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October 8, 2001

New Technology to Protect Library Books

Racing through an area of the Homer Babbidge Library crowded with tables, shelves and desks, all of them littered with books, Carole Dyal explains the cumbersome, multi-step process of sending and receiving the more than 37,000 volumes that pass through her area annually.

Then, taking a stack of six books in hand, she waves them over a Checkpoint system monitor and, instantly, the bar code of every one of the books appears on a computer screen. Using a hand-held scanner, Dyal can improve on that, too, merely running the scanner along a row or shelf of books, identifying hundreds of volumes in seconds. What today takes workers hours, next year will take only minutes.

From Dyal's basement office to the checkout desk and library exit, Checkpoint, the new radio frequency identification tag collection maintenance and security system being installed at the library, will free a number of workers to perform other tasks or fill positions that, for budgetary reasons, have been left vacant. It also will cut down or eliminate the ubiquitous checkout lines at Babbidge, and the intrusive process of checking patron's bags and bookbags - since Checkpoint can "see" a book, even if it's hidden. The ability of patrons to use an enhanced self check-out should also facilitate extension of the library's hours.

"This system will offer staff efficiencies, make the library a more friendly place, and improve our security and data system," says Brinley Franklin, library director. "We're leapfrogging from an old technology to the most sophisticated system available today."

Checkpoint, of Thorofare, N.J., for years has been supplying this system to businesses nationwide for inventory control and, more recently, to small libraries. UConn, however, is their first venture into a major public university's research library.

Using a small chip inserted into each book, the Checkpoint system allows library patrons to merely wave a book - or stack of books - over a radio-controlled case the size of a small laptop computer. Every book is instantly recorded as checked out in Babbidge Library's circulation system.

Scanners set up at Plaza Level exits also will "read" any book not properly checked out, even if they're buried in a bag stuffed with other books, clothing or CDs. The system will then lock a gate adjacent to the scanner, and a programmable voice will inform the patron they have forgotten to check out a book.

For Dyal, who supervises professional staffers and student workers tending to the task of preparing books that must be bound - or rebound - and tracking these new books individually through the circulation system, the system is a dream come true.

Currently, each book heading to a binding company must be opened to the point where the current bar code resides, which can be in any of several spots in the book. The code must be stripped out, and the pouch that holds a library receipt removed. Upon return, each book must have the pouch and code restored, along with a security sticker to prepare it for circulation. The process is cumbersome and can take as much as two or three minutes per book.

The system also provides a dramatic improvement in inventory and shelf-reading capability. Hand-held scanners, similar to those in many retail stores, will replace visual reading of call numbers by library staff to ensure accurate order of books on the shelf. Hundreds of books can be scanned in seconds.

The change will take some time, says Nancy Orth, who headed the team that chose Checkpoint. Each book in Babbidge Library must be converted to the new system, which takes about 30 seconds apiece. "The daunting piece is that we have to touch every book in the collection again," says Orth. "And we're looking at anywhere between 1.5 and 2 million books."

But, she adds, once the system is installed, it just becomes a matter of maintenance. And it will make the library's inventory much easier to track, since moving the scanner through the stacks will quickly find misplaced - or hidden - books.

So far, workers have installed the chips in nearly 100,000 books. By the time the system is operational next September, Orth expects about 800,000 books will be tagged.

As part of the installation, the Plaza Level of the library will be renovated next summer to accommodate the change. The exits will be changed and a second lane added, the Checkpoint system installed, and new stations for self check-out will be added.

The self check-out areas using Checkpoint should be quick, easy, and busy. Students and faculty will merely swipe their UConn identification card, then wave their book - or books - over the scanner, and leave. Currently, Orth and Dyal say, there are two self check-out stations, but they are underused because the process is so cumbersome.

The project will cost nearly $1 million, says Orth. But, she adds, it will pay for itself quickly, as administrators will be able to redeploy a number of staff to other, more important tasks than the tedious security or rebinding duties they now perform.

It also should do wonders on the public relations end of the library business, says Dennis Thornton, the library's facilities manager and head of security: "It's a much more hospitable system."

Richard Veilleux