Self-Service Holds: Privacy versus Efficiency?

We live in an era in which convenience is of utmost value to most people. Almost everyone feels crunched for time in their daily lives, so anything that allows people to save a few minutes is lauded. Libraries have caught onto this need among their users, and have attempted to enhance services to be as time-efficient as possible. Among these enhancements are self-service holds in public libraries, which garner a good deal of conversation among LIS students and professionals.

Self-service holds essentially allow customers to walk into the library and pick up items being held for them off the shelf without having to ask a librarian to retrieve the items for them. Most libraries mark the items with the first three letters of the user’s first and last name to maintain privacy. For example, my holds would be marked as “BRO ALE,” which stands for Alexandra Bronston. While this level of privacy is sufficient for most users, for some it does not feel private enough. And this is where things get tricky for libraries.

The ALA Code of Ethics says, “III. We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.” It also states, “I. We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.” Self-service holds are intended to uphold both of these values by combining respect for the user’s privacy with a high level of efficiency of service, but it’s not that easy when some users feel that their identity is compromised when their holds are publicly displayed in the case of self-service holds.

On the other hand, some library users feel that self-service holds are more private because the librarian or circulation clerk no longer sees who checks out what. With the advent of self-checkout machines, a customer can enter the library, pick up their self-service holds, and use the self-checkout without having to interact with library staff at all. For some library users this is the ultimate in convenience and privacy, but some users, particularly older ones, may find this system confusing, inefficient, and impersonal.

Finding a balance between providing efficient services, protecting privacy, and meeting the needs of all types of users is a constant challenge for libraries, and I suppose all information organizations must weigh the advantages and disadvantages of every new technology they introduce to their customers. This issue in particular provokes discussion, particularly in regards to public libraries and how they can best utilize resources and serve their customers, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut solution, at least at this juncture.

–Post by Allie B.

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6 Responses to Self-Service Holds: Privacy versus Efficiency?

  1. It would be nice if libraries could be staffed so that each patron could be helped by a librarian or support person every time they wanted to pick up a book, but it just is not the case. However, I do feel that any time I use the library and need help there is someone there to assist me. I hope that those who are unable to serve themselves are able to get the help they need. I would like to think so. As for myself, I love checking my self out at the library. It seems all the more private and efficient. I imagine a lot of people feel the same.

    J. A. Lee

  2. I am one of those people who finds this a convenience. I do not want to be bothered and prefer as little contact as possible when I know what I am looking for. I’m not worried about my privacy, I just like to get things done myself. There is a worry though, that things will become too automated. I agree with Jill that there needs to be a balance between the automation and personal service.

    Lucie B.

  3. I think there needs to be a balance also. Librarians should be available for those who would like personal service and automated systems for those who prefer to do things by themselves. I, for one, prefer to use the automated check-out stands but would prefer a really librarian when I have a question.

    Here in the High Plains District – or at least at my particular library – they have switched to the “Book Store” model. I’m not certain if it resembles the Anythink libraries for they have not reorganized the stacks. What they have done is taken away the reference desk. Librarians roam the floor with Blue-tooth like headsets asking patrons if they any need help. I find this unsettling. I like having a reference desk. I would feel more comfortable going up and asking reference librarian a question than having to stalk down a wandering librarian. Am I just not with today’s trends? So yes, a balance is needed. There should be automation for those who prefer it and personal service for those that prefer that.

    K. Yockey

    • Anythink was in the process of doing away with desks as well when I worked there. Some staff felt the desk was a matter of convenience for customers for exactly the reason you cite – if there’s a big desk in front with librarians at it, that’s obviously where you go for help! However, management seemed to feel that people who were concerned about this aspect of the change were actually just stubborn or lazy, and (to my knowledge) it was never addressed.
      Similarly, I think it’s convenient to go to the hold area, grab my stuff, check myself out, and go. But when the machines are malfunctioning, will there be enough staff around to help?
      – J Kolic

  4. In some ways this relates to the E-reader post. Taking away options will inevitably leave some people out, whether it’s type of material or type of checkout. I know budgets make everything difficult, but it would be good to have a person around to help if needed.

    – J. Cox

  5. I actually just wrote a paper on a similar issue in that one of the sole purposes of installing self-check machines using RFID was to free up the staff so that they could assist the customers. Most people are able to figure out the self-check machines with ease, but there are, like Allie said, still those customers who just can’t get used to new technology. Even though RFID was supposed to allow for more “roaming” staff, in my personal experience at my library, we are still all so busy performing other job duties, there is no way there can always be a staff member just roaming about the library looking for lost sheep.

    And as for the privacy issue, as much as this has been discussed in theory between librarians, I have never once actually encountered somebody in my library that was upset by the three/four letters of their name on the slip of paper invading their privacy. If anything, I’ve heard more complaints that it confuses them because somebody else might have the same three/four letters, and they grab the wrong items.

    For the most part, I find the self-service holds to be efficient and uncontroversial.

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