Library to get tech boost

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Denton public libraries are getting new technology this spring designed to speed up checkout and allow quicker turnaround of popular items.

The radio-frequency identification system, or RFID, will transform how staffers manage library materials, said Eva Poole, the city's libraries director. The technology allows immediate automated check-in of books, DVDs and other items, which will save staff time and get materials back on the shelves sooner, Poole said.

"We haven't had an increase in staff since 2006" because of citywide budget constraints, said Poole, whose three-library system circulated 1.4 million items last year. "So this is just going to help us, with the limited staff that we have, effectively get materials out and ready for the public to check out faster than what we currently do."

The City Council voted in December to buy the equipment from St. Paul, Minn.-based 3M Library Systems, the developer and sole manufacturer of RFID systems in the U.S. Available capital improvement program funds are covering the $243,723 cost, said Bryan Langley, the city's chief financial officer.

The city already invested more than $150,000 in RFID technology for the libraries, including self-checkout machines at each location and electronic identification tags on all audio and visual equipment, according to information provided to the council. The tags, which replace the old bar codes, communicate information about an item's identity, history and location within a library.

Each library branch is expected to close for two days between February and April to tag all print items. The city will fully implement the system sometime after that, but Poole did not have an exact date.

The project will include upgrading the self-checkout machines to allow multiple items to be scanned at once, rather than one at a time, Poole said.

Libraries originally used RFID technology for security systems, but they are increasingly used for inventory management, self-checkout and automated returns, according to a 2004 article in the RFID Journal, an industry magazine. Some libraries, including Bedford's, even have automated sorters, but that's not part of Denton's plan.

Radio-frequency technology can be expensive and labor-intensive to install - mainly because of the need to tag each item - but it helps reduce the amount of staff time needed for circulation operations, according to a 2006 study of  California libraries supported by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services. The study said more research was needed to say whether the benefits outweighed the costs.

For Ann Wiegand, the answer is clear.

"We were most interested in RFID for efficiency, and definitely that has proven to be the case," said Wiegand, Lewisville's library manager, adding that the technology allowed the city to triple the size of its library six years ago without adding staff.

"It's a monumental task to do it, but the positive starts happening the moment you activate it," she said.

As soon as someone puts an item in a book drop, an RFID system reads the tag and knows whether the item should be shelved, held for another customer or transferred to another library. Currently in Denton, a worker has to physically retrieve an item from a book drop and check it in to know where it should go, and it's usually a day or two before the item is back on the shelf, Poole said.

A 2007 report by a national account manager for 3M Canada Library Systems said libraries can recoup their investment in the technology in three to seven years, depending on some variables.

Denton hasn't calculated how many work hours the system might save, but Poole expects it to be considerable, especially when it comes to performing inventories.

Currently, workers have to pull each item off the shelf to make sure it's there and shelved in the right order. With the new system, workers will simply pass a scanner over the items and know whether something is missing or out of place.

LOWELL BROWN can be reached at 940-566-6882. His e-mail address is lmbrown@dentonrc.com.


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