Update: Libraries without Librarians

NOTE: This article contains personal opinions and beliefs.

I have been reading the comments in my earlier “Libraries without Librarians” article at https://blog.eogn.com/2019/06/10/libraries-without-librarians/ and I believe that many of those newsletter readers have ignored a couple of basic facts when posting comments. I am moved to remind everyone of the facts that I believe are relevant.

Several people have expressed reservations about homeless people, vagrants, and other unwanted individuals having access to the unmanned library and by possible criminal activities by these individuals. Indeed, on first reading, that also was my concern. However, let’s look at the facts.

As stated in the earlier article:

“Self-service libraries are common in Europe”

“In North America, it’s still a novelty. Just five library systems — eight libraries total — have implemented it since 2016.”

“Officials at Bibliotheca, the leading company in North America that sells the required software, counts more than 750 libraries globally as users.”

The fact is that more than 750 self-service libraries are already using this business model today and are doing so successfully.

These 750+ self-service libraries obviously are not plagued with homeless people, vagrants, or criminals roaming the halls and the book stacks. In fact, while I don’t have proof, I suspect today’s self-service libraries have FEWER problems with such individuals than do today’s fully-staffed libraries.

The reason is simple: While these self-service libraries may not have employees working in the building 24 hours a day, they also ARE NOT OPEN ACCESS libraries! In short, in self-service libraries the doors are locked. Homeless people, vagrants, and would-be criminals are locked out of the building! The method of controlling access is simple.

First of all, the earlier article states:

“The setup relies on technology — via a central management system — to let people enter the library, check out items and log onto computers — all while video monitors record their actions.”

Next, to unlock the front door of a self-service library, even for a few seconds, requires a library card. While not mentioned in the above article, that library card also serves as a “key card.” In order to unlock the door, one has to use swipe that card or insert it into a slot in the door. Then the identification number of that library/key card is verified by the “central management system.”

This is the same technology that has been in use in almost all hotels and also in many ATM machines for years and this controlled access has proven to be very reliable. I believe that hotels with key card access are generally safer than today’s public libraries where anyone can walk in unchallenged whenever the library is open.

In order to obtain a library/key card, the self-service library patron must first fill out a registration form of some sort. We can assume that the process requires a permanent address of some sort (easily verified AUTOMATICALLY online within in a few seconds by computer-to-computer access to any of today’s credit reporting agencies) and perhaps by requiring the number of a credit card (in order to pay future fines in case of a late return of the borrowed materials) or by a scanned image of a driver’s license or by whatever form of proof the library decides upon using. The typical homeless person, vagrant, or criminal either will not have this information or else will not be willing to record this information in a computer database.

Next, every time a library/access card is used, the identification number of that card and the date/time of its use is recorded, along with a recorded videotape of person’s activities entering, leaving, or wandering through the library. If any homeless person, vagrant, or criminal is found to ever access the library fraudulently by using a stolen card or by providing falsified information during registration, that card’s privileges can be deleted within seconds by library personnel. The person who gains unauthorized access one time will then not have access again.

Don’t forget that “… to let people enter the library, check out items and log onto computers — all while video monitors record their actions.” That means that the person using a stolen or falsified library/access card can easily be identified and that library/access card’s access privileges can be removed immediately, if necessary.

In short, I believe use of technology in an “unmanned library” will result in FEWER problems than is found in today’s “open access libraries” where ANYONE may walk in at any time the library is open.

Will it be a perfect solution? No. Nothing is ever perfect. But I do believe it will result in FEWER problems than is found in today’s open access libraries. I will settle for an improvement, even if it isn’t perfect.

In order to increase my own security, I would PREFER to use a library where access to the building is controlled by the use of high-tech access methods with access restricted to only identified individuals.


Horrors! God forbid that homeless people might touch our books.:(

Liked by 1 person

Sounds like this could solve some county/city budget problems by having fewer staff to pay salaries and pensions to; but then a lot of librarians will be out of a job! In these fully automated libraries, who cleans, and reshelves the books, DVDs, newspapers, etc? Seems like there would have to be a huge IT department to keep track and repair all the technology. Systems go down, computers freeze, etc. So it can solve some problems, but adds others


    Those tasks are not performed by librarians, but by library support staff who can certainly visit the locations for the routine things listed. It seems to me that this model frees librarians to do the work they are trained to do–reference services, collection development, cataloging, supervision, community outreach, etc. and permits the library to be available over longer hours. With fewer staff overall, they can be used more efficiently.


