This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, March 9, 2006

March 9, 2006 - tech change

At the beginning of my career, the buzz was all about "automation."

Most libraries in the late 70's and early 80's used one of two methods to handle the checkouts. Most common was a paper-based checkout card system. You slid the library card, with its metal plate, into a device, then inserted the book cards, one by one, to be ka-chunked and stamped with a due date. That night, all of the cards had to be manually filed -- by author for fiction, and by Dewey Decimal number for non-fiction.

When books were returned, assuming they still had their date cards with them, you searched the appropriate day for the match.

If something wasn't returned, you looked up the card number in another file, typed up a letter with the book information, and mailed it out. If somebody asked for a book they found in the paper card catalog, you walked over to the shelf to see if it was there.

A second checkout method was photographic. You positioned the item and the library card and stepped on a button to snap a picture. These rolls of film were sent out to be developed. Checkin was an even more laborious and uncertain process. The photographic method, while more technically advanced, worked poorly. A lot of libraries never did adopt it. I happened to work (as a clerk) at one that did.

So when the automated circulation system came along, it looked like a real improvement. No more manual filing. No more typing of overdue notices. You could just look on a computer screen to find out if the item was available.

By then, I had my library degree, and was part of the cadre of new professionals focused on modernizing and making the switch to computer-based systems.

But here's the thing. Forgotten now is that there was tremendous staff resistance to these changes. A lot of the communication of the circulation department happened as people were putting the cards in order for the day. Now there was nothing to file.

Many library workers were afraid: does the library even need me anymore? Am I going to lose my job? So they fought the new system, inventing reasons not to use it, cooking up dire scenarios of doom that somehow never came to pass.

Then the automated systems started to add a lot more information -- moving the card catalog into electronic format. And the catalogers were up in arms.

But it was clear, right from in the beginning, that the automated systems worked. They saved money, and freed up staff time. Library automation became a wave across America.

What happened to the jobs? Well, some jobs did disappear. I'm not aware of anyone who got fired because of automation, but libraries stopped hiring filers.

We still needed people at the circulation desk, because at about the same time, libraries started to get much busier. The automated systems helped us keep up.

But then an interesting thing happened. We created new jobs. They weren't about filing. They were about more subtle and sophisticated tasks. Database managers. Telecommunications.

These new jobs were not only more interesting, they also paid better.

Bottom line: libraries got more work done with about the same number of people, who starting making a little more money.

What's the point to this history lesson? We're seeing another wave of technological innovation at the library. It's called "self-check." As of last week, most of our libraries now have computer stations that walk you very quickly and easily through the task of checking out your own materials. (And we'll still have staff around watching for folks who need or want help.)

Why are we doing this? There are several reasons. Mainly, it's that after researching and testing these units, we've noticed that people move through the lines faster. The units don't need to have staff members tending them, which means that we have the potential to save money -- diverting resources from the checkout desk to out in the stacks, to more meaningful interactions with our patrons.

What happens to our people? Nobody is losing his or her job. But those jobs, almost certainly, will change. Pulling people away from the more mechanical tasks frees them up for things that will be a lot more interesting. It will also let us reward people for the new skills we teach them, because we won't have to hire as many new people to keep up with the volume.

Meanwhile, we hope your transition, and ours, will go smoothly.

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