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To Vend or Not to Vend?

Tags: About a year ago, I helped edit A Swedish Book Kiosk Travels to Rural California, a Library Spotlight article written by Loren McCrory, director of the Yuba County Library. The article described Loren’s experience acquiring and installing two self-service library vending machines in her library system. Therefore, I was intrigued by A Vending Library is No Library, James Lund’s recent editorial in Library Journal voicing opposition to this model of on-demand library service. While I’m generally sympathetic to the case he makes, I believe libraries can serve the need for convenience and still provide a human touch. Lund argues that vending machines will take the human quality out of patrons’ library interactions, rendering them dry and impersonal, while giving politicians an excuse to slash library staffing budgets. I think this is only true if book vending machines are implemented without thought or imagination.

You could make the same argument (i.e. they’re impersonal and dehumanizing) for any type of library automation, from the ILS Book Vending Machine at Gatwick AirportBook Vending Machine at Gatwick Airportto library web sites. In all cases, we make our best effort to humanize the technology and integrate it into a wider ecosystem of patron choices. In other words, no form of library automation should stand alone, totally devoid of human support and imagination. Wherever a library situates a vending machine, they should include signs and instructions telling patrons how to contact a librarian in case they have reference questions or questions about how to use the machine.  Libraries might even consider installing a dedicated phone line that only dials the reference desk, or a public access computer kiosk with a user-friendly ask-a-librarian chat interface.  Furthermore, the selection of items in the vending machine calls for human input and humanizes this service even more. Librarians know their community and they know what circulates best in the various neighborhoods they serve.

Furthermore, in an era of ten second e-book downloads, Espresso Book Machines that can print and bind any almost any title at a moment’s notice, and book rental services such as BookSwim, patrons are getting accustomed to content delivery that suits their schedule and their needs.

Lund does an excellent job summarizing the arguments for “library as place”, and I agree that nothing does as much to sustain public support as a comfortable, welcoming library building that’s conducive to both solitary thought and warm social interaction. I also feel that the public’s emotional connection to libraries begins with a friendly, talented library staff providing needed services in a space that nurtures and stimulates at the same time. However, that’s a role libraries have played for more than a century, yet politicians keep hacking away at library budgets. The more we respond to patron’s needs and incorporate our services into their daily routines, the more we’ll be seen as an essential public function that can’t be cut just because local government revenues are slumping. Of course, vending machines aren’t the only way to give patrons the materials they want when they want them. Some library systems will decide that building new branches in underserved areas meets the needs of the largest number of patrons. Oher systems might opt to start mailing requested items to patrons a la Netflix or BookSwim.  I lived in Olympia, Washington for two years, and the local library system (Timberland Regional Library) didn’t charge overdue fines. After-hours book drops in convenient locations all around town are another way of responding to the reality of patrons’ rushed, busy lives. The answer depends mostly on each library system’s unique mix of community needs and organizational resources.

But one thing is consistenstly true: organizations that rest on their laurels and ignore their constituents eventually lose the support of their constituents (aka patrons, customers, clients).  Patrons consumed with their jobs and/or their families are finding it harder and harder to organize their schedules around our professional traditions and business processes.  Students and retirees don’t mind a few extra trips to the library each week, but sooner or later a generation of young professionals and young parents will abandon the library and then forget about us when they accede to positions of power in local and regional governments.

Book Machines

Thank you for this post. We are in the process of rolling out a bookmachine ourselves in a place where we cannot provide library services. It's certainly not the end of the library services by having a machine, but the seed to grow a full branch. There are many vendors that provide this service now too.

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