Efficiencies: Self Service


Flickr image by ex_libris_gul

Self-service machines are used in libraries for the taking out and return of books and other items (such as films, games and CDs).  They can also be used for a whole range of other purposes including paying council tax.

Mick Forture, a leading RFID consultant, has written a very useful article on what this can mean for libraries.  For the full range of what the public really think of self-service machines, see this November 2013 discussion page on Mumsnet.


Users can use self-service machines to take out and return their own books, meaning that councils can

  • (a) save on staff costs (eg. Portsmouth, 8 librarian jobs being cut but wages saved will mean longer opening hours)
  • (b) reallocate staff elsewhere (“Automation will free up library staff from a routine and time-consuming task. Staff can then “engage fully with customers requiring a more in-depth response which is a major step forward for the service.”, Wirral Globe). Sandwell believe that self-service means that the can reduce staffing by one-half or one members of staff per library, depending on its size.
  • (c) less queues when done well.

  • (d) more privacy to transactions (meaning there is less embarrassment to the user when they want to take out an item they are self-conscious about)
  • (e) it makes the library more modern-looking and attractive to the young – schoolchildren often love the new machines and self-service machines can look positively futuristic.  This “it’s shiny” reason for purchasing is, however, obviously questionable.
  • (f) can create more space.  Self-service normally greatly reduces the area needed for a counter area.  This, in turn, can spur on a redesign of the whole area.
  • (g) other councils are providing self-service and so authorities that don’t look old-fashioned.
A self-service machine in a public library foyer

A self-service machine in a public library foyer


    • (i) installation is initially expensive (perhaps £1m for a service such as the Wirral, £400k in Portsmouth), Oxfordshire report each unit costs £6787 with £629 per year thereafter being expected in support/maintenance
    • (ii) library staff are often made redundant losing vital library and inter-personal skills (the installation of self-service is often heralded by nearly every user asking the increasingly nervous staff if their jobs are safe).  Evidence of staff cuts linked to self-service machines are below, although it must be said that some authorities would have cut staff with or without machines :
    1. “As well as redundancies, this would see self-service machines installed in libraries.” Cambridgeshire.
    2. “”Money saving tech to cost library jobs” ” Bedford.
    3. “Planned self-service libraries will now have staff – after hundreds of people told the city council they were concerned about the proposed changes.” Leicestershire
    4. “Most of the savings, around £1.2m, will come from staff cuts, with the rest from efficiency savings following the introduction of new customer self-service facilities.” Norfolk
    5. “The budget savings will be made by cutting staff numbers, which has already begun by not filling vacant positions. It is hoped some staff may take voluntary redundancy or be deployed elsewhere. The way people use library services has changed quite rapidly, with many making reservations online, reducing the need for high staff numbers.To enable the libraries to continue operating, self-service machines will be installed at most facilities” North Somerset.
    6. Fears that RFID could be harmful to human physiology – See this article for a good review of the issues (and why it’s not a big deal).
    7. “A restructure of management will contribute towards a further £273,000 saving while introducing self-service equipment in libraries will save another £256,000.” Oxfordshire
    • (iii) self-service is often not initially popular or easily understood with at least parts of the library public meaning more staff time (that is, precisely that which the system may replace) is needed to train and reassure them. A small minority of users will often be extremely negative, even angry, about its installation.  The case of “self-service refugees” are not uncommon.  This is where library users stop going to a branch with self-service and go to another branch which does not have it.

“Only 15 per cent of those who responded to the library consultation in 2011 expressed an interest in self-serve. Hardly a mandate.” Islington Tribune – Letter from Unison, March 2013.

“I feel the introduction of this system would make far more work for staff, as one only has to look at the supermarket self checkouts, a member of staff has to be on hand to sort out problems, and I feel that the proposed system for the library would make problems for older people and disabled.And, after all, a machine can’t smile at you or help with an enquiry as the staff do now” Wirral News (letters).

“The self service system is fundamentally flawed and not compatible with municipal use. Library staff and users find it unreliable and difficult to use and instead of saving time, staff spend longer dealing with customer’s failed attempts to use the inadequate machines.”  Hackney library staff.

    • The next step from Self-Service is a Fully Automated Library with skeleton or no staffing. Newcastle have gone down this route and Trafford are planning this for two libraries.   Pros: entirely gets rid of staff costs, some people prefer anonymity with book loans, keeps library open.  Con: completely impersonal and unhelpful, becomes perhaps more of a public book storage facility than a library as such.



  • #1 written by Alan Wylie
    about 11 years ago

    Under cons maybe you could add
    “Most Councils usually impose self-service on library users without a mandate to do so, most library consultations include self-service as an option and the majority of respondents usually say no!”
    I’ve never seen a consultation result that says otherwise but hey that’s local democracy for you!

  • #2 written by Sally Hardman
    about 11 years ago

    Do those in charge of budgets actually understand what library staff do? I doubt it. It’ll be self-driving mobile libraries next…

  • #3 written by predictable trots
    about 11 years ago

    Marxism starts with the dictatorship of the proletariat, Alan, before you start lecturing people on consultation and listening!

    • #4 written by Alan Wylie
      about 11 years ago

      ‘Predictable Trots’ – thanks for your very constructive and insightful comment, if you ever wish to have a serious discussion about Public Libraries then please let me know 🙂

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