Posted by Lori Ayre on November 7, 2013

I just came back from the California Library Association Annual Conference (which was a big hit, by the way!).  As usual, I made my way through the exhibits talking with the vendors about ongoing projects and how things are going.  This time, I came away a bit frustrated because it seemed like so many AMH and RFID projects appeared to be going a bit awry.

The thing is, projects can go wrong very quickly when libraries pursue complex technology implementations without retaining the connection to the "why" of the project.  In order to successfully roll out a capital-intensive technology project, it is critical to establish a clear objective, or set of priorities, for doing so.  And to continually make choices based on those priorities. 

For example, if a library has chosen RFID because they need to handle more circulation without increasing their staff size, certain decisions must be made about how the system will be configured, what components will be purchased, where equipment will be located, how signage will be employed, and of course, what staff will be doing with the new equipment and where staff-patron interface points should be.  

If a library has chosen RFID because they want to establish a consistent approach to materials security across their consortia, then other choices might need to be made about equipment, about resource-sharing policies, about information that is written on the tag, and of course, what staff will be doing with the new equipment and where staff-patron interface points should be.  

If the objective of the library is to ensure patrons who use the Holds system can get in and out of the library quickly, it will be important to place self-service kiosks and Holds shelves near the door and ensure that those patrons can do everything they need to do at those kiosks: check-out (and maybe even check-in) material, renew items, manage their Holds, pay fines and fees.  How staff will support those (and other) patrons requires purchasing the right equipment, putting it in the right spot, signing it.  

If the library is implementing a comprehensive automated materials handling strategy to reduce the time staff spend circulating material so they can spend more quality time with the patrons, then there are a host of equipment, workflow, and staffing decisions to be made so that the objective will be met.

The point is that purchasing an RFID or materials handling system doesn't guarantee that anything will change.  In fact, many libraries have proven themselves to be quite adept at purchasing very costly AMH and/or RFID systems without changing anything about how they deliver services to their patrons.  These libraries also see no benefit from having purchased these expensive systems.

Procurement isn't enough, when it comes to these technologies. Strategic selection, deployment, and implementation is required if you want to see the benefits. 

Strategic selection involves establishing a clear set of priorities for making the purchases. What are we trying to accomplish and what do we need to do it?  If your reason for choosing RFID or AMH is "everyone else seems to be doing it" then you aren't going to be successful. Each library needs to establish their own set of priorities and address those priorities.  Your selection may be similar to another library but there are always choices to be made that will undoubtedly determine whether you have purchased just what you need and no more.

Strategic deployment requires using those same priorities as the signposts throughout the rollout, and establishing metrics that can be used to measure progress toward achieving those goals. Metrics will tell you whether you need to make adjustments or not. Without metrics, you can't be sure you've made a change. Are we increasing the number of self-service transactions?  Have we freed up staff to do more patron-facing work? Have we reduced the number of touches and streamlined the materials handling workflow?  Have we reduced the time it takes to get returns back up on the shelf?  Can we do more work with fewer staff and, have we adjusted staffing levels accordingly?

Strategic implementation requires complete buy-in from staff who have helped establish the need for the change, support making the investment in the technology, and have hopefully taken part in creating the vision for how the priorities will be achieved. They are prepared to make the required changes, are involved in establishing and measuring the metrics, are committed to making adjustments as needed, and are invested in making the new system work.

Too many libraries think that RFID, sorters, self-check-out machines, and self-check-in machines are magic.  They are not magic.  They do certain things well and can be used to support changes the library wishes to make in how to deliver services.  They can free up staff to do new things.  They can create opportunities for patrons to interact with the library differently.  But they only play supporting roles. The equipment doesn't make the change happen.  The changes have to be made by the people with the vision for how to transform the library, provide new services, change staffing levels, introduce new service models, streamline workflows.

Without the vision and without keeping your focus on the original objectives, RFID and AMH rollouts end up frustrating staff, as well as patrons, and costing the library a lot of money. If your library is considering an investment in RFID or AMH or self-service technologies, make sure you think strategically for the reasons for doing so and make sure those reasons drive your decisions and that you continually evaluate whether you're still on track. It's very easy to get distracted by the shiny new machine and lose track of the original objective.