Washington Library Increases Service by Giving Patrons the Keys

How a library reinvented itself for the community with the help of technology.
Yacolt, WA
Sam Wallin

If you visit the Yacolt Library Express in Yacolt, Washington, you'll be greeted with the sights you'd expect at any public library: shelves of books and other media, patrons reading or studying, public computers. But you might not be greeted by a librarian. That's because of the 68 hours that the Yacolt library is open every week, there are staff members present for only about 15 of them.

"People's Patterns Were Changing"

How did the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District arrive at such an unorthodox arrangement? Special projects coordinator Sam Wallin explains that before Yacolt Library Express opened in 2012, the Fort Vancouver library served Yacolt with one of its three bookmobiles:

"The recession had been going on for a while. We were toward the end of it, but when it comes to libraries and public funding, sometimes the impact of [a recession] continues for a long time after other parts of the economy start recovering. We knew that we were going to have some tight years for quite a while, so we did a lot of looking at all of our services to look for places where we could tighten our belts."

One of the budget items Sam and his team looked at was the three bookmobiles. Two of them reached very widespread rural communities, and one served six locations in Clark County, including Yacolt. The one serving Yacolt had seen a steady decline in patrons over the previous few years.

But don't think that the decision was just about cutting costs. As Sam explains it, the real issue was that the bookmobile wasn't working for the community anymore: "People's patterns were changing. They just weren't at the places we were at when we could be there. There are more two-income families and people who commute out of town for work." Together, all of those factors meant that when the bookmobile made its scheduled stops, there were fewer patrons around to use it.

The library needed to find a way to serve the people of Yacolt when they were available, and do it on a tight budget. Eventually, Sam's team started to entertain the idea of opening an unstaffed branch.

Self-Service from the Ground Up

As counterintuitive as the idea of a mostly unstaffed library seems, Sam says that it's actually not as difficult to set up as you might think: "We asked ourselves, 'What are the basic things that people want to do at a library, and what is standing in their way of them doing each of those things themselves?'"

Most libraries have some self-service features already in place. "People are doing self-check-out a lot more in libraries around the United States," Sam says. "So we said, 'OK, there's nothing really standing in the way of people checking out their own materials. That technology is available, and people are getting used to that idea.'

"And then we asked, 'What about picking up holds? We've already done that in our libraries: people are able to take their own holds off of the pickup shelves.'"

As IT staffers thought through each service the library provides, they realized that the biggest thing they needed to rework was returning materials. Most libraries let patrons return books without a librarian present, but the return isn't reflected in the system until a librarian scans it in.

As it turns out, many integrated library systems (ILS) — including SirsiDynix, the one that Fort Vancouver uses — do have a self-service check-in feature built-in; most libraries just don't use it. "People can get into the building on their own, they can check stuff out on their own, and now, they can check stuff in on their own," Sam says.

"I think it's just a matter of changing the way we think about things. We're very ingrained in thinking, 'We have to be there all the time just in case something goes wrong.'"

"Teenagers Are Generally Rowdy, but That Doesn't Mean They're Dangerous"

Entry of the Yacolt Library

But things can go wrong, and security was a big issue to think through. Sam and his team needed to find a way to allow only cardholding members into the building when the staff wasn't there. After researching several entry systems, they arrived at one offered by the British company Telepen.

Telepen's entry system is used primarily by academic libraries, but some public libraries use it too: Sam says that when his team members were researching solutions, they visited a public library branch in the Seattle area that uses the same system, and saw that it worked well.

According to Sam, Telepen's access control system was the only one they found that could query the SirsiDynix database each time a patron swiped her library card at the door. They considered a simpler system that would simply check the card number (every library card number in the system starts with the same six digits), but ultimately, they decided that approach could be too easy to game: "Once people know what the rules are, they know how to break them."

The library also acquired four security cameras at about $1,000 each. Since there's no need for the security cameras to connect to the ILS, the library had many more options to choose from than for the entry system. Anyone in the library system can check the cameras simply by entering the cameras' IP addresses into a web browser. "The staff can check in before they head up there, to see if there's any kind of disturbance or a big mess, so they can prepare for that," Sam says.

Although it's obviously important to check in on the security cameras, Sam has learned not to worry about everything unusual that happens in the building. On people calling in to complain about rowdy teenagers, Sam laughs, "Sometimes we have to explain to them that teenagers are generally rowdy, but that doesn't mean that they're dangerous."

Late one Friday afternoon, just a few months after the Yacolt branch had opened, the main library received a complaint that the check-out system in Yacolt wasn't working. IT department staff members had seen this problem before, and they knew that it would work if someone simply turned it off and back on. They wanted to call the branch and have a patron perform the reset, but the phone in the branch only accepts incoming calls if you dial a special code.

Sam and his colleagues had an idea. They remotely took over a computer in the branch, opened a Microsoft Word document on it, and typed in large text, The phone is about to ring. When it does, pick it up and dial this code. We will help you troubleshoot [the check-out system]. And then Sam simply waited until a woman saw the message on the computer screen. He called, the woman performed the reset, and everyone was able to check out their materials.

A Library Built on Trust

That story is a great example of why it's useful to have security cameras and remote access in place, but to Sam, it's also an illustration of a basic principle: the community wants the library to work. "They could certainly walk out of the building with their materials at any time," Sam says, "there's nothing stopping them. But they want to make it work."

And two and a half years in, the library is working. About 4,500 items are checked out a month. "To put that into perspective," Sam says, "the collection size in Yacolt is about 2,500 to 3,000 items. So more than the entire collection gets circulated through there every month." For comparison, the old bookmobile distributed 5,000 to 10,000 items a year.

And when a community becomes proud of a library, it takes care of it. "The people there are so happy and excited to have more library service, and they feel very protective of the location. There are people in there every hour, and if there's any mistreatment happening, we hear about it right away."

Of course, Sam is quick to point out that this solution wouldn't work in every community: "Particularly for larger libraries in very high-traffic areas, there's no way that you could operate without having staff there to help out. But in smaller areas, where the people are maybe a little bit more used to being independent or doing things themselves, something like this wouldn't be seen as a slight or a reduction in service."

Although not every library can or should try operating without staff, we can all learn a lot from the approach that Sam and his team used. They recognized that the current service wasn't working for the community, so they used some creative problem solving to find a new way to meet the community's needs, all within a reduced budget.

As an interesting aside, the historic building that houses the library was originally a county jail. It's funny that a former jail would turn into a place that puts so much trust in its patrons. In Sam's words, "We're trusting you to treat this place right, and as long as it keeps working great for you, we'll keep helping it work great for you."

Quick Facts: 

Circulation (2014): 49,572

Visitors (2014): 30,272

Open hours a week: 68

Staff on-site hours:  15–20

Public Internet computers: 2

Internet computers are in use for about 40 percent of available time.