Posted by Lori Ayre on August 20, 2007

I've been a very very bad girl. No postings for over a month. Turns out when I'm trying to get a report of some kind written, I can't post a blog entry. It feels like an adulterous act - like I'm cheating on my client. Writing....but not for them.

As always, in writing the report, I learned something. I learned that I could make a very conservative ROI estimate of 9-12 years for not just a a central sortation system for a medium sized library system but also for two or three individual library sorters. That's a lot of automation with a pretty good payback. And it doesn't take super high volume to make an economic argument in support of it.

In my ROI estimate, I ONLY counted the savings in time for the people in the library dealing with sorting items from the book drop bins and their internal delivery system and getting items to a "ready-to-shelve" state. There's lots more reasons to use a sorter. Lots more ways it is beneficial to the library (fewer RSI injuries, faster turnaround for customers, less boring tasks) but I didn't take any of that into account on my ROI calculations.

Oh, and in those calculations, I had automated check-in stations for the public. Not check-out. Check-in. Those were factored into my prices and figured into my ROI but the benefit for all concerned for automated check-in wasn't included either.

Sorters and automated check-ins are coming. Both take some of the mundane clerical work that is mind-numbing (or opportunities for Zen meditation depending on your point of view) away from library workers and gives them opportunities to do other tasks that require creative human beings. They are great for customers too. Items get in and out faster. People like to be able to check in their items right away to clear their accounts. And it clears the way for the library to focus more on providing innovative customer service and programs.

To treat myself for having completed that report, I flew up to King County Library System and took at look at Matilda, their beloved central sort system. Wow. The system is incredible. They sort 7000-9000 items per shift. Here's how it works. There's a tote drop off and pick up area right at the loading dock that the delivery personnel interface with. They bring in stacks of totes on a hand truck and drop them on a platform for Matilda. She unstacks the totes and queues up the bins at four locations where human operators take out individual items and place them on a large oval conveyor system that is moving VERY fast. As in fast enough that I couldn't do that job because I would feel sick to my stomach all the time. I couldn't work in a microfilm library for the same reason. Zipping ahead on a microfilm roll just makes me want to hurl. Anyhoooo, back to Matilda. So the people put the items on the conveyor and the items are taken around to the other side of the oval where they are whipped into the right sort location. That part is absolutely miraculous. But don't worry about damage, the items are whisked off the conveyor to a bin but it is a lateral whisk to a chute that then opens and drops them into the tote. Straight down, no manglation (new word).

When the sort totes are full,a human operator simply pushes them forward to another conveyor that takes the totes back to a giant stack of totes that Matilde uses for staging. She keeps track of all the totes in the stack.

When a driver comes in to begin his route, he tells Matilde what route he's going to do and she gathers up all the totes the driver needs and brings them out, all nicely stacked in threes so the driver can pick up the stack with a hand truck without ever having to bend over to hoist a bin anywhere.

Any group of people who've bothered to name an automation system have done so because they have developed some kind of connection to the machine. Maybe you've named your car and you know what I mean. Well, the sorter is named Matilde and the folks that work with Matilde seem to have a very healthy and honest relationship with her. They have had to work hard to enjoy the efficiency of the system and they know about some of her idiosyncrasies. But they've figured out how to make it work for everyone. It takes a staff of 7 or so to do those 7000-9000 sorts each shift but they all seem to enjoy their time together. It's really a site (sight?) to behold. If you ever get a chance to see it in operation and meet the folks there, I strongly recommend it.

And that's the story of why I haven't blogged for a month. Well, that's part of the story anyway.