I hope I never live in a country where being homeless or not having a credit card number to provide keeps people from public libraries. Or even having a criminal past but paid the price and turned their lives around. People should be judged by their behavior, not their circumstances. Our American free public library system, staffed by knowledgeable librarians, is one of the glories of our nation. Some communities may require a guard to monitor inappropriate behavior but blanket exclusion is a repellent idea.

Liked by 4 people

    —> I hope I never live in a country where being homeless or not having a credit card number to provide keeps people from public libraries.

    I agree with you. However, I don’t see anything in the above article or anything in other documents that I have read that would suggest that any of this will keep any people from public libraries. It will, however, restrict the access during the off hours when the library is unmanned.

    I do believe the controls in place will keep UNAUTHORIZED people away from the libraries WHEN THOSE LIBRARIES ARE UNMANNED, such as at 3 AM or on a Sunday evening. However, I suspect that anyone and everyone will be able to use each library’s facilities during the hours the facility is open to the public, whether each individual possesses a credit card or not.

    In other words, every library will operate in exactly the same manner as today by serving the general public plus each library will also be open even more hours to a restricted number of people when the libraries of today are normally closed.

    I suspect that, as manpower is reduced, most libraries will be open to the general public fewer hours. For instance, I suspect most taxpayer-funded libraries will not be open to the general public on weekends or in the evenings. However, I also suspect that nearly all of these libraries will be open to the general public and especially to out-of-town visitors some number of hours every week by being staffed by a smaller crew of employees. That’s close to the same business model as most libraries follow today.

    Costs to the taxpayers will be reduced and being open to the public undoubtedly will inconvenience some of today’s customers, including inconveniencing the homeless vagrants. However, the benefits include being available for MORE HOURS than today to each library’s best customers: local citizens who have library cards and also whatever form of documentation as required by that library. Even better, these “best customers” will undoubtedly be exposed to fewer unpleasant situations. Security will be improved over what it is today, especially in big city libraries.

    If I am one of the people who has a library/key card, I might PREFER to visit the library during off hours when there is less risk of unpleasant activities.

    Next, the number of employees on staff will never be zero. I can envision all taxpayer-funded libraries always trying to reduce the number of staff members (as they do today) but there will always be a need for some number of information experts in order to assist library visitors and to answer questions. Those information experts might be physically located inside the building or they might be remote, sitting at a desk a few thousand miles away. Either way, these staff members must be available to the libraries’ patrons.

    The library will also still have some needs for administrative personnel, janitorial staff, and some other non-librarian employees. However, the total number of staff members required undoubtedly will be less than what is needed today to run a library.


    In many communities the public libraries have been underfunded for years, leading to difficulty keeping collections up to date, short-staffing, reduced hours of operation and even total closure of some branches. The article makes it sound as if some localities that are served by library system with multiple branches may be operating one main central branch that is fully staffed and open to the general public in the traditional manner, while using this system for the smaller branches that might otherwise be forced to close. If so, I think that is an infinitely preferable solution to seeing the local branch permanently closed and having to travel 10-20 miles to the main branch in order to borrow a book or access the library’s on-line research resources, especially for those who are too old or too young or too poor to drive.


This would work for a small group of patrons but not the majority. I worked in a public library in a large urban area for 17 years. The vast majority of our patrons needed more help from staff than we could provide in our understaffed branches. There is still a large population of people who are computer illiterate and are becoming marginalized because they can’t email, can’t fill out applications, can’t look for jobs, can’t get government assistance, can’t register to vote or even access paychecks with out help. This also applies to the increasing immigrant population with limit English and at sea in a new world. Unstaffed libraries can be one spoke in the wheel along with book vending machines, bookmobiles, self-check and digital reference. But the hub still needs to be a location staffed by caring humans.
Libraries are community living rooms open to all.
I agree totally with Andrew Carnegie—

“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”
― Andrew Carnegie

Liked by 2 people

Librarians help patrons do so many things! I shudder at the thought of not having their expertise and assistance


Dick, this concept misses the fact that libraries of today are about community. The welcoming face and knowledge of the librarian are a big part of that. There are numerous activities for kids and crafts for adults happening there. People access the internet who don’t have service at home and often need help, as do those who come to use the computers for other tasks. The library has become the town square and the librarian is the facilitator.


