For the most part, the Alameda City library serves its purpose well, but today I encountered something that surprised me given all the other technology the library has deployed. The reality though is that it was not a limitation of the technology at all. It was a dated policy being enforced by librarians with little interest in serving customers. Given the technology already deployed, the experience I had picking up a book reserved in my daughter’s name should never have happened.
A few weeks ago we put a hold request on a book for our daughter, for pick up in the main library branch. We have been doing the same thing for our son for a while now, and then popping over there at the weekend to pick up the books as they become available. This weekend though, the only time we have available to pick up books would be Sunday morning, and they are closed on Sunday mornings. So, I made a special trip over there this afternoon to pick up the book before the hold expires next Wednesday.
I picked up the book, and went to check it out, but I don’t have my daughter’s library card, so the self-checkout would not let me take the book using my card. Fair enough. Where the system failed so badly is that the librarian would not resolve this simple issue. Instead insisting that without the card I could not check the book out. It was not that they could not check it out, it was that they would not do it because of a library policy.
The Alameda library is equipped with some very high tech tools. The self-checkout machines read the book IDs from RFID tags affixed inside them. The entire catalog is online, the reservation system is online. We can renew books online. Recently they even added the option to pay fines online. And yet, to check a book out they need to have a physical plastic card, although I suspect the self-checkout machines would work with a photocopy of the barcode.
At a time when we can pay for things using our phones, board planes using electronic boarding passes on our phones and even unlock hotel rooms with them, it seems beyond belief that to check a book out of the library I would need a plastic card. Why does the mobile site, which is able to show me the card number, and all the other information about the account, not include an on-screen barcode to check books out with?
Cards Are Not Security
Possession of a physical card is not security. The cards are easily lost or stolen. I do have a library account, complete with a username & password, that I log in to when I need to renew books, place requests, etc; that account could easily be used to check books out as well. Why can I not simply log in at the self-checkout? Or enter the username & password at the librarians counter to authenticate the account?
The answer, of course, is that there is nothing technically preventing any of those things. All that prevents it is a combination of dated library policies and librarians with little interest in resolving issues. I spoke to a person who, it was claimed, was the library manager. To be honest, I’m not sure whether he was, or whether that was just a ruse by the lady at the front desk. I also filled out a feedback form, but it had no spaces for contact information, nor even a space for my name. I seriously doubt those forms make it further than the office shredder.
Technology vs Policy
I understand that technology moves fast and that with limited budgets it is not always easy to keep up with it. That is clearly not the case here: Alameda’s library has surprisingly modern technology, but it appears they have not considered updating their policies to take full advantage of it.