They're pretty hard to miss when you walk in the front doors of the Lake Oswego Public Library: three new computer terminals line the left side of the lobby, with giant touchscreens and glass platforms that glow a bright green.
The futuristic-looking kiosks — along with two more in the basement and on the second floor — are the library's new self-checkout machines, and their installation is one of the final steps in a months-long process to convert all of the library's books and systems to modern Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology.
"We're really excited to finally offer this to the community," says Melissa Kelly, the library's circulation manager.
Every book in the Clackamas County library system has been outfitted with a passive RFID tag inside the cover that can be read by the new machines. But unlike their barcode predecessors, RFID tags can be scanned through closed book covers and across short distances — which means an entire stack of books can be checked out in an instant, just by placing them on the counter and sliding them under the scanner.
Kelly says the addition of the RFID system brings the library in line with many other library systems throughout the country that have implemented the technology in the past five years. The idea is to allow customers to move through the checkout process much more quickly, eliminating the long lines that often form during the library's busier hours.
"That's really the goal," she says. "In the past, we've had some really long lines — it's like the grocery store."
The terminals are the most eye-catching additions to the lobby, but they're just one piece of a bigger renovation project that the library has undergone this year. Visitors in the lobby will also notice new carpeting, light fixtures and front desk, as well as publicly accessible shelves behind the desk that let visitors grab their own reserved books and take them to the scanner.
Kelly served as the project manager for the remodel, and she says all of these efficiency gains have raised concerns and led to questions from visitors about whether the library is preparing to cut its staff. But she says that's not the intent at all — the remodel is about freeing staff up to be able to help more customers elsewhere in the library.
"There are so many other projects," she says. "Checking things out is just a small part of what we do."
The new front desk emphasizes that change. The old one was only accessible from the workroom, leaving staff boxed in at the head of the checkout line. But the new desk is free-standing and open on either side, allowing staff to quickly move in and out while assisting customers.
"It's really cool — I feel like there's more enthusiasm now that we can be out here," Kelly says. "And the feedback has been really positive."
All the front-end changes are enough to make a big impression, but the biggest improvements have actually taken place behind the scenes. The library's workroom has been completely rebuilt with new flooring, lighting, paint, cabinets and furniture. It's also been reconfigured, with new interior walls to create offices, additional cubicle workstations and a storage room.
"We're really happy with it — it's the exact same space, but utilized much more efficiently," Kelly says. "Before, everything was full and we couldn't find places for things as easily."
The overhaul was substantial, but a few things stuck around. The gypcrete floor had been worn down by the weight of heavy book carts moving back and forth, so the plan was to replace it entirely, but Kelly says once crews began to jackhammer the floor apart, they found that some sections were still in good condition and opted to preserve them. They also reconfigured the building's old HVAC system instead of replacing it.
"We didn't want to get rid of stuff that worked and was in good condition," she says.
The new scanning kiosks were only turned on last week, but staff members have had a few months to settle back into their workroom. That came as a relief after four months of squeezing into a makeshift front desk area in the periodicals section. The configuration was cramped, but it allowed the library to stay open for nearly the entire construction period.
"We had to completely move out (of the workroom)," Kelly says. "The patrons were so accommodating for us."
One major feature of the upgrade is still to come: a high-tech sorting machine for the workroom. The machine will be able to collect all the books from the library's three drop-off slots and use a series of multi-directional conveyor belts to sort them into a dozen different bins based on their RFID tags.
The machine, which had to be custom-built to fit into the library's remodeled space, is currently still being manufactured. It is scheduled to arrive in September or October.