On the first floor of the central Seattle Public Library building there is an open-air video chamber with a hanging umbrella-shaped audio isolator; you listen to the commentary while standing directly under it without distracting your fellow patrons — you may have seen similar devices in museums. This multimedia display describes the high-tech book intake process that Seattle Public uses, which is an Automated Material Handling (AMH) system, in all likelihood the most sophisticated one of its kind in this country. Here, you can watch the continually cycling 4 minute, 26 second video yourself, since my words cannot substitute for seeing it in operation.
The system was designed by Tech Logic, whose goal is “leading the way in efficient library material handling” through concentrated use of RFID technology. Here is a proposal for implementing the Tech Logic system drafted by Broward County Library, Florida. Clearly there is power behind the idea of mechanized material handling, and confidence in the Tech Logic systems, considering the number of library systems that have contracted with them, including Oak Park Library right here in Illinois.
There are numerous interesting links to RFID PowerPoints presented by Charles Coldwell, who presented findings about the purchase, testing, implementation and concerns for Seattle Public’s implementation pilot AMH and RFID program. The Seattle Public Library system signed on to use RFID across a number of its branches in 2002, began the tagging of selected items in 2003 and finally went live for the public in 2004. From my brief interviews of three different employees the robotic system is working wonders, speeding up the process and increasing circulation and visibility. In part interest in the new Koolhaas library accounts for some of the success statistics, but the efficacy of AMH is justifiably praised. And patrons enjoy the self-service check-out counters which can guard personal privacy and reduce wait time.
I do wonder how some of the initial concerns raised by Coldwell have progressed since 2004, particularly loss of staff hours, inconsistencies in the tags’ remote reading equipment, software glitches at the point of check-out, and possible loss of patron privacy due to unknowable third-party RFID monitoring systems. Because I visited the library on a Sunday, none of the full time AMH staff was on site, and an individual tour wasn’t a possibility unless I could come back the next day, which unfortunately I didn’t have the time to do.
I am also wondering as to why Seattle Public canceled their initial RFID contract for another one with, I believe, Tagsys. The Tagsys web-page definitely focuses on real-world concerns effectively, at least providing for a nexus of professional discussion outside of any corporate marketing. Automation feels so nostalgic to me, a throwback to the middle 19th century, little different in substance but of a wildly different character today. Is mechanical efficiency an appropriate avenue for promoting library values and serving our public? Or rather, is it about time for libraries to catch up to the business sector?
I am very curious about how AMH and RFID function on a day to day basis for library professionals. I feel as though the promise of automation will supersede general reservations, once funding and first-personal testimonials continue to circulate. In the meantime, I think I may try to conduct a remote interview with someone in charge of the AMH system at Seattle Public, I hope in the coming weeks, and I will keep you informed of anything I discover along the way. Drop me a line if you have any suggestions.