and what its true cost is in the neighborhood they serve.

In times like these when we are all facing budget cuts, I think we need to really think about what we’re getting for our money–for both facilities/capital and staff expenditures.  What is the return on investment?  What is the real cost of operating a physical location?  What about turning more to virtual services (a topic for a future blog post)?

At what point does a library become a used book store?  A drive-in book pick-up station?  At what point does a library cease to be a library?

“Staffless “library” opens up in King County”

  1. Tweets that mention Staffless “library” opens up in King County | Librarian in Black Blog – Sarah Houghton-Jan -- Says:

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  3. indigo Says:

    Honestly, this is pretty much how I use my local library. The Multnomah County Library here in Portland has a great collection, but my neighborhood branch has in the past 5 years given over most of its shelf space to holds, and expanded their computer terminals. There are fewer books on-site, and the idea of going to the library in the hopes of finding the exact book I’m looking for, I might as well play the lottery. So, instead I just go on their excellent website, browse the collection for the title I’m looking for, put it on hold, and wait for it to show up at the local branch. I hate to see the library get less use in favor of the online catalog, but I fear that this is just one of the realities of our increasingly technologized society.

  4. uberVU - social comments Says:

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by TheLiB: Sarah’s commentary on the staff-less “library” in King County:

  5. Staffless “library” opens up in King County | Librarian in Black … Virtual Library VLChina Says:

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  6. ~Kathy Dempsey Says:

    I read this article earlier today and really liked it. I was looking at it from a different angle tho — the same one I always look thro — marketing. and from a marketing POV, this is a winner. the key is this paragraph from the LJ article:
    “The new mini-branch was inspired by a survey of community residents; some 95 percent said they would rather pick up their holds in a nearby unstaffed library than drive to a full-service library. Redmond Ridge is a 1,228-unit master-planned community.”

    So the library system did exactly what this target audience asked for: opened an “unstaffed library” right in the community. It’s sure to be used b/c it fills a specific desire for these patrons. And for that I say, Bravo, King County!

    You, however, bring up good points from a totally different angle, Sarah. As far as money, they save on some line items, like not paying more for a building large enough to fit multiple staff, and not buying more furniture & computers. the question of whether to call it a “library” is a good one, tho I note that the article calls it an “unstaffed library” so let’s us bloggers keep using that term so there is no confusion. (and hey, I’d rather it be called that than an “unstaffed book repository” or “unstaffed free bookstore”!!)

    The bigger questions you build up to (what makes a lib a lib and where do you draw the line?) are important ones. but in this case, b/c this site was designed to fit users’ specific wants & needs, I’m not worried about that. what these community residents hopefully will see is a library organization that’s sensitive and responsive to their needs. it’s still called a “library” so that word will remain in their heads with a positive connotation. (assuming the place runs smoothly. *crosses fingers*) Granted, if this site came about b/c a town’s leaders said “Human librarians aren’t important; we’re taking half your money and you just keep filling these shelves,” well then I’d be fuming. let’s hope that this is not a slippery slope, and that the difference remains clear. this is the proper spin: “making this site available is just one more service that the library system offers to better serve its customers.”

    Librarians in King County (and everywhere else) can help keep the value of real live librarians in the public eye by constantly reminding people of why librarians matter and what they bring to society, all the time, for people of all ages and backgrounds. we’re not just book shelvers, and not everyone realizes that. this kind of “everyday advocacy” (as our NJLA president calls it) and constant, positive, explanatory communications can make a real difference. as long as the librarians in KC and the journalists who cover this story don’t allow the impression that this Express Hut is just as good as a real, staffed, vibrant, lively library, I think we’ll be OK.

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  8. Marie Says:

    That’s pretty appalling. What about service? Answering questions? Surely some, if not many, of the patrons who use this branch will be confused about something or need help. Or would just like to see a friendly face. These things make a difference. Libraries are not vending machines for books; even bookstore employees are not viewed as this expendable. I wonder if the users who said they’d rather use the unstaffed library chose it because it was more physically convenient and not necessarily because it was unstaffed; the way the choice was framed makes it difficult to tell. I don’t always interact with the staff when I visit my local library but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to be there, to service the many needs of which most library patrons are unaware.