Dick, I have been a follower of yours from back in the “early internet days” of the 90’s, and as a working IT person, I understand and appreciate the technology of it all. BUT as a 60+ year old female, I would never patronize an unstaffed library alone in the evening! Just because an individual has the necessary identification to acquire a key card for access, it doesn’t mean that individual has good intentions. Unfortunately, this is something a woman must consider, like it or not. I love my library, and wouldn’t deny access to anyone, especially to those who need those resources for education, or to find employment or a place to stay. But this is not something I would patronize.

Liked by 1 person

Well, that would not be a public library model. With a public library, all members of the public are allowed to use it. It sounds more like what you describe would be a private library or a business library model. Those also exist here in the United States, and there is a daily fee to use them (or an annual membership fee). The Morgan Library in NYC for example charges $22.00 per day to use the library, and you need to demonstrate to them a legitimate research need in order to be allowed entry. We do also have a system of private membership libraries in the United States in addition to public libraries. What that article does not really explain is that Europe does not really have a system of free public libraries like you would find in the United States. With Europe you are talking about university libraries and private libraries, and that is why they are set-up like that. All of those Carnegie libraries resulted in an uniquely American public library institution. So it is not as if genealogists can just go into and use those European libraries that you describe for free to do their genealogy research or find a genealogy collection inside of them.


    Suzanne, In my country years ago we didn’t have public libraries as we do in the US. That is why the Carnegie, Pillsbury and others like them were such a gift.
    But times have changed. We now have public libraries funded by tax dollars as in the US that function in the same manner, with library cards required to check out books as in the US.
    In my town the library has an after hours open library program that has been very successful. It has expanded access to the library for many residents who use it on evenings and weekends.


    I can assure you that Europe most certainly does have public libraries! Certainly here in Britain we have an extensive networks of public libraries funded by local councils, but over the past few years the reduction in council funding as a result of central government policies has caused many councils to have to look long and hard at how they continue to provide services. I’m sure they would love to be able to continue to offer staffed access seven days a week, but the money is no longer there! The compromise has been to provide some staffed daytime and early evening access so the people can seek the expert of advice of librarians, but to supplement those staffed hours with the open access hours. The council has also tried to ensure that where libraries are relatively close together, they are staffed on different days to ensure that people have access to librarians even if they need to make a short journey to do so.
    For those registered for open access, the scheme has actually resulted in extended hours, as previously it would have been impossible to call into the library at 8 in the morning on the way to college or work. The library service also makes it clear that community groups such as book clubs etc are still welcome to use the library when it is unstaffed.


    Please read the first paragraph of this article. The USA is not the only place Andrew Carnegie donated money to for libraries.



    I was recently surprised to hear some genealogists in Scotland mourning the loss of their local libraries. They explained that a number of rural councils were so financially strapped that they had converted their Carnegie library buildings from libraries to community centers furnishing day care, after school programs, meeting rooms, social services assessments, etc. The problem seems to have something tto do with the effects of the austerity budgets passed by Parliament in London on the formula for income tax revenue sharing with the governments of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, coupled with mandates the local councils are required to fund from local property taxes. Libraries appear to be optional, so their funding seems to be limited to what is left over after all the mandated expenses are paid, and that’s apparently not always enough to keep the doors open.


At the risk of generating ‘eyerolls’, it’s way past time to adopt gender neutral language and abandon ‘unmanned’ —- try ‘unstaffed’ – at the very least, that’s accurate since more than 80% of staff in the library profession is female, as you’ve probably noticed. Thank you for supporting the noble mission of libraries.


I live in St. Louis Missouri. The public library in St. Louis city has a great genealogy department. Unfortunately, it also has a big problem with homeless people hanging out there during operating hours. They have created a big problem with theft and harassment of patrons. Because of this fact many people, including myself, avoid using the library at all. I have not been down there in many years because it is not safe to be there.


