Article City Forum Lisa G. Rosenblum

Sunnyvale’s Investment Increases Efficiency and Improves Library Services

Lisa G. Rosenblum is director of libraries for the Sunnyvale Public Library system and can be reached at

It’s ironic but true: During tough economic times as library budgets are being cut, public library use increases. At the Sunnyvale Public Library from 2004–09 the checkout of items increased 37 percent while library staffing decreased 13 percent. In a typical day 2,000 people used the library’s services. With materials checkout at 2.5 million items per year and increasing, the library had a problem — it simply could not check in materials fast enough. Despite being open seven days and 66 hours per week, items routinely required a minimum of 24–72 hours just to get checked in and taken off the customer’s library record. Reshelving the items took another 48 hours.

An Overwhelming Ocean of Returned Items

Library customers were understandably upset. They had returned their items on time, but the library was not keeping up. Employee morale was low. Library staff felt they could never catch up with the work, and repetitive motion injuries were often a part of everyday work life.

While libraries provide many great amenities, their core service is the movement of materials. Although some efficiencies have been achieved in recent years with the use of self-checkout machines and barcode technology, checking in and shelving are laborious manual processes.

Seeking Better Solutions

The Sunnyvale Public Library formed a project team to research two current technologies adapted for the library market: radio frequency identification (RFID) and automated check-in and sorting machines.

RFID is used for commercial applications ranging from accounting for inventory in large retail chains to tracking runners at races. But libraries are just now embracing this technology and realizing its full potential in providing more efficient and effective services. RFID acts as a very simple two-way radio affixed to a tag. Each tag contains identifying information, such as a book’s title or material type. When placed upon a reader it attaches this information to a customer’s library account and performs the opposite function when the item is returned.

The advantages of RFID include the ability to stack multiple items for checkout — saving effort and speeding the process — and tags that can also double as a security device. Converting from the current barcode system to RFID tags was chosen as the best option for the library. But RFID alone was not enough to solve the check in problem. An automated materials handling system (AMH) that scans the returned RFID-enabled items and then automatically sorts each item was another key part of the solution. Installed in March 2010, this two-tiered approach has already had a significant impact on Sunnyvale’s library service.

Speedier Service

Checking in items now happens immediately. As soon at the customer feeds the item into the AMH machine, the tag is read and the item is removed from the customer’s library account. In addition the machine produces a receipt for confirmation, a service often requested by library customers. After the AMH machine performs the check in and presort, staff manually places items in order on carts. Items are then reshelved and made available to customers. What frequently took five days to achieve now takes only one to two days. Another benefit of this fast turnaround is that DVDs, the most popularly used collection in most libraries, are now out on the floor within hours of return. As a result, the checkout limits on DVDs have been increased from three per customer to 10.

Employee morale has improved, too. No longer faced with a mountain of check ins, staff has been redeployed out on the floor to assist customers with using the AMH machine as well as the RFID-enabled checkout. The risk of repetitive injuries has been greatly reduced as well.

Return on Investment

Although the system is not inexpensive, a cost-benefit analysis determined the return on the city’s investment was seven years. To recover these costs, the library agreed to permanently reduce 6,100 hours of staff time, which was achieved by eliminating “casual” or non-benefited extra hours and through attrition. According to Project Manager Steve Sloan, “Moving from barcode to RFID and manual to automated processes took two years of planning, but the results have far surpassed our expectations. Now staff can devote more time to interacting with customers, merchandising collections and getting books back on the shelf faster.”

Library customers are especially impressed with the RFID-enabled self-check machines, which offer many more options than the older machines. Not only do they allow faster checkout, customers can also see their library record, review their holds and run their credit card to pay fines, all on one machine. Library customers enjoy using the system, as noted by one resident who says, “My kids love the automated returns. You just slide the books in, and the machine does the rest! I like the interactive screens. Very cool!”

The new system allows the library staff to view increased checkout of materials as a success rather than a burden. As library usage continues to grow and cities struggle to maintain services, this new system reminds us that the right technology combined with a well trained and service-oriented staff is the key to providing high quality, sustainable service to the community. 

Tips for Increasing Library Efficiency

  1. Plan to invest at least a year in the effort to upgrade equipment and implement new technology.
  2. To present a persuasive case for funding to your city, seek additional sources. For example, the Friends of the Library in Sunnyvale funded the six new self-checkout machines required for RFID. Each machine has a small plaque recognizing their support.
  3. Involve the community. Sunnyvale used volunteers along with staff to tag library items. The volunteers did a great job and were an invaluable part of the team.
  4. Ensure that your RFID tags are nonproprietary and your AMH is scaleable and flexible to meet your changing needs.
  5. Involve your facilities and information technology staff early in the planning process. Their participation and suggestions are essential.

This article appears in the November 2010 issue of Western City
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