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The reoccurring problems with the newly installed sorting and book return system seem to be in the past for the Waukesha Public Library.

The automated materials handling system, which was installed last November, caused problems for library patrons during the first few months, but is now operating without difficulty, Library Director Grant Lynch said.

Before the automated system was installed, it could take library staff a few days to check in books. The library has a circulation of 1.2 million a year, with about 3,000 books coming and going each day.

"We got some complaints that books hadn't been checked in yet, even though they brought it in a few days (earlier)," Lynch said.

Quick returns

The $190,000 fully automated system will help to get books quickly back on the shelves by using the system and radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, which use a type of sensor to check-in books as soon as patrons send them through a check-in window.

"It requires no human interaction whatsoever, which is really great," Lynch said. "Right now we have a bar code tagging system so these (books) have to actually be scanned to be checked in, and it takes a lot human interaction to do that."

Although the system looks similar to a book drop from the outside, it isn't one. Once a book is sent through, it is checked in using the RFID tag and is carried by conveyor belt to a central sorting unit that sweeps and sorts items. Books, children's books and DVDs are sorted into separate bins, making it easier and "immensely faster" for staff to put books back on the shelves.

"Since the RFID tags aren't installed in the entire collection as of yet, the books are randomly being sorted into bins, but once they are all tagged by summer, they will get sorted as well," Lynch said.

The library is working toward full automation as the staff works to convert the collection to the RFID tags. The tags, which look like square, white patches, are put on the inside back covers of every book.

"Had we been able to do this all over again, we would have converted the tagging system first and we could have solved many of problems that we had early on," Lynch said.

Troubleshooting system

The problems the library experienced in the first few months were largely due to the machine's sensors being too sensitive.

"We had many talks with the company about fixing it, and they appear to be recommitted to this project," Lynch said.

MK Solutions, a German manufacturing company based in Indiana, has had a few members from its team out at the library in previous weeks, making sure everything is functioning properly.

"The last month, month-and-a-half have been flawless, but these machines do mess up from time to time. You send in 10,000 pieces of material, something will get stuck along the way," Lynch said.

Patrons can help avoid machine malfunctions by sending books through the system one at a time. If they place stacks of books into the system it will pollute the sorting and increase the likelihood of jamming the equipment.

"It's been very seamless. I think our biggest problem is changing the paradigm, because for years we had people just drop the books," Lynch said. "This is different — you are checking it in."

Once the collection is converted to RFID, which Lynch estimates will be by summer, the system will truly start being a self check-in. For now, it's going through the motions.

"It's getting people in the habit of doing this," Lynch said, "There won't be a learning curve, since we've been having people doing it for months already."

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