Library security gates: why you should save money by not using them

Libraries are constantly short of money and want to reduce barriers to public access. Well, there is one very little barrier that can be removed with the minimum of problems: get rid of your security gates. Seriously, these things don’t do anything. If the gate beeps to say that someone naughty has taken out a book in an, ahem, unconventional manner then the odds are that the library staff will just wave them through anyway. After all, most staff find it’s embarrassing going through someone’s bag and, normally, it’s a false alarm … so staff simply don’t do it. If you’re a manager and you think this is different, watch in a branch some time when no-one thinks you’re looking. Nine times out of ten, the library staff on duty will just smile. They may even turn the gates off (it’s not technical: take the plug out of the wall) because the beeping is annoying customers and themselves. And it does, you know.

By the way, when I say gates, I don’t always mean gates. If you have a system where you physically have a gate that won’t open if the alarm goes off, well, especially those … and not just for health and safety reasons.  No, I am meaning the £15,000 sensor gates where you just walk through and it beeps if it senses you have a £5 book from another library that doesn’t use your system. You know …  the sort of gate where if you’re conscientious you call someone back after it beeps, make them feel like a criminal in front of the whole library, and then when (if) you spot the problem, it turns out to be a book from five miles away or from their university.

I suspect the loss rates from not having security is far outweighed by the cost and unfriendliness of the barrier. What’s your loss rate on a non-securitised library compared to a securitised one? Do you even know? I suspect there’s not much difference because, look, it’s easy to steal a book even if you have barriers. If your building has openable windows then the book can simply be thrown out. In the unlikely case that you have a hermetically sealed shell, well, then guess what, you can hold the book at six foot high and it won’t set off the alarm. Which library service, apart from the very biggest, has someone constantly watching that gate these days? I don’t even know if the commonly told tale that covering the book in tin foil will work (I’ve been told it does by the way) but, frankly, using foil is unnecessary. Walking on the outside of the barrier is often possible in libraries. It’s not rocket science. Many authorities no longer require ID anyway so you could join as George Osborne and walk out with books all nicely issued. You know it happens. Even those authorities that do require ID – well, it’s easy to fake ID isn’t it? I could fake a utility bill in ten minutes because, you know, I have a computer and a colour printer and some paper. You think others don’t? Heck, they could probably use the library computer for the job and we wouldn’t know, especially now there are self-service printers.

Another point is that it’s a rare service that has every library security gated: often some don’t have them at all. Do those poor undefended libraries have no books left on the shelves? No. There is no difference I can see, or very little, between the loss rates at gated and ungated libraries. I can only remember, in twenty years of front line librarianship, successfully catching one person by means of the gate. It was fifteen years ago and it was a travel guide to Bulgaria. You see, the incident was so rare I even remember the book. And the lady who we caught burst out into tears. Honestly, I was tempted to give her the book. I bet she never used a library again, too.

There may once have been a place for sensors when books were comparatively expensive but not so now when the local charity shop is charging 50p and Asda is selling bestsellers at £4.  For items (like games) that do have a high residual resale value for your local neighbourhood drug addict to be interested then you’re going to have to start filing those in drawers.  Frankly, you’ll find you will need to anyway.  Because that sort of thing gets stolen no matter what security system you have.  Don’t believe the hype about the new self-service machine meaning that they can be issued securely by the customer.  That may work for a month or so but then the criminals catch on and you’ll be cleaned out.  There’s no such thing as entirely secure self-service.

So why do we insist on security systems? I think it is part of the same mentality that makes library staff instinctively hide behind battle-ship sized counters. It’s the same thinking that leads to comments like “we’ll never see that book again” or that has “do not” posters plastered up on all available surfaces. At some fundamental level, some proportion of library staff somehow see the public as the enemy or, at least, not to be trusted. Look, people are generally OK and, if they’re not, they’re going to jolly well find ways of stealing your stuff. By putting up these security systems, and signs, and attitude (and the public can so tell if you have this attitude: I can tell, they can tell) the you’re only wasting your money and time: you’re actively putting off genuine users too. We can’t afford to do that these days. I suspect we couldn’t in the old, complacent, times either when we thought our jobs were safe. Remember then?

If you’re looking at a new library management system – and even in these days that happens: after all companies make very sure that their systems become obsolete – then use it as an opportunity to get ride of your security sensors. Save yourself some time. Save yourself some money, for goodness sake. And, perhaps save your library.

  • #1 written by Mick Fortune
    about 9 years ago

    …and while you’re about it weigh up the cost of protecting CDs and DVDs against replacing lost items or switching to digital.

    I know many libraries that switch the gates off but often it’s a higher power that insists on having them. I have often suggested that the most effective way to secure the collection might be to make a very public announcement that the library is trialling a new system. Then stage a series of ‘busts’ at the busiest time of day (maybe enlist an AmDram society to help). Word will get around.

    But no-one takes me seriously and of course there are some benefits from having RFID gates even if you don’t pursue miscreants (well not the quick or the potentially pugilistic) . At least the gates will tell you what’s been stolen so you’ll know what to replace.

