New conveyor system sorts all incoming books, which officials say will free up staff members for other tasks
The Lake Oswego Public Library is celebrating the arrival of its newest backroom helper: a high-tech conveyor system that not only sorts and records all of the incoming books, but stacks them neatly onto carts, too.
“Sometimes we catch ourselves just watching it, because it’s so cool,” says library Circulation Services Manager Melissa Kelly.
The new machine is the final piece of a project to give the library’s lobby and workroom a high-tech update. Last year, library staff began adding Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags to all the library’s books and other items, which enables them to be scanned across short distances even when they’re closed, instead of having to position them directly under the laser of a barcode reader.
The library’s interior was then overhauled earlier this year, adding new workstations in the back room and replacing the flooring, which had been damaged by years of heavy book carts rolling over it. The lobby was revamped with a new front desk, and five new self-checkout kiosks were installed throughout the building. The kiosks use the RFID tags to scan entire stacks of books in one go.
“This is another great way the City is implementing lean processes,” says Library Director Bill Baars.
The sorting machine was installed earlier this month, and it looks suitably futuristic, with neon green conveyor strips lining a jet black chassis. Books can be deposited onto the machine at one of four starting points: two drop slots on the outside of the library, one in the lobby and one in the workroom for staff to use.
Each time a book is placed in one of the starting points, the machine reads its RFID tag and determines where it needs to go. The books are then shuttled down one of four conveyor ramps that converge at the head of a main conveyor belt, which extends down the length of the workroom.
Seven carts and seven bins are lined up along the main conveyor, and each one collects books for a specific section of the library. After a turntable spins incoming books around to make sure the spine is pointed in the correct direction, they’re shuttled down the main belt until they reach the correct cart or bin. There, the books are pushed sideways into a bin or onto the top of a cart’s vertical stack.
If a book or other item doesn’t fit into any of the 14 categories — or if the destination cart is full — it continues to the end of the main conveyor and drops off into a 15th bin for miscellaneous items. The entire conveyor process takes about 10 seconds for each book, and multiple books can be processed simultaneously.
The seven carts collect books for the sections with the highest circulation, which saves an enormous amount of staff and volunteer time, Kelly says. They also eliminate the need for people to bend over to sort books, which decreases the risk of back injuries caused by the repetitive strain. Kelly says staff have already noticed the improvements during the machine’s first week in operation.
“It’s so new that we don’t really have metrics yet (for how much it speeds things up),” she says, “but we circulate about a million items per year, so it’s a good return on investment.”
Each cart has a battery-powered motor that adjusts the height of the stack as more books are placed at the top, and once a cart is full, the motors can also move the entire stack up to a horizontal position at waist height, so staff also avoid having to bend over when they wheel the carts out to return the books to their shelves. The carts plug in and recharge while they’re collecting books.
“Most libraries in our area that have this system don’t have these (carts),” Kelly says, “but we thought it was worth it.”
The system will save a large amount of staff time, but Kelly and Baars emphasize that the library has not lost any staff in the transition and doesn’t plan to in the future. The machine is not a replacement for people, Kelly says, but a tool to help staff keep up with the library’s circulation rate, which is higher than ever and continues to rise.
“Although we have all this wonderful technology, we’ll always have staff here,” she says.
Baars adds that the goal of the space-age machine and overall remodel is to free up staff to help customers who want face-to-face assistance, while guests who want to grab their items and go can do so quickly. The new front desk in the lobby reflects that mindset, with wide openings on either side so staff can quickly move in and out to reach the rest of the library.
“We are enhancing our ability to provide service,” he says. “The people that need our assistance are going to be able to spend more time with us.”