New Toronto Public Library Checkout System Fails Me

Our local Toronto Public Library branch has been closed for renovations for a couple of months but reopened on Wednesday. The main change was the absence of the checkout counters, as well as the people that worked behind them. Like at Home Despot they now have a self-serve touch screen checkout system, which gave me a lot of trouble.

I’ve been around computers a long time and have spent some time in the retail field, so I’m very familiar with touch screens and scanners. This new system simply did not work for me. The checkout counter consists of a touch screen, a scanner, and a matching grey pad, about 4mm thick, similar to an oversized mouse pad. Language choices include English, French and Chinese. You supposedly put up to 5 books on the pad at one time and the machine automatically scans them all. Or so the theory goes.

Unfortunately for me, my first time on the new system was less than stellar. Only one of my five magazines would scan. My little weed approached to see what the problem was, leaned up against the table near the mouse pad, and it scanned and checked out his book, after it had already checked out his book on his card. Apparently the last scan counts.

I found out that I had done a couple of things incorrectly. Firstly, I read and followed the onscreen instructions, which did not work. My eldest weed didn’t read anything, scanned her card and then used the hand held scanner, scanned all her books, disregarding the mouse pad. She first finished, and was mildly annoyed as to why the oldster was having so much difficulty. I received the pout, the rolling of the eyes, and the jaunty stance. The extra pressure helped set the tone of the situation. I did not flinch.

A nice helper girl came over, pulled out the hidden keyboard, and also could not check out my magazines. The senior librarian then came over and I had to go over to her workstation, where the four errant magazines were given yet another special high tech sticker. The stickers was synchronized to the magazine’s bar codes. This took much extra time. Eventually I was able to put all four magazines on the mouse pad and they all registered and I checked out. Or so the head librarian demonstrated to me. I did not personally touch my magazines during the scanning process.

It’s all simple, really. There are many bugs still left to work out.

I might on occasion miss the checkout girls, but I remind myself of the countless times when they messed up. It’s really a very simple process, if everything goes well. With the new system I think they will need to have a couple of those girls around full-time when the system screws up.

As I walked out the security system started beeping. I suppose it is to prevent people from stealing books, accidental or not, but no burly librarians stopped us. In fact, no librarians paid much attention to us. I can only wonder if the theft rate for the TPL will increase.

The book check in has similarly been “upgraded”. You simply push the books through a chute and it lands in a box on the other side. Gone are the days when I could wait and watch as the librarian checks in my family’s books. I do this because on a couple of occasions we have returned books the “upgraded” way, only to find out later than the books were for some reason not checked in and we were on the hook for a late fine. As I am an upstanding library citizen I do detest late fines, but when you really don’t have the book, I get steamed.

I really do love the Toronto Public Library System. For all it’s growing pains I’m sure they will work it out. Just not with me. Yet.

Note: A couple of days after returning all five magazines, on time, I was charged with a late fee for one outstanding magazine. I called them up. The magazine was found in their stacks, and the fine was removed. The returns process is far from accurate. I was told that I could go to the customer services counter and ask to return my books, and a receipt would be printed.

A couple of days later I returned some other books and did just that. The process used is they lay some books down on the RF pad, and the computer detects them. Unfortunately you have to be very careful in order to have all the books scan in correctly. There is also a limit on the number of books stacked. The RF reader may not scan all of them, leading to error. The librarian needs to be extra careful in order to scan all the books, as it is very easy to make a mistake and rely on computer technology. I would rather take the extra 20 seconds in order to do a quality job.

In the past all books needed to be individually scanned using the bar code reader. Each scan made an audible beeping sound, providing important feedback to the librarian that the item was scanned correctly. This crucial feedback is missing in the new scanning system. I would venture to say that the new scanning system is also slower than the old system it replaces. You need to wait for the new system to “find” the RF tag.

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