  • #2 written by Margin Crisp
    about 9 years ago

    I have been in the library security business for over 30 years and over that time many things have changed. Technology as moved forward and I would just like to advice the readers that most systems are around £4,000 and not £15,000 as stated. The systems can also be installed on double doors with no antenna in the middle giving easy access to the public. With an RFID security the staff also get information on the item/s that have alarmed the system, including the title. they also do not false alarm. I would also like to add that all security systems work as a deterrent, they also indicate that libraries are proud of there collections and they have a high value to the staff and users of the library.
    Over the years I have seen many libraries try solutions like Mick has suggested, but the reality is that people stealing from libraries know very quickly if something is real or fake. So if you want to keep the collection you need to protect it.

  • #3 written by Mick Fortune
    about 9 years ago

    As Marvin suggests this is an area of concern that needs to be carefully considered – as I said, I always ask clients why they want security gates, but then I used to ask them why they wanted RFID as well. I used to think that people should make decisions based on research and genuine need rather than fashionability and keeping up with the Joneses. But that was when the RFID market more closely resembled the Wild West and these days, thanks in significant part to the efforts of Marvin and other suppliers RFID is a much wiser investment than it used to be and now that it has been freed from the shackles of SIP and self service circulation it may yet prove to have been the best accidental investment libraries have ever made as new ways of interacting directly with physical and virtual resources simultaneously come onto the market – using smartphones and tablets for this purpose?
    The figure of £15000 is certainly far more than the average price of a pair of gates these days but it would not be unusual for a library to spend that kind of money on gates in the average RFID procurement for a major branch. The point is to do the sums. Cost of replacement vs cost of deterrence. Remembering that not everything can be replaced.
    The question of false alarms is a matter of perception. If implemented according to the standards there should be no false alarms but it rather depends on what others have done- not just your own library. Many RFID installations – in libraries as well as elsewhere have not always followed standards. Only this week I was asked to help out with RFID systems being used to track cows on a farm. The company providing the software solution – on their own admission – knew nothing about RFID, resulting in ‘false’ alarms as competing RFID solutions picked up the tags.

  • #4 written by Steven Heywood
    about 9 years ago

    Well said, Ian.

    Too often the rationale for the security gate is staff’s distrust of the customer, especially when self-service operations are being installed. The answer to “If we’re going self-service, what’s to stop people just walking out with the stock?” is: “The same thing that had them come over and queue at the counter instead of just waltzing off with the stock.”

    We had security gates in our old central library in Rochdale. They didn’t work for ten years, everyone knew, there was no demonstrable increase in the loss of stock.

  • #5 written by Saad Azzahri
    about 9 years ago

    It is interesting that we still discuss such a subject.
    I remember that I was working for the Central Library of King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 25 years back, when CL decided to buy a security system for about $100,000. !!
    An Old man, who was the gate security man, said to me: son, dedicate a quarter of this money to me and I swear no one would steal any book.!

    However, such a thinking will not please private sector which produces those systems!!

  • #6 written by John Usher
    about 9 years ago


    Just about sums it up!

    I started working in a large library with RF security, for all items (loan or reference) with physical turnstiles (probably not allowable today by the ‘Elven Safe-Tie’ brigade today)and manual bypass 38 years ago. It wasn;t great and it wasn’t secure, for the reasons you state.,

    Then EM systems – even more ‘leaky’!

    IMO, despite Marvin’s view (Hi Marvin – sorry!), I don’t think we’ve really moved on.

    The only practical issues I raise would be the library design behind the security systems – if greater security is required, closed access is needed, and who does that these days to any really extent, in a public library? – or retail (jewellers?). And that costs!

    And that affects building design, layout design – and staffing requirements.

    Them Mick raises the issue of security tags off or on in different parts of a building and false alarms. So can we have ‘smart security’ with different encodings for different parts of a building, and a separate encoding for final exit points? for different library services?

    Then EAS vs AFI… Retail vs Libraries..

    And if we can’t tie security switching *absolutely* to all points of circulation – kiosks, counters, handhelds, whoever does it (users or staff), it falls apart…

    It all gets very complex – and expensive.

    Then there is all the legitimately loaned stuff which never comes back – but that is another matter entirely!

    Ho Hum!

    Regards, JU

  • #7 written by Ioanna
    about 4 years ago

    We are the only multilingual library in Athens. Most of our collection comes from donations. But some books we bought and shipped to Greece from Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan etc so that the refugees hosted in our city can find books in their languages. In total, those are approximately 1,000 books which we cannot afford to lose as we can’t replace them. That is why we were thinking of getting a security gate for our little library, but after reading your article I don’t know if we should. First of all, it will be expensive and secondly, it might make people feel less welcome. The last thing we want is to make refugees feel we expect them to steal! I really don’t know what to do. We have a 1,000 euro grant to use on library equipment and we were thinking of using it towards buying a security system. I realise that is ridiculously low, but we are an NGO, we are all volunteers, most of the money we get is from crowdfunding campaigns and none of us are librarians. Is it worth it?

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