Boy, I missed a lot. Forgot to sign up for comment notification.
I live in Europe. My town’s library has an Open Library program. It works very well.
The library is open and staffed as always during normal business hours. But patrons who go through a fifteen minute training are able to use the library after hours until ten pm. This is great for people who are working during the day.
You use your library card and a PIN to open the door. You sign an agreement that only you will enter on that card.
We are required to enter an emergency number on our mobile phones (flip or smart, no matter) so we can call for help should there be an emercency. We have a little machine (that I don’t always understand very well) to check books in and out. Offices and some other areas are locked and inaccessible.
In the US people worry about the homeless. Here we have a home-grown group which rattles the cages of some. They have not been a problem. At all.
They also got rid of overdue fines a few months ago.
The result has been greater use of the library’s facilities by tax payers.
One other thing I LOVE is that I can go anywhere in the country and borrow or return books on my local card. The library system is funded and run federally which enables this plus. .


Ah, a bit of knowledge and common sense. Technology bothers us, yet all of us have it on our persons, in our cars, and at home. And use it every day and don’t think about it. This is just another way to streamline processes and save money. True, it’s not for everyone. We can probably write off anyone over 30 from using this. But it makes sense, and is as safe as using an ATM late at night with no one around.
What I see is the ability to provide access to satellite library branches throughout our cities and rural areas that aren’t reached now. Our city has nine libraries, but more “branches” would allow those without access to the current ones to enjoy what others take for granted. This is particularly true in minority areas.
As for the threat from homeless people. Please!!! Yes, it’s a growing number (500,000+ nationally live on the streets). But I challenge anyone to serve meals at a homeless shelter. Get to know them, and especially why they’re there. Learn about the problems and solutions. You’ll be surprised, and perhaps want to volunteer to help them, rather than painting them as criminals ready to attack you at the library.
Libraries bring knowledge and entertainment to folks. Wouldn’t it be nice to provide this 24/7?


    Not everyone. I’m 71, my husband 73. We are regular users of our local library’s open library evenings and weekends.


    ” We can probably write off anyone over 30 from using this. ”
    Wow, really??? I’m going to be 65 this year and I’m more tech savvy than either of my children!! I embrace technology whenever I can. But again, yours is a male point of view that completely ignores the safety perspective that women must deal with on a DAILY basis; “and is as safe as using an ATM late at night with no one around.” Maybe that scenario is safe for you, but not for me. Do I think the homeless are going to attack me in the library in this kind of after hours scenario…no. Can I be sure that no one else will if I’m there alone until 9 or 10 PM…also no. It’s a great idea, and one that will probably work well in many places for many people, but there are also many of us that wouldn’t use it for safety reasons. Unfortunately, that’s our reality.


I have some practical questions about how this could work. Since we are genealogists and the family history departments have been mentioned, how would we protect/safeguard the many items in a family history department from theft? Many, many books or other related items are one of a kind that may only be available in the local area. There are many “regular” people that seem to think it is okay to cut photos of their relatives out of yearbooks because they are THEIR relatives. Someone will want to look longer and intend to “just borrow” that reference only single copy of an 1855 book about the journey of Schuyler Colfax across the US (as an example) – but it never comes back. If the latest novel has a missing copy the library can buy more, but the family history departments have irreplaceable pieces of local history. Our local family history department is not open on Sunday despite the rest of the main library being open and there have been many times that I would have liked to research on Sunday, but the idea of having it open without staff would diminish the value of this department. It is not about finding your favorite author alphabetically or that “how to” book using the Dewey Decimal order. Patrons often rely on the librarian to guide them to the books, microfilm, database, or special collections that might hold the answers they seek. The wealth of knowledge of family history librarians is amazing . . . and valuable.


    —> how would we protect/safeguard the many items in a family history department from theft?

    In the same manner as those materials are handled today: Any item of value would never be left unattended. That’s true today in 99.999% of all libraries and I see no reason to change that. Original documents would be locked up someplace but copies or digital images of them could be made available. I believe that is the same method that is used in most libraries today.

    —> There are many “regular” people that seem to think it is okay to cut photos of their relatives out of yearbooks because they are THEIR relatives. Someone will want to look longer and intend to “just borrow” that reference only single copy of an 1855 book about the journey of Schuyler Colfax across the US (as an example) – but it never comes back.

    That happens often in today’s libraries but should never happen in an unattended library that requires library/key cards for access and that is backed up by video security cameras. Library customers would never have direct access to such materials without being identified first before being given access to the building and then having an image recorded of the material cover, a record of the item being removed, and probably even an image of the person, before the item is released into their possession. That should reduce the current problems of deliberate damage or theft of the materials.

