Will fully automated library kiosks get rid of libraries?

Contra Costa County Library launched the first automated book dispensing machines in the country in 2008.  Their Library-a-Go-Go dispensers are located at Bay Area Rapid Transit stops in the San Francisco area.  The machines hold up to 400 books which can be browsed from a touch screen.  They operate like an ATM with a swipe of a library card to dispense books.  Users can have up to three books checked out at a time and return the books to the Library-a-Go-Go machines.

Washington County Library and Carver County Library in Minnesota decided to launch “Library Express” locations starting in July 2010.  The locations consist of electronic lockers where library patrons can pick up books or materials that they order online or through a kiosk.  Librarians deliver books twice a week to the lockers and patrons return the books to a book drop.  There are three Library Express locations so far that are located in communities that are too small to support a full-fledged traditional library.  The electronic locker library system is provided by LEID Products.

Library Express is very popular with Washington County Library doubling the number of lockers at their Hugo City Hall location last year.  Carver County Library  is equally happy with their Library Express locations.  The Director of Carver County Library, Melissa Brechon said, “Judging by the demand, repeat users and positive patron feedback, the goal of the program to increase library visibility and access has been exceeded.”.

So far, the automated library vending machines have been successful in expanding a library’s presence into areas where they could not traditionally reach.  The kiosks and lockers are available 24/7 every day of the week and are located in communities that are too small to be served by a traditional library.  But what happens if these automated libraries are used to replace existing libraries instead of extend their reach?

Last year we saw Borders fall to Amazon and Barnes & Noble might experience the same fate.  Blockbuster went bankrupt in 2010 after being crushed by Netflix and Redbox.

These automated library kiosks are essentially Redbox machines for library books and materials.  Ebooks pose almost as much of a threat to libraries as streaming movies from Netflix did to Blockbuster DVD rentals.  The book publishers aren’t loaning out their ebook titles at libraries and Amazon’s Kindle Owners’ Lending Library is starting to look like the Netflix of ebooks.  Library kiosks and ebooks might just be the equivalent of Redbox and Netflix for libraries.

The good news is that so far there are very few automated library kiosks and so far they are only benefitting libraries.  The bad news is that libraries are fighting for their lives with politicians cutting budgets across the country.  Libraries have to deal with smaller budgets while the economic environment is increasing the demand for library services.

One way to provide library services while cutting costs is to switch to an automated library kiosk.  You obviously can’t compare the wide range of valuable services offered by a traditional library and trained librarians with a simple kiosk.  But you have to consider that automated library machines could easily maintain or even increase circulation numbers with drastically lower real estate and personnel costs.

The concept of replacing several branch library locations with automated library terminals is a definite possibility.  I don’t think that entire library systems would ever be replaced by kiosks, but I do see the possibility for certain branch locations to become automated library machines.  It would be a sad day if that possibility becomes a reality.