No late fees, no problem

The future of book returning on hold at new library

Since the Halifax Central Library’s first week of operation in December, patrons haven’t been able to return their books via the electronic book return – it’s been out of order.

Engineers from the company who built the book return machine are working on it. The library is hoping to have it running by next week, so patrons can return their books after hours without entering the building.

“One of the things we were able to do when building a library from the ground up was look at what technology we wanted to bring in, to really be forward thinking,” says Asa Kachan, CEO of the Halifax Public Libraries.

“And the automated materials handling system is an example of that.”

However, the new library drew 60,000 visitors in its first two weeks, and the machine wasn’t able to handle the large number of book returns.

“When we opened, we went from having a system that we had tested … (to) a volume that was beyond anything we had anticipated,” Kachan says.

The rest of the library’s state-of-the-art technology held up under the pressure – catalogue-searching computers every few feet, touch screens in the elevators, and self checkout machines that can read multiple books at once. But the book-handling machine had a problem. When a book is placed in the return slot, the machine senses it and starts a conveyer belt. The books are then transported into the ceiling by another conveyer belt pressing against them and carrying them upwards.

So far, so good. Once they’re in the ceiling, the books travel along a series of internal conveyer belts – “like Charlie’s Chocolate Factory,” Kachan says.

They’re transported to the back of the library and lowered down onto a sorter, which sorts them via radio frequency ID tags into their appropriate bins, so a librarian can shelve them.

But the books have to turn several corners to get to the sorter, and it turns out books can get clogged at those spots.

Engineers are going to try installing “sweepers” to ensure books are more spread out when they get to the corners. If that doesn’t work, they’ll widen the conveyer belt in those areas.

Sam Sternberg, an adult services librarian at the branch, says patrons have been patient and understanding.

“People have been great,” she says. “I think mostly it’s just a little bit disappointing for us that we have to have out of order signs up.”

Sternberg says she doesn’t mind the extra work. The sorter in the back room is in use, so the out of order book return mostly means she has to direct people how to return their books in the interim.

“I just feel bad that we’ve got this fancy new place all technically up and running, but not running at full capacity,” Sternberg says.

Kachan says the library is confident the machine will be fixed soon – she’s hoping for next week. In the meantime, the library is waiving late fines for those unable to return their books during open hours.

Behind the scenes at the Halifax Central Library, where the machine sorts books into their appropriate categories or destinations. (Photo: Leah Collins Lipsett)
Behind the scenes at the Halifax Central Library, where the machine sorts books into their appropriate categories or destinations. (Photo: Leah Collins Lipsett)