Johnson City Public Library: Using technology to keep up and surge ahead
Johnson City, Tennessee is a city of 65,000 nestled at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the heart of Appalachia. Though Johnson City has a colorful past, known as both a hotbed for old-time music and a thoroughfare for bootleggers during Prohibition, today the city is an economic hub for northeast Tennessee, driven largely by the surrounding colleges and the Med-Tech corridor. The Johnson City Public Library serves the entire region, including portions of North Carolina and Virginia. The single branch library has a physical collection of 158,000 items and an annual circulation of 525,000 a year.
The little library that could
The Johnson City Public Library has come a long way since it was founded in a storefront by a women’s “Monday Club” in 1895. The current library, built in 1999, is a beautiful, modern brick building, boasting 42,000 square feet near the heart of downtown.
In 2007, as annual circulation began steadily climbing, the library started looking at RFID as a way to keep up with the increasing demand.
“We were facing the usual problems of backlog and getting items back on the shelf quickly. Our staff was experiencing repetitive strain issues and we could never be without extra staff because of the volume of materials we had. We’re not funded by the number of books we check out, so we were victims of our own success in a way,” says Gina Thayer-Coleman, JCPL Circulation Services Manager.
Though Johnson City knew they’d eventually want to convert to RFID, the timing just wasn’t right. Industry standards were in flux and the RFID tags, a dollar a piece at that time, were cost prohibitive. Nevertheless, the library began to put the wheels in motion, beginning the process of filing a capital request with the City of Johnson City.
Education and buy-in is everything
As time passed, JCPL realized that not only were their current systems being outstripped by demand, but their existing equipment was aging. Most of their equipment was original to the building, and after a decade and a half, they were struggling to find replacement parts.
Furthermore, the library realized that its role in the community, and the way it was being called on to serve the public, was rapidly changing. To meet those new demands, JCPL recognized that they would have to change as well.
“We knew we needed to redeploy staff to other parts of the library and get them out from behind the circulation desk. RFID seemed to be the key to opening up new possibilities for us,” says Eric Job, JCPL IS Manager.
As JCPL educated the funding bodies about the benefits of an RFID conversion, the response was overwhelmingly positive.
“We have a very forward-thinking group of people. Once we convinced them that this was something we needed to do to provide better service to the community, they were on board,” says Cathy Griffith, Assistant Director.
In fact, City staff and City Commissioners were so enthusiastic that they fast-tracked the request, moving it from a five-year plan to a three-year plan.
selfCheck, gates, flex AMH: RFID conversion in stages
The first year of the project provided enough funding to cover the RFID conversion as well as new security gates and the first selfCheck 1000. This year brought a flex AMH sorter with a bulkSeparator.
“From the beginning, we were planning to get a flex AMH,” says Job. “We had enough funding for one patron return, but we knew that funneling all our users through one return, especially during our Summer Reading Program, when people return wagon loads of books, would be a nightmare. It would simply take too long for patrons to stick in one book at a time.”
JCPL was trying to make adjustments to fund a second patron return when they were introduced to the bulkSeparator. The bulkSeparator allows users to return multiple items at once with drop-and-go convenience. Designed specifically for library materials, the bulkSeperator’s belts use natural gravity and vibration to efficiently separate items for accurate processing.
“Adding the bulkSeparator eliminated the need for an additional return. It changed the whole design of the system, and we sure are glad we got that!” says Job.
JCPL wanted patrons to be able to watch the flex AMH in action, but the seven-bin system was too large to fit behind the circulation desk in the main area of the library. The team got creative and renovated the circulation work room. They removed a small office in the middle of the space and installed a camera that broadcasts the flex AMH on a screen directly above the patron return.
“The kids love it and the staff is enamored. It’s been fun to educate the public. I see more and more adults just stand there and watch the flex AMH work,” says Robin Westphal, Library Director.
RFID and flex AMH – a game changer
“The biggest benefit has been the reduction of turnaround time for our local users. It’s just tremendous. We no longer have problems with a backlog in circulation. Our staff no longer has to spend their time checking books in and can instead focus on putting the books on the shelves and getting out into the library with the patrons,” says Westphal.
There is a perception among some of the public that more automation will cause library staff to lose their jobs, but JCPL says that simply isn’t so.
“We’re finally able to complete our tasks, which was something we were struggling with before,” says Griffith. “We’re a growing community and the selfCheck and flex AMH allow us to provide better service to that community with the same amount of staff.”
As Johnson City Public Library approaches the third year of their project, they have a lot to be excited about. They will be adding additional selfChecks throughout the library so that patrons can check out materials without having to come to the circulation desk. The quickConnect software on the selfChecks will allow JCPL to target promotions to the interests of users throughout various library areas.
Johnson City is in the midst of a downtown renovation project, and the library is situated in the heart of the new downtown destination. The additional selfChecks will free up library staff to offer programs and events in the new park the city is building just in front of the library.
There are plans underway to create a video wall in the library to promote community events and show after-hours movies. As a further service to their community, JCPL is planning a high-octane community directory called JCLink. The directory will connect citizens to community organizations and tie those organizations to the library’s collection.
“For example, through JCLink we will be able to connect to organizations like knitting clubs and then connect those clubs to materials in our collection about knitting,” says Westphal. “We want to get our staff out into the library helping people and interacting with people. We want to be more of a presence – the ether of the library. None of those things would be possible for us without utilizing this technology through bibliotheca.”