Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Book Lending Machine

Exhibiting at the Seoul International Bookfair last week was the Korean library automation company Eco Inc offering clients a full suite of automation products including OPAC, RFID and Hardware. It was the hardware that grabbed my attention and in particular the book vending machine - see picture. Designed both to extend the reach of a library and the hours a library is effectively open this vending machine for library books is an interesting solution. I am not sure if it is unique, but it is the first one I have seen.

The vendor explained they designed the machine to provide easy pick-up and drop off of books at places like train stations, offices and shopping malls. Additionally, the machine could also sit outside an existing library location so that patrons can collect and drop off their books after hours.

The machine integrates with the lending function the library offers. A patron selects a book(s) from the catalog and reserves it for pick-up at one of the locations. Once reserved online, the patron visits the machine location and using their activated library card retrieves their book. Each of the numbered slots in the picture is a hinged door behind which is 'mailbox' which can hold up to three books. The door pops open, the patron collects their book together with a printed receipt with their details. The patron can repeat the process to return the book or simply drop it off at the library as they would normally.

The machine isn't cheap: $25,ooo for the unit in the picture which includes the control panel and two vending bays. Additional bays are $5K each sold two at a time. There is a limit of six bays per installation - although I'm not sure if this isn't an artificial limit designed to increase the number of expensive control units they sell. While not new to the market the company only has several locations currently installed and pricing must surely be a consideration. While libraries are decreasing staffing and hours, this machine could be viewed as costing (perhaps) one headcount with the added benefit of extending library hours; however, this is a large capital expense and I suspect beyond the abilities of many libraries to justify. I would think pricing would need to come down below $10K for this to gain any substantial penetration or for leasing to be an option.

Building wider distribution for library materials is also a benefit and even at a cost of $25K there could be payback versus establishing new facilities. Regardless, if installed in a local mall or mass transit location the library would need to see high utility to justify the purchase. There are also practical considerations in that the machine needs to be filled either continuously as 'orders' are placed online or on some set schedule. If the machine is located at a current library location, the process of fulfilling on-line 'orders' is straight forward as books can be placed in the machine as the orders are placed. That would not be the case if the machine sits at the local mall. In the latter case, a schedule for filling (and emptying) the machine would need to be established to manage the expectations of the patrons. You wouldn't want a patron arriving at the vending machine only to find their selection had not been placed in its mailbox. I would also suggest the 'loan' period starts when the order is placed rather than when the book is collected by the patron and I am not sure how the software manages this. If the book is in a mailbox it is not available to other patrons.

In my view, the most likely use of the machine would be where it was located immediately outside a current library location. In this instance the machine could be filled and emptied frequently (but not after-hours) and could be an effective automation tool for both patrons and librarians. Whether that is worth $25K (or $10K) I am not sure but nevertheless an interesting product.

(Of note, it did occur to me that the machine could be used for other completely different applications where materials need to be tracked. For example, it could be used effectively to administer items as diverse as office supplies or even food and groceries - although the mail boxes would need to be re-architected).

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