A Facebook post from my former university's Information Services got me thinking: it's coming up to 20 years since I graduated from Aberystwyth University. I'd worked towards my degree in Information and Library Studies, with my undergraduate dissertation looking at the increased use of automated systems in libraries.

Now, then, seems to be a good time to look back at what things were like then, how I got interested and involved in them, and how things have progressed since then.

From the beginning...

I may not be involved with libraries or library systems now as I have been in the past but, as a young child, I really loved visiting the library. My local library was a Berkshire County Council small village branch library which is still there now, although the surrounding village is much larger today. I found a plan of the library on the council's website and even today, 25-30 years on, it looks like the layout is exactly the same.

Every Thursday, as well as being fascinated by the books, I'd look in wonder at the wooden boxes full of borrowing tickets, the Prestel terminal in the corner, later the CD-ROM and library catalogue computers, and the Telex and fax machines behind the counter. I guess this was my first link between libraries and technology.

I think I was in year 9 of secondary school when a new school librarian started, and I just asked if I could help. Amazingly, that led to me helping out pretty much every break and lunchtime right through until I left sixth form.

As part of my time there, there was a project to automate the library, from using the old ticket-based borrowing system, to using the Softlink Alice library software, and I was one of the three main people who got the 10,000-item inventory catalogued over a two-week period.

From there, I applied for, and was accepted on to, a library undergraduate course at Aberystwyth.

What to write about?

A 3M SelfCheck terminal on the counter of the Hugh Owen Library, Aberystwyth University, 29 April 2003.
The Self-Issue terminal, Hugh Owen Library,
Aberystwyth University, 29 April 2003.

When it came to choosing a dissertation topic, self-service systems in academic libraries were starting to become more common and they had piqued my interest. Aber had just installed two terminals then, over the summer of 2002, I was on a six-week work placement at the Reading University Library. My placement coincided with the arrival of their first self-checkout terminal, a 3M SelfCheck 6210, the same as in Aber.

I also remember that summer, as I was keeping track of an old school friend, Becky, who was competing at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester and went on to win two golds in the 400m and 800m freestyle swimming.

The Self-Issue Terminal pre-installation at Reading University Library. 28 August 2002.
The Self-Issue Terminal pre-installation at
Reading University Library. 28 August 2002.

The SelfCheck had been delivered and was pretty much box-fresh; it had been set up and connected to the library system, Sirsi Unicorn, but that was about it. Everything else was the default factory setup - including American phrases in the user interface. It was my job to get it ready for service: updating the text strings for the interface and printed receipt, train other library staff, and work on marketing materials to promote it.

The poster design used to promote Reading University Library's self-issue terminal. The heading reads "With the Self-Issue Terminal, there's no hanging around at the Issue Desk".

Along with a member of staff, we came up with the idea of using the self-service terminal as being the 'wise' choice, with a clipart owl as our mascot. Using self-service, we said, meant more time enjoying yourself, reading the books, even sleeping. We created posters, bookmarks, even designing and replacing the generic cardboard surround that was attached to the monitor with the help of the on-campus printing services.

So, when it came to writing my dissertation, self-service was a topic I'd gotten to know reasonably well. Besides a study of self-service systems as part of the SELF project in 1996/97, and a few papers on the experiences of early adopters, there wasn't really that much research to work with, and I relied heavily on my own experiences, research, and the various pieces of marketing materials that were available.

Robo-Librarian Strikes Again

The term 'robo-librarian' got stuck in my mind after reading a BBC News article featuring a New Zealand company's product that automatically called borrowers with overdue loans, or when reservations had become available. I note one comment in the article reads:

However, one regular library user told BBC News Online they would not welcome being called by a computer: "It's too impersonal. I'm used to being sent email by a computer but being spoken to by a computer is different."

I guess nothing changes.

