Self-service in libraries - how to include self-service strategies in your library, without losing the human touch!

Self-service is a double-edged sword in every industry, but perhaps none more so than libraries. Even as technology becomes more prevalent and vital to the workings of a library, interaction with the public, and being able to engage and delight visitors is one of the most important service elements we have. However, technology allows customers to quickly and easily check out the books they want efficiently and effectively, and see if they have any overdue items. The question then becomes how to combine self-service, and interaction with humans – without one impacting negatively upon the other.

Make sure humans are available 

Not every visitor to the library is going to want to use the self-service tools that are available. Many people don't like the idea of interacting with a piece of technology, some fear it, some don't have the digital literacy skills to facilitate the interaction, and some prefer speaking to an actual person and not an artificial one. Placing a service counter, or having a team member near the self-service area to assist those that need it, means that those who don't wish to use the technology don't have to, and if any customers using the self-service area need assistance, they can reach out to a member of staff for support and assistance.

Importantly, don't overestimate how simple your technology is. As you are catering for the entire community, there will always be customers who don't understand it, or fear it, and many won't like to ask for help. Customers could become embarrassed, frustrated and just leave, but a nearby team member can stop this from happening with a friendly, "Can I give you a hand?".

Treat Technology as Another Team Member

Your self-service system should become an extension of your team, not a replacement to checking out a book. Just as catalogue systems didn't replace librarians, self-service systems are merely a useful tool, not a replacement strategy. They enable speed and efficiency in the library, and for people to take the initiative themselves if they wish to. This enables customer-facing staff to focus on what they do best - helping customers and supporting the efficient operations of the library.

Just as you wouldn't rely on any particular team member too much, don't end up becoming overly reliant on technology - it can alienate massive sections of your population. It is also important to ensure that the levels of interaction around the library are maintained, and that even customers who are happily and easily checking out through the self-service system are given the opportunity to get some advice if need be. "Did you get everything you needed today?" Is simple and powerful question that self-service technology cannot answer adequately…yet. Self-service technology also doesn't upsell or cross sell your services, for example "Did you know we have a Tech Savvy Seniors program coming up?". This strategy is a fantastic marketing tool to help customers become aware of your other services and products.

Make it Easy

Again, you are catering for the entire community, and it’s here that a library becomes a bit of a contradiction. On one side, you’ve got the group in the corner, discussing the finer points of advanced coding, and then you have those who would rather jump out a window than use a smartphone. It’s important to embrace advanced technology, but ensure it works for everyone, including those who don’t love technology. In order to test this, ask team members or friends who haven't been trained in self-service to go through the process. In other words, don't assume anything. Many self-service systems have become more of a hassle than they should have been, because a simple instruction wasn't made apparent. A sticker that says, “scan barcode here," can be the difference between a fast and enjoyable experience, and a shrug, followed by an exit.

Self-service technology is here to stay. It can add to the experience of a library, and enable visitors who wish to check out a book quickly, to do so. It also reduces the number of overdue items, and can assist in reducing long queues during busy times. However, nothing replaces the human touch and libraries should be conscious to maintain an equal balance between technology, and people. After all, technology is still not at a point where it can answer intuitive questions – and that’s what librarians are great at.

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