Public Comment

Library’s Checkout System is Dysfunctional

By Peter Warfield and Gene Bernardi
Thursday May 07, 2009 - 06:02:00 PM

Berkeley Public Library recently invited library users to supply “ideas on what has worked and not worked in our current system,” so we decided to systematically test it.  

We found the existing radio frequency identification (RFID) self-check-out system suffers from serious weaknesses, and the security gates are almost completely non-functional. 

In late April and early May, we visited the library’s four branches, where we twice observed and tested each location’s security system and self-check-out machines, with a 10-day interval between tests. We also visited the Central Library once. Here is what we found regarding the security system: 

• More than half of branch libraries’ security gates were not operating at all.  

• The security gate at one of the branches operated properly on the first visit, but was unreliable on the second. On our first visit, our unchecked materials near the alarm set it off as we browsed a nearby library book shelf, as did passing materials between the gates. After we checked out the materials, we were able to leave without any alarm sounding. At this visit, we evaluated these gates as operating correctly. 

But, on our second visit the alarm did not go off as it should have when we placed un-checked materials between the gates. Unexpectedly, the alarm went off as we left the library, after we checked out the materials. We walked back in, puzzled—and as we did, the gates did not sound an alarm. The staff told us we were OK, we could leave. As we left a second time with our checked out materials, the gates sounded an alarm again. 

These same materials that had set off the alarm in the branch gates did not set off the Central Library’s alarm when we subsequently entered and exited there. 

• We tested the Central Library’s security system just once. It failed to sound when we passed through the gates a book that was not checked out. But then the alarm did sound when we brought the book back in through the gates.  

Our conclusion is that, despite the installation of a brand-new Checkpoint Systems, Inc. RFID system, completed four years ago, with maintenance contracts during that time, the library’s RFID security function is not reliable.  

Additional information suggests support for our conclusion. At the end of 2008, for example, we learned from reliable sources that the gates at one branch had been turned off for at least eight months because the false alarms were so numerous that staff was simply ignoring them.  

Another concern is that the RFID technology is far too easy to circumvent. Even if the security gates are working, their theft-prevention purpose can be rendered ineffective against accidental or intentional blocking of the radio frequency signal in a variety of ways that would allow materials that were not checked out to leave the library completely undetected.  

The so-called “self-service” Checkpoint RFID check-out machines are far from self-service, and so unreliable that staff intervention is routinely required. Following are some of the problems: 

• Just getting started can be a problem. The self-check machines provide a broad, flat surface that seems to invite patrons to rest their library materials on it prior to beginning the check-out process.  

When a patron rests library materials on the machine and then begins the check-out process by scanning his/her library card as described in the machine’s instructions—nothing happens. Check-out is impossible. There is no explanation from the machine. Some of the branches have a hand-written sign warning patrons to scan their library card before resting any library materials on the table. At one branch we were alerted by a staff member just as we rested our materials on the machine to remove them and scan the card first.  

• Far from being easy or intuitive to use, the Checkpoint RFID self-check-out machines require a separate step to unlock cases for media such as CDs and DVDs. The patron first checks out the media item, then inserts it into a small black box next to the check-out machine. These openers appear to be out of order often, but are not always marked as such. We did find, at one branch, an unlocking machine marked “out of order.” At another branch the unlocking machine would not at first pull in and unlock the boxed DVD when we inserted it, making noises like grinding gears. We tried again, giving an extra push, and the second time it took in the item. But it did not unlock. The librarian had to unlock the DVD case on an unlocking device at the circulation desk.  

We also observed other patrons having difficulty understanding what to do with DVDs and how to operate the DVD/CD case opener. 

Self-check-out machines have many functional limitations: 

• They do not check out materials if patrons have more than $10 in fines or fees. The machines cannot accept full or partial payment to eliminate the problem. But staff at the circulation desk can. 

• Self service check-out machines cannot renew a book if the patron does not have it in hand—the circulation desk can. 

• Self-check-out machines do not check out interlibrary loan (ILL) materials. 

• They do not check out LINK+ materials. 

• They do not work with an expired card, which the circulation staff can fix. 

• Only one book at a time can be checked out. The machine’s instructions tell patrons to pass only one item at a time over the reader. When we tried checking out more than one item at a time, the machines were unable to read two or more items at a time. Once, when passing a CD and another item over the reader, we received a message saying the case did not contain the CD contents when, in fact, it did. A staff member informed us that incorrect error messages appear all the time, and another said most patrons have trouble with the self-service machines.  

One of the major advantages of RFID, according to a 2005 library handout, was that RFID “makes it possible for us to have patrons checking out their own materials in a much more intuitive and user friendly way than our current self-checks.” 

• Importantly, self-check-out machines cannot perform many additional circulation desk functions. The machines cannot say, as circulation desk staff can, “You have a book due in three days, would you like me to renew it?” Or, “You have books that can be renewed, but you have already renewed your CD and DVD the maximum number of times.” 

We thank the library for soliciting information from its patrons on the workability of the RFID self-check-out system, and we hope other library users will respond by sending their comments to the Berkeley Daily Planet promptly. 


Note: The library Trustees will be discussing the biennial budget at their May 20 meeting. Now is the time for library users to express their opinions about, and suggest alternatives to, the existing RFID self-check-out system. 


Peter Warfield is executive director of Library Users Association and a member of Berkeleyans Organized for Library Defense (SuperBOLD). Gene Bernardi is a member of SuperBOLD.