  9. Andromeda Says:

    I’m with indigo — “compared to what” is an important question here. My neighborhood branch is tiny but my consortium catalog is great, and all I use the local branch for is a holds depot; I would be getting better service from it if they fired the staff and used the savings to be open during useful hours (which they’re not, which is part of why I don’t use them). And the people in my neighborhood who work during the day would have the prospect of getting any service from them at all (which, again, their present hours render almost impossible). In the meantime, the main library two towns over is the one that I use when I want a quiet place to study or a library to take my kid to (yes, it’s that much better than my local branch).

    I’d rather see an improved real library, sure, but there’s neither will nor funding for it here.

  10. Frontline Librarian Says:

    I think librarians are afraid of innovations like this one because they fear it is the direction all libraries are headed. But I don’t think it is. It is simply an innovation for the sake of a master planned community whose residents have influence and whose HOA had 300 square feet of space to offer (although it is not clear from the article what “in partnership” really means). It is not my kind of thing, but neither are master planned communities. It all seems a bit too Stepford Wife-ish or Westworld-ish for me. That said, if it gets books into the hands of people who want to read books, then I’m all in favor. But just don’t tell me it saves money – I agree with you!

  11. Jeff Scott Says:

    I would agree with Frontline librarian. This is a variety of branch and a library that is answering what the community wanted. I just want a quick place to pick up my holds is a simple way to serve people.

    I would wager that it will create higher demand for library services in the area and once the economy recovers expect a full branch there. These things don’t make all libraries tiny self-service places, it expands libraries by getting the foot in the door. (I would also wager they start having storytime in there within a year :).

    As always, the biggest cost to a library is staff. If you can’t afford to send someone to operate a branch consistently, it is a good way to go. It saves money on a full branch with staffing.

  12. vickie Says:

    I am not surprised by this happening. I am aware of more and more libraries that allow book wholesalers to do their selecting for them – which frankly shocks me. A library should be a place of uniqueness and quality where one can browse and find something that maybe you weren’t looking for. When it becomes nothing more than a place holder for the latest disposable,forgettable best sellers, then it is not a library, staffed or not.
    I can see having virtual libraries where all materials are downloaded still being libraries if someone educated and trained to select quality and to provide reader’s advisory is making the choices, promoting the offerings and having online discussions/programs ; but over the last 20 year or so the mantra in the public library world is “the library is public – we should give the public only what they want” which has led to homogenized collections as bland and uninteresting as the offerings at chain bookstores. The police service, the welfare service and schools are public too – but they make decisions based on their expert knowledge of what will provide the BEST service, not what the public may want (although, of course that should be an important factor – but it should not be the be all and end all). If this is elitist so be it.

  13. What Makes a Library a Library? Teens Share Their Musings « The Unquiet Librarian Says:

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  14. Scott Says:

    When I implemented one of these nearly 10-years ago (sure wish I had thought to use “Express” rather than “Virtual” in the name :-) we did it as a stepping stone toward getting community support for a real, full-service library. Which did indeed happen, several years later.

    [Ours wasn't quite unstaffed - it was ina corner of a joint-use community center/school building, so community center staff were available to oversee the site. Saved us having to install a card-swipe door! :-]

    I don’t know if King County’s will save them money, but it seems likely it could. The start-up costs are one-time expenses, and some of them were likely picked up by the planned development community. The ongoing costs may have the community taking on some of those costs as well – utilities, for example. If the phone rings an existing reference desk, and if the delivery driver maintains the holds as part of the delivery (retrieving returned items, pulling ones that were not picked up, etc.) – then the additional costs involved likely are less than would be the cost of a staff member stationed there.

    Is it a library? I’d say not; but I’d definitely call it a service of a library (at least as much as, say, homebound delivery is a service.)

  15. Digitalist » What makes a library a library? Says:

    [...] this week Sarah Houghton-Jan wrote a post on her blog Librarian in Black about the new staffless library in King County. In this post she raised the question “What makes a library a [...]

