Originally, before the pandemic, new contactless technologies such as self-service kiosks and patron print management tools were developed for use in libraries for two main reasons:
- Make staff more efficient at their job
- Provide extra convenience for patrons
Depending on a library’s size or situation, implementing these features could be seen as merely perks, even unnecessary frills. They were often just nice add-ons, ways to make the library feel more modern and state-of-the-art.
It wasn’t too hard to level criticism at these particular contactless services back then. They could be considered barriers to connection between the library and the community it served. Using them meant patrons had little to no interaction with staff, thought to be the heart of the library. The concern was patrons might lose that personal touch that should go with library services, and the library itself would become more remote and distant. Soulless, automated machines would serve as the face of the library, replacing the crucial community-building work of friendly, caring, and human staff. Beyond the thinking in this regard, there was the added expense and staff training sometimes needed to implement this new technology. And for many, it was seen as an unnecessary reliance on new technology to perform library services that had traditionally been done by hand (and quite well, thank you) for as long as libraries have been around.
And then the pandemic happened.
We’re seeing now that there is suddenly a new purpose to these contactless technologies: safety! No longer are they nice perks; they’re necessary and potentially life-saving.
One can now add the following reasons to implement:
- Prevent close social interaction with staff
- Prevent patrons from waiting in line or being forced to gather in small spaces with other patrons
- Allow patrons to minimize time in the library as much as possible
Efficiency (reason # 1) is even more important now if libraries are experiencing staff loss or volunteers being let go. With brand new safety measures and pandemic-related services to be performed, staff have less time to handle the basic services of circulation, public access computer management, printing, etc. To list just a few of the added tasks: clean surfaces repeatedly, fill curbside orders, present virtual programs, assist patrons phoning in to make appointments to come into the building, etc., etc.
One big change is there often needs to be fewer public access computers due to spacing requirements, ensuring patrons stay six feet apart. Having fewer computers means more demand, so a library needs a new system in place, if there wasn’t one already, that sets reservations and enforces time limits — or the library needs to include more portable computers like laptops and tablets so patrons can use these devices throughout the space to stay socially distant from one another.
To sum up: self-service used to mean efficiency and convenience. Now self-service equals safety.
Decades ago, with the emergence of computers and networks, libraries had a significant phase of automation to convert their card catalogs to OPACs and ILSs. Now we are entering the Second Age of Automation. It’s not only the catalogs, but every library service that needs to become automated to make it contactless and safe.
To help guide you through this new technological age we’re living in now, Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC) staff have put together a list of products for contactless services. (Google Doc).
These are organized by service area:
- Document management (print, scan, fax, email)
- Fund transference
- Public computer use
- Reference, patron assistance, information/research help
- Third party virtual programming software (by subject)
- General building safety
Here are a few of the innovative highlights from the grid that may not have occurred to some:
- To make curbside more efficient for staff and convenient for patrons, deploy 24/7 smart lockers outside of the library building for patrons to retrieve their holds.
- If a staff member can’t position themselves next to a patron’s computer nor physically take control of their mouse and keyboard to assist them, screen mirroring software can be employed, even on the staff member’s personal tablet held at least six feet away.
- For a scenario with the least amount of contact possible within the building, patrons can bring their own device to the library and use an app to not only scan the desired materials for check-out themselves, but even automatically desensitize the RFID labels/detection strips via the same app before exiting.
- With the complete loss of in-house programming, employ third-party, resource-rich online software to help conduct them virtually. This could be for social gaming, crafting, coding, to name a few. There are also services to provide live one-on-one job search coaching and homework tutoring for your patrons at their homes.
If you’d like to learn more about library tech for contactless service, join the TSLAC’s free interactive discussion webinar on August 18, from 1-2:30 p.m. MDT.