Self services: the present state of play
Leigh Richardson Systems Manager, Information Services, University of Sunderland Tel: 0191 515 2424 E-mail: email@example.com
Self service has never been a new concept. It is part of a process which has been evolving within our society for decades and has now reached the point where it is an accepted part of life. We take for granted making direct telephone calls across the world, paying for petrol using a credit card at the petrol pump, purchasing travel tickets from self ticketing units, buying goods and services over the internet, and most recently checking out and paying for groceries at self service units in shops. These are all procedures which at one time were operator managed.
For many years libraries have pursued the ethos of removing unnecessary physical barriers to services and information. This trend has been particularly notable during the last ten years as the potential of self technology has been embraced and incorporated as an important feature of the education learning framework. The adoption of self services in libraries has been driven by external political issues, internal demand, and the increasing availability of suitable technology. Expansion of higher education, budgetary constraint, increasing demand for efficient and convenient services, together with the aspirations of institutions to provide the latest in library technology all prompted organisations to adopt an open and responsive attitude to the development of potential new services.
THE EARLY DAYS Self services first emerged early in the 1990s. Although many libraries were extremely interested in self services, the majority (with some notable exceptions) where hesitant to commit the necessary investment to an untested service. Organisations who became involved at an early stage included Middlesex University, the University of Hatfield, and perhaps most significantly Information Services at the University of Sunderland. Information Services at Sunderland are regarded by many as having spearheaded self service development in the UK. In 1995 Sunderland become the first UK library to provide a 3M 5210 self-issue system interfaced with Dynix software, and in 1996 it became the first site in Europe to beta test the 3M video self-issue unit and self-return units.
THE EXPANSION OF SELF SERVICES
Self services during the early years included issue, return and renewal of items (using self units from suppliers such as 3M, ALS and Plescon), and basic OPAC services such as reserving a library item, renewing an issued item or allowing a borrower to review their own record. In order to determine the extent of library use of these new services and technologies, Professor Andrew McDonald, Director of Information Services at the University of Sunderland, conducted a survey of academic institutions in June 1996. Of the 25 institutions surveyed, 6 offered self-issue, 1 offered self-return, 18 offered self-renewal, 23 offered self-reservation and 20 offered self-borrower access. In January 1998, I undertook a similar survey to determine the increase in self service implementation since the McDonald survey. I contacted the same 25 institutions with the following result: 9 offered self-issue, 1 offered self-return, 24 offered self-renewal, 24 offered self-reservation and 24 offered self-borrower access.
For the purpose of this article I again contacted the same institutions and discovered that self-issue figures had dramatically risen to 21 and self-return to 9. All offered self-renewal, reservation and self-borrower access. The results from the three surveys clearly demonstrate that over the last seven years libraries have committed to the idea of ‘self’ as a means of improving services for their learners. As the bar chart illustrates, the increase of self-issue has been dramatic. This is not altogether surprising, as this facility has attracted the greatest publicity and will bring the most obvious and immediate benefits to a busy circulation desk. Further explanations for the wide take up of self-issue may be found in the introduction of SIP2 technology and the increasing user demand for a 24x7 service. Standard Interchange Protocol (SIP) Developed and made available to the industry by 3M, SIP1.0 was used by many library management system suppliers as a communication channel between a library management system and a self service device. SIP1.0 functionality was limited but proved sufficient in the early years. However, users soon demanded a more sophisticated and user-friendly interface with a greater capacity for connectivity. This led directly to the development of SIP2. Working in conjunction with a number of system suppliers, 3M released SIP2 in 1999. This new version expanded the SIP1.0 language base by introducing new fields and messages and also providing a new upgraded graphical interface. It is likely that the SIP2 enhancements have resulted in a greater take up of self issue than would otherwise have been the case.
24x7 The diversity of education learning patterns and learner lifestyles has prompted an extension of library opening hours and the increasing adoption of 24x7 access to services and resources. The high attendance at the 2002 ‘Open all hours: can you do 24x7?’ conference held at the University of Sunderland and jointly sponsored by Sunderland, Sheffield Hallam ‘and Liverpool John Moores universities demonstrates the universal significance attached to extended access. If 24x7 is to increase and develop, there is no doubt that self services will have a crucial role. A true 24x7 service will require 24x7 access to a circulation system. Self service units can facilitate this. However, there are presently technological constraints insofar as some library management systems require circulation downtime, typically at night, for file backups, and a self service unit will not be able to function during such periods. Library management systems which require frequent downtime for housekeeping and maintenance procedures are becoming increasingly unacceptable to users for this reason.
Some institutions including University of Hertfordshire and Trinity College, Oxford, have moved totally to self service systems and have removed issue and return points from their circulation desks. Others have introduced mandatory periods of self-issue and return. The experience of the University of Sunderland is that even in the absence of mandatory self periods and with the maintenance of manual issue and return points, the take up of self service is still high with monthly statistics typically showing self-issue usage between 50% and 60%.
The relatively modest expansion of self-return is surprising because this service, if implemented and publicised correctly, can provide benefits on a par with self-issue. The University of Sunderland libraries started beta testing 3M 5210 self-return units in 1996 and have used 3M 6210 units since 1999. Sunderland regards self-return as a core service and usage statistics have always been satisfactory. The 3M 6210 self-return units complement the self-issue units and have contributed to a substantial reduction in queues at circulation desks while at the same time creating time for library staff to increase support for learners.