    —> If the latest novel has a missing copy the library can buy more, but the family history departments have irreplaceable pieces of local history.

    This should be handled in the same manner as those materials are handled today.

    Today, most libraries do not allow one-of-a-kind genealogy books to be checked out and removed from the premises. (There are a very few libraries that are exceptions.) These books and other materials are referred to as “non-circulating materials.” The same should be true in libraries without librarians on the premises. “Non-circulating materials” will not be allowed to be checked out and removed from the building, the same as is true for most libraries today.

    —> Patrons often rely on the librarian to guide them to the books, microfilm, database, or special collections that might hold the answers they seek.

    This will be handled in the same manner as today although with one significant difference. Librarians would still be available but probably would not be physically in the building. They might be at the main library downtown or in a central location several thousand miles away. I suppose they might even be “working from home” although I am not sure how effective that would be nor if it would reduce operating expenses. I will defer to professional librarians fro their opinions on that. Today’s technology makes all that simple. Don’t forget that more than 750 libraries are already in operation today with that process and apparently those libraries are working well and are serving their patrons (customers).


    Dick, many library systems, post- Patriot Act no longer keep records of patron checkouts and we sure aren’t pointing cameras in the direction of patrons in a way that could identify what they are looking at online, reading or carrying around. The ALA frowns on that kind of invasion of privacy and it would harm the trust that patrons have in libraries as a space in which it is safe to, for example, look up an embarrassing medical problem, browse books on divorce or abuse. Us library types tend to be hesitant to enter the “big brother” arena of surveillance.


The Downtown Dallas Public Library houses the genealogy department for the city system. If you want to do genealogy research, that is where you must go. The materials there are not in circulation. You do not need a library card to enter. You only need a card to check out books. It is open until 8 pm 3 nights a week. There is a “guard” at a desk at the parking garage entry which also has metal detectors. I think there are one or more “guards” floating around the 8 floors of the library. They deal with situations that get out of hand.
For the most part, the library is pretty safe although Dallas is notorious for not reporting crimes. (We had a serial killer roaming the area for over 2 years before we heard about him. And he murdered one of my friends in her home near me.) Anyway, we genealogy buffs share the library with the homeless who have found it a nice place to sit and wander. As long as they are awake, not making a lot of noise, not caught stealing or panhandling or touching actual patrons of the library, they are there. I don’t see any reading. I don’t even see them using the computers they are often in front of. Sometimes, they ask me bogus questions. I just keep sending them to the librarians who are wonderful. They know the department and really help the patrons. But they do spend time trying to protect us as well. I have been asked to move so that I can be in their line of sight. And, now their desk has been moved out of the department into the foyer in front of the elevators. It is actually a little fortress of its own. So we patrons spend much of our valuable research time carrying everything with us as we search the shelves and keeping our eyes half on what we came for and half on what is going on around us. Often, we come in pairs or groups. There are some very expensive books on the shelves. I know of one set of 4 which costs about $1500. Fortunately, they are not at risk to the homeless. Unfortunately, as long as there is an ACLU, all the computers and technology in the world will not keep the DPL from being a day shelter for the homeless instead of a dedicated library which more people would use if they were not so intimidated.


Hi Dick, I can see where this could work, but I still have reservations. I work in a public library, and people do not always behave even when they know they’re being observed. Not long ago two patrons got into a fist fight over some issue with the computers. This was during the day in a nice library which was fully staffed. What would happen if this occurred when no one was there to break it up? An unlikely circumstance I know, but still . . . I like the idea of self service libraries – auto vending machines etc. but I’m not so sure about this.


    I don’t have a quick answer for this other than to say that unattended libraries have been operational in several countries for several years, including a handful of libraries in the U.S. So far, I haven’t heard of any significant problems with them. I’m not saying there weren’t any problems, only that there weren’t any significant enough to make the national news.


    I live in a relatively small country where everybody knows everybody, much like th U S area I left. To be honest, the people in both areas most likely to engage in fisticuffs are the least likely to have library cards. The security phone number is programmed into our phones as part of the training, plus it’s posted. Prominently at the entrance.

    I was there last night, finding and checking out a book after hours. I still much prefer doing that check out with librarians, though.

    On 17/08/2019, Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter


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