  16. What Makes a Library a Library? « Barrow Media Center Says:

    [...] December 11, 2009 at 2:57 pm (Podcast) My librarian friend, Buffy Hamilton, recently posed a question to all of her librarian colleagues:  “What makes a library a library?”  Her question originally came from another blogger friend Sarah Houghton-Jan’s post [...]

  17. Mark Pond Says:

    I’m torn on this one… it’s a situation that required a lot of adding and subtracting before the needle on my good-vs-evil-o-meter settled on the “Good” side of the scale. Just barely.

    I’m hoping KCLS has plans to get the face of a human associated with the building pronto.

  18. sue Says:

    Maybe this unstaffed library is a good idea, maybe not. Over time the staff at the main library will be able to determine this through the number of holds placed and actually picked up. However, this type of library is very specific and it is doubtful to be replicated to any extent. The website for the community shows that it is exclusive, for the upper-middle to upper income folks. It is probably true that this community contributes financially to their express library – even providing the building. So for types of communities that can provide funding, and are quite a distance from a mainstream library, it might work. But in general, most people live close enough to a library to get there (and there are shut-in services and bookmobiles) most people don’t put holds on books . . . Also, the form of security – survelliance cameras, and requiring a library card – is laughable. In the urban area I lived in, with such security, within one week the computers would be trashed, the books stolen, the building vandalized. Our library had 2 full time security guards to keep the peace. Again, what this type of library is for is to serve a very particular type of patron, not the general public.

  19. What Makes a Library a Library? | Librarian by Day Says:

    [...] week Sarah Houghton-Jan posted about a staffless library in Washington and asked the  question “What makes a library [...]

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  21. Kaylin Says:

    Aside from the questionable cost-effectiveness, as a patron I would find it very creepy to walk into a deserted library and go up to the self-check out till like at Giant Eagle! I love my friendly librarians :-P

  22. catherine biltcliffe Says:

    Hello, Although this may not be a library it connects to the main library and if this is what works for this community and more people are reading then that is great!!! We have a very small library in our town with a small budget so hours are not the best for all our residents to have a place to pick-up books would be helpful and we could get more people to use services and isn’t that what we want??I love our staff and feel that a set-up like this would help their job by reaching more people. thanks for listening. Cat

  23. Brenda McIlroy Says:

    My local library 30 years ago was unstaffed and unsecured. The room was in the town hall and operated on an honor system. You came in, made yourself a little pocket, chose your book, put in the tag in the pocket, and it was yours for as long as you wanted, or until someone tracked you down because they wanted it. The books were replenished every few months from the district library 3 hrs drive away. Worn out or inappropriate material was removed, the shelves would be organized, and the catalog (card, of course) updated. Sometimes there were more books than they started with because people would leave books they had picked up elsewhere. Even though some were never returned, they lost very little, certainly not enough to make it worth installing any security. Sometimes if people knew they would not be returning they would leave some money. The town’s Country Women’s Association kept it tidy, made extra book tags etc. I guess it was little more than a bookroom or swop-shop, but there was no way that community could have afforded anything else, and we called it a LIBRARY.

  24. Megan Says:

    Dreadful. It’s a crying shame that that is what the community appears to want. They have probably been schooled by generations of ‘don’t ask me, look for yourself’ librarians in their area to expect nothing much more than a pickup service. Sigh… one reaps what one sows.

  25. Susan Says:

    I actually live near this kiosk. I love the service. King County Library is a large regional library that shares books between its branches. I rarely go to the library and browse. Instead, I use their online service to search for books and place holds. The kiosk doesn’t replace the (busy, well staffed, well equipped) Redmond library branch, it just augments it. The kiosk doesn’t take away service, it adds it.

  26. Ya Novels » We Don’t Need No Stinking Library Says:

    [...] Librarian in Black and The M Word – Marketing Libraries are talking about a “staffless” library has opened in Kings County. There is interesting talk, pro and con, at those two blogs, so click on through to add to the discussion. The story the blog posts are based on is at Library Journal. [...]

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