My own enquiries have revealed that the majority of institutions who have not adopted self-return units have resorted to the provision of book return bins, a low-tech but relatively cost-effective form of self service! One must note, however, that book bins do not permit the immediate reshelving of returned stock, require staff time to manually check in each returned item, and any delay may give rise to erroneous levying of fines.
The most commonly adopted self services are those which can be accessed from an OPAC - self-renewal, self-reservation, and self-checking of borrower information. Each of these services requires minimal financial outlay and practically no preparatory work, a stark contrast to self-issue and self-return which require substantial investment of time and money.
Of the 25 institutions surveyed only one was using a 3M 6210 unit for both self-issue and self-return. This failure to exploit the full functionality of the units may be because of management concerns (not necessarily justified) about the potential for confusion amongst users if the units are multi-tasked.
NEW TECHNOLOGIES PRODUCE NEW SELF SERVICES The learning environment has changed and learners demand a more flexible approach to accessing services and information. Off campus learning and access to learning resources through networked information systems has risen dramatically. Libraries have found it increasingly necessary to respond to (or even in some instances to pre-empt) this demand by the introduction of new technologies, which in turn have added value to existing functionality and services. In recent years technology has reached a point at which the implementation of many new ‘non traditional’ self services has become possible and practicable.
RADIO FREQUENCY IDENTIFICATION (RFID) It is now possible for books and other resources to be tagged with tiny microchips which are activated by a radio query and respond by transmitting a unique identification code. In the context of a library management system, this technology permits the rapid check in and check out of items, accurate and regular updating of inventory and the automatic generation of circulation data. The system avoids the need for the user to carefully align the barcode of individual items under the scanner of a conventional self service unit and allows multiple items to be processed at one time, thereby increasing efficiency and going a long way towards eliminating queues. Users have reported significant improvements in the loan handling process. Despite its advantages, the cost of RFID is such that it is unlikely to be widely implemented in libraries for some time to come.
INBOUND AND OUTBOUND AUTOMATED TELEMESSAGING Telemessaging is a seamless communication method using a touch tone conventional telephone or mobile phone to interface with a remote computer. In the context of library services, inbound telemessaging brings real time 24x7 access to a library management system with the facility for a user to renew library items, review and cancel reservations and check items currently on loan. Outbound telemessaging allows notification of overdues reservations and recalls. Telemessaging can bring considerable benefits to both the users and the library by enabling users to become more self sufficient, convenient access to information and facilitating same day notification by libraries thereby eliminating delay. Prompt notification also benefits libraries by increasing the circulation of items. However, the main advantage for libraries of this emerging technology is that it substantially reduces staff intervention and frees staff from the mundane tasks of telephone renewals and circulation enquiries.
Many library management system providers have developed their own telemessaging software which offer the advantage of guaranteed compatibility with their management systems. However, companies such as Talkingtech have developed stand-alone products which in the main are compatible with the majority of library management systems.
ONLINE SELF PAYMENT OF OUTSTANDING MONIES With the widespread use of e-commerce it was inevitable that this technology would reach into educational organisations and libraries. The use of e-payment through the medium of the WWW has risen dramatically as people grow accustomed to managing their finances and paying for goods and services online in a seamless and relatively secure environment. Fine and fee payment online within libraries is an obvious extension of this kind of facility. Many organisations now provide 24x7 access from their web sites to a secure area allowing users to settle outstanding monies quickly and efficiently using a choice of credit cards. Users may complete and submit an online form giving personal and credit card details. Some organisations have recently developed the facility to allow payment to be made by the use of a touch tone telephone.
DIGITISATION OF INFORMATION Digitisation of documents and other media has fundamentally changed the way in which people use and access data. Traditionally, access to library resources has meant picking books from shelves, but the development of the internet, WWW and intranets now allow users (both on and off campus) to remotely access full text and graphical information. Users have come to expect, and increasingly to demand, open and free access to instant and up-to-date, high quality resources. Many organisations provide learners with a single point of entry to databases containing vast collections of e journals, theses, past examination papers, and in some instances access to their own digitised special collections.
MANAGED LEARNING ENVIRONMENT (MLE) MLEs are currently ‘big business’ in education organisations. Research indicates that most organisations have either implemented, are in the process of implementing, or at the very least are thinking seriously about implementing a MLE. In brief, a MLE provides a portal or interface to a ‘one stop shop’ providing an extensive range of learning and teaching tools, all of which are designed to enhance a user’s learning experience and management of information. The MLE can also provide a connection to a library management system and online catalogue. A wide range of MLE software packages is commercially available, but Blackboard and WebCT are generally recognised as market leaders and have a reputation as established and stable companies within the market.
One might ask what relevance MLEs have to self services. The answer lies in the fact that a MLE empowers a user to become autonomous by allowing personalisation of the interface so that the user can define their own choice of resources to search, dynamic and concurrent searching of online databases with results presented in single lists, and single authentication login allowing access to numerous information resources. Furthermore, a MLE is also a portal from which a user can gain access to numerous other self technologies.
CONCLUSION Most people are naturally self reliant, and the adoption of self services within libraries has empowered users to give full expression to the human instinct to do things for one self. Users can now take advantage of 24x7 access to circulation services by way of self-issue and return units, communicate with the library and its resources through tele messaging and Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), and access personalised portals and the digitised information held within through MLEs. The advantages of self services greatly outweigh any possible disadvantages and libraries have much to gain from their implementation. Self services give choice, flexibility and new opportunities within the learning experience and thereby provide a very real educational advantage.
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