Self-checkout in Libraries: Why We’re Different than Retail

Recently a local for-profit business in my community declared on social media their upcoming addition of self-checkouts, to mixed feedback. The thoughts and concerns raised by community members had me reflecting on how the dialogue might be different when it comes to libraries, particularly with regards to a patron’s right to privacy when checking out library materials.

Retail vs. Library Setting

With regards to the social media post, some commenters were happy for the addition of quick new automated systems because they were tired of wasting time in the lineups that had been known to build at peak hours. Contrastingly, some said that they would adamantly refuse to use the self-checkouts because they wanted real human interaction and/or because they were opposed to a robot taking away a paying job that could be fulfilled by a human. These examples are typical of the kinds of feedback one might see when self-checkouts are introduced in a retail environment, but do they apply the same way in libraries?

It’s understandable to be concerned about the rapid rise of the self-checkout. In places like grocery stores and fast-food establishments, automated checkout and order systems directly threaten jobs: we have seen more and more computer screens pop up and take the place of tills which once had humans behind them. These machines cut labor costs, leading to more profit for businesses but less jobs to go around.

The question of the effects of self-checkouts on staffing with regards to libraries is a valid one, and unions have indeed raised this concern, even going so far as to say that self-checkouts may threaten the heart of a library . While it’s reasonable to be cautious and critical of the seemingly ever-increasing automation directly replacing jobs, libraries are a different environment than retail or fast-food and deserve their own particular examination.

Not A Replacement for Staff

No two libraries are the same, and libraries are staffed and managed in different ways according to their needs. Staff working at circulation desks are often responsible for a host of other duties in addition to check-outs. If implemented thoughtfully alongside in-person circulation services, self-checkouts can be one more tool available to staff in our toolkit of assisting patrons rather than as a replacement for staff.

I sometimes work at a circulation desk doing check-outs and other tasks alongside self-checkout machines. I am grateful for their existence when something time-consuming might come up, such as answering an in-depth question or registering several members in a family for library cards at the same time. Some patrons, seeing that I am busy, will choose to wait in line, but others may choose to use the self-checkout.

I write from a Public Library perspective, but many academic and school libraries are also utilizing self-checkout options and apps.

Options for Patrons

A means of self-checkout provides an additional option for patrons. Our patrons all have different preferences, schedules, and expectations for their library; there is no “standard” patron. While some patrons enjoy in-person checkout, others may greatly appreciate the option to do this step themselves for a variety of reasons. Such reasons may include (but are not limited to) being under a time constraint, experiencing social anxiety, or desiring privacy.

Privacy for Patrons

The most compelling reason self-checkouts have a place in libraries is patron privacy.

A person’s choice of reading, viewing or listening material (or any other kind of material we might offer for check-out) can be personal and potentially sensitive. While retail and fast-food businesses actively seek out, collect, and sell data about their customers’ preferences and purchasing habits, in libraries we are serious about the privacy rights of library users; our services are built around our ethics of confidentiality, data protection, and accessibility.

However, despite our commitments to patron privacy, the fact is that patrons may feel a reluctance to check an item out if it means another person will see it, even a stranger. This chilling effect may be amplified if the person working circulation is a family member or acquaintance. As an illustrative example, imagine a teenager wants to check out a book about discovering their sexuality but the only circulation staff available is their Aunt Shirley. Chances are, the teen is leaving the library without that book. If a self-checkout were to be available, however, the story could be different.

Striking a Balance

At the end of the day, libraries work to serve our patrons and meet their needs. While criticisms of self-checkouts are valid, the carefully considered implementation of self-checkout options can be a helpful addition for both staff and patrons. Self-checkouts offer convenience and privacy that some patrons desire, and can take some pressure off of staff during bursts of activity at the circulation desk. On the other hand, many patrons prefer the personal touch of check-out with a staff member, and as such we should always continue to provide in-person options for our patrons to enjoy.

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