The main things I were interested in were whether people would choose self-service over a manned circulation desk, thoughts about job security, and the security of the system itself. Back then, borrowing statistics in Aber showed that 19% of loans were made using self-service; I would be very surprised if that statistic hasn't at least reversed with less than 19% being made at the service desk.

Barcode fraud

Barcode fraud - fooling the system in to either checking out a different item, or even checking out against someone else's account, had been mentioned in a Loughborough University article in 2001, as well as the SELF project. Here, people were photocopying the barcode of another book, placing the photocopy over the barcode of the book they wanted to take, then 'returning' the decoy item.

At the time, I think it was at Reading, may have been Aber too, PINs weren't used to secure borrower accounts for self-checkout and you just needed your library card. Besides the obvious risk of using a stolen card, a photocopied card would work just as well, as would a barcode produced by online barcode generator sites. I remember testing that in front of a member of library staff who was surprised that it worked.

I find it interesting, therefore, that when you find instructional videos made by universities about how to use their self-issue systems today, a library card is all you need. Although some, like Aberystwyth, now use NFC/RFID cards, many still use barcodes on their cards. Maybe it didn't turn out to be such a big deal after all, or PINs were more of a headache to manage than barcode fraud was an issue. (Aberystwyth; St Hugh's, Oxford; Cambridge MMLL; Tallinn).

Writing my diss

The worst thing that could possibly happen to a final year student in the final stages of the course happened to me during the Easter break, literally a few weeks before it was due to be submitted. Somehow my dissertation file had gotten corrupted... and I didn't have a backup. I spent the last week of the Easter vacation holed up in my parent's spare room re-writing the thing from scratch. Thankfully, I still had my bibliography that was stored in EndNote, and a stack of photocopied, downloaded, and book resources.

Reading back through my dissertation, not only am I surprised that I managed to rewrite that much in such a short space of time, I do see parts I could've written so much more and much better. If you really, really want to read it, you can download it here.


When I was looking around at modern-day self-service systems, it struck me that none of them were 3M branded. It turns out that 3M had sold its Library Systems businesses in 2015 to the private equity company One Equity Partners and their Bibliotheca investment, where the SelfCheck name lives on.

The new machines - from Bibliotheca and others - are a much more stylish design. Even in 2003, the chunkiness of the 6210 unit was a turn-off for potential buyers. Now, the machines are slim, chic, even glowing monoliths that offer much faster circulation through the use of RFID.

Although RFID technology was an available option 20 years ago, it now appears to be more like the standard over, maybe in addition to, barcode technology. The videos I linked to earlier, such as this one from Aberystwyth, shows just how quickly books get checked out given a much easier, quicker and user-friendly experience for library users. No lining up barcodes, or scanning books one at a time, just tap your library card, put the books on a pad, and a couple of seconds later you're ready to go.

Dare I say, though, that even the new SelfCheck 1000 unit looks less aesthetically pleasing than rival units from 2CQR, the former still having a utilitarian look about them. I think it's the blocky stack on the right-hand side that's making me think of the library coin-operated photocopier posts, just with a big screen bolted on to the side.

A modern-day Bibliotheca SelfCheck 1000 unit on the left, with the Lyngsoe 2CQR Phoenix Cash machine on the right.
A modern-day Bibliotheca SelfCheck 1000 unit on the left, with the Lyngsoe 2CQR Phoenix Cash machine on the right.
Images: Bibliotheca; Lyngsoe.

I haven't worked in a library since 2005, but I still make use of library software today. From when I wanted to digitise a DVD rental service, to managing my personal collections, I turned to the open-source Koha platform. As well as being free, it offers full flexibility in how it works and behaves and just worked. Although many have now been moved to storage, all my fiction books were shelved alphabetically by author, and my non-fiction by Dewey Decimal. Because, why not?

Anyway, I've enjoyed looking back at my dissertation and the work - and panic - that went in to writing it, and the changes that have gone on in the library world. Maybe I'll do another retrospective some day.