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Making Self-Check a Carrot

(Updated with a photo of how not to do self-check.)

Laura has a good entry on her RFID blog about implementing reduced-staff self-check. She says, “The key for the people I spoke with, however, was placing a dedicated staffer near the machines for the first few weeks to assist patrons during the transition.”

I’m going to change hats. Now I’m donning my “Librarian Classic” hat (I think it’s a fedora) and invoking my experience as a library administrator/chief technology type and as a librarian who always looks at the circ desk when she walks into a library (I have a photo album of library interiors).

I’d suggest two things to make self-check work (and this is whether it’s RFID or barcode):

* Don’t make self-check so Eat Your Vegetables, and don’t get talked into making it a second-class service. I have seen any number of libraries that have one drab, dusty self-check machine off in some corner with a sign the size of a catalog card on it. The general service impression ends up less inviting than a mammogram machine. Then the library concludes the service isn’t working–a self-fulfilling prophesy! The Mitchell Branch of Palo Alto City Library, on the other hand, has a suite of self-check machines placed near the door, with generous lighting and space.

* Have a staffed position, always. (It can be someone wearing several hats–as long as this person doesn’t disappear for long periods while people are checking out items.) Self-check is a misnomer. Here’s a recipe for disaster at the local Albertson’s. See the empty desk?


People always have questions and need overrides, and if you’ve been stuck at a grocery self-check at Albertson’s because the clerk overseeing the four self-check machines was off helping another clerk with a problem, you know that frustration mounts in less than five seconds. If the woman above can’t get her tangerines weighed, or the machine begins shouting at her, she wants help right then, not five minutes later. If you’re in line watching someone struggle with a problem, it’s even worse.

I’ve also seen people in grocery stores and libraries linger at self-check chatting with friends, which holds up the line (yes, people do this), and a suave staffer with good people skills could gently guide them away and toward the door. Again using the Mitchell Park example, when I check out books, I am an eyeball away from help, if I need it.

* Aside, but related: I feel bad for libraries that have circ desks poured into cement foundations or otherwise so inflexible a circ arrangement that rethinking circ is an expensive proposition. I remember Fred Schlipf warning us about that in library school: avoid locking in your reference/circ desk design because times will change and you’ll want to change with them. (Hey, Fred, have you ever been blogged?)

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