|from The Wall Street Journal
New Library Technologies Dispense With Librarians
By CONOR DOUGHERTY
HUGO, Minn.—In this suburb of St. Paul, the new library branch has no
librarians, no card catalog and no comfortable chairs in which to curl
up and read.
Instead, the Library Express is a stack of metal lockers outside city
hall. When patrons want a book or DVD, they order it online and pick
it up from a digitally locked, glove-compartment- sized cubby a few
days later. It's a library as conceived by the Amazon.com generation.
Faced with layoffs and budget cuts, or simply looking for ways to
expand their reach, libraries around the country are replacing
traditional, full-service institutions with devices and approaches
that may be redefining what it means to have a library.
Later this year Mesa, Ariz., plans to open a new "express" library in
a strip-mall, open three days a week, with outdoor kiosks to dispense
books and DVDs at all hours of the day. Palm Harbor, Fla., meanwhile,
has offset the impact of reduced hours by installing glass-front
vending machines that dispense DVDs and popular books.
The wave of innovation is aided by companies that have created new
machines designed to help libraries save on labor. For instance,
Evanced Solutions, an Indianapolis company that makes library
software, this month is starting test trials of a new vending machine
it plans to start selling early next year.
"It's real, and the book lockers are great," said Audra Caplan,
president of the Public Library Association. "Many of us are having to
reduce hours as government budgets get cut, and this enables people to
get to us after hours."
Some library directors worry that such machines are the first step
toward a future in which the physical library—along with its reference
staffs and children's programs—fades from existence. James Lund,
director of the Red Wing Public Library in Red Wing, Minn., recently
wrote skeptically about the "vending library" in Library Journal, a
"The basis of the vending machine is to reduce the library to a
public-book locker," Mr. Lund said in an interview. "Our real mission
is public education and public education can't be done from a vending
machine. It takes educators, it takes people, it takes interaction."
Public libraries are an American creation. The first was introduced by
Benjamin Franklin, who created a co-operative library funded by people
who used it. The first tax-supported library was founded in
Peterborough, N.H., in 1833, according to Larry Nix, a retired
librarian and library historian. Today there are about 16,700 public
library buildings in the country.
Robo-libraries are still a relatively rare sight. Public Information
Kiosk Inc., a company in Germantown, Md. that sells kiosks and vending
machines to libraries, has had 25 orders for a book-and-DVD-dispensing
machine that the company introduced last year. Fred Goodman, the
company's chief executive, estimated that, overall, there are no more
than a few dozen vending machines now in operation. Still, he expects
to sell at least twice as many units in 2011.
Hugo is a town of 13,700 people on the northern fringes of the
Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area that has seen its population
double in the last decade. But surrounding Washington County is
struggling to build the infrastructure to support the newcomers: Over
the past year, the county's nine-branch library system has cut the
equivalent of two full-time workers to trim costs.
And yet, the system is popular: Visits last year rose 10% compared to 2007.
The combination of greater demand and leaner resources is visible in
the wait list for some popular books. The system has 32 copies of
"Freedom," the new Jonathan Franzen novel set in nearby St. Paul, but
321 people on the waiting list—a 10 to 1 ratio. In flusher times, the
wait-list ratio was usually closer to 5 to 1 for popular titles.
The 20 lockers of Library Express won't solve that problem, but they
have made the library more convenient. The county is adding 20 more
lockers next month.
Melody Baker, 47, recently used the lockers to check out the best
seller "Eat, Pray, Love,"—"I had to see what the fuss was about," she
The library's main branch is five miles from her house, but Ms. Baker,
who is a personal care attendant for an autistic child, says it's hard
to get there during business hours when the library is open. "It's
difficult for me to get up there," she said of the library's main
branch. "This makes it much easier to get library material."