LONGMONT — Every year, tens of thousands of dollars of books, magazines and DVDs vanish from the Longmont Public Library, stolen by patrons who know there’s almost no chance anyone will stop them.
Frustrated by the continuing losses, library administrators are installing security cameras and an advanced electronic checkout system that can track the location of every book within the facility’s walls. A recent audit found more than 4,000 books and other items missing since 1987.
The city will spend more than $250,000 for a radio frequency identification system to track books and another $40,000 to install security
cameras in meeting rooms and outside restrooms. Officials also plan to spend $23,000 for new security gates at all library entrances.
Library administrators say the RFID system in particular will have other wide-ranging benefits for patrons, ranging from faster checkout to making more librarians available to help in selecting materials and research.
The cameras and RFID system are being installed in conjunction with a new librarywide computer system that improves the connection from circulation to purchasing and cataloging.
“When all of this comes to pass, it will be a very different library in a good way,” said longtime director Tony Brewer. “This is our year to really try to deal with all of these issues.”
Officials last year estimated that $30,000 in materials are stolen annually from the facility at 408 Kimbark St. Brewer said that’s an estimate that may be off by $10,000 either way. But a recent full inventory — the library’s first since 1987 — 4,100 items were found to be missing from library shelves, Brewer said. Those are books and videos that no one even noticed had vanished, and were on top of thefts that librarians were aware of.
One of the main problems for the library is that its security system has been shut off for about two years. Library officials silenced the system after frequent false alarms annoyed workers who wanted to be helping patrons, not policing them.
And security cameras initially installed in the library’s underground parking garage were removed several years ago because library staff didn’t have enough time to monitor them.
Brewer acknowledged that the library had deactivated the security system, and he said the cameras were removed because they provided a “false sense of security.” Video from the cameras was not being recorded, but the new ones will be connected to a digital recording system so workers can go back and figure out who caused damage.
Additionally, the library investigated purchasing three wireless cameras hidden inside fake smoke detectors. Brewer said he’s not sure if the library will buy those cameras.
The new RFID-based system will reduce the number of false alarms, Brewer said, while also allowing librarians to come out from behind the traditional circulation desk and make themselves available to patrons.
“You want your folks to help,” Brewer said. “So much of what you do in a library is dependent on people. We want to have machines do what machines do well and have people doing what only people can do well.”
The RFID tags would replace the current electromagnetic security tag system, which can’t be used on videotapes because it erases them. All 300,000 books and items at the library will have to be tagged with new sensors, which look like large stamps. That work alone will take two workers about two months, officials predict.
The RFID system would allow most patrons to check out items themselves, because tags can communicate automatically with a central computerized tracking system. It’s the same kind of technology used by many large retailers, warehouses and distribution centers to track merchandise and prevent theft.
It’s much more advanced than the current barcode checkout system and electromagnetic security tags.
Under the system envisioned by Brewer and likely to be running by this fall, library patrons would place books atop a console that would automatically communicate with the tag in the book. A receipt would be printed to remind users when the books are due.
A similar system is used at the Boulder Public Library, Brewer said, and people who have used the advanced systems love them.
Using more technology means Brewer will be able serve more customers with the same number of workers. It took the library until December 2003 to reach 1 million transactions. It took a month less in 2004, Brewer said.
“This is the direction libraries are going,” he said. “Those people who have seen these systems in other libraries are saying, ‘It’s about time.’”
Friday afternoon, no patrons were using the library’s current self-checkout system. Patron Tom Doroff and his son, Devin, 41/2, waited a few moments for a librarian to check out several books and a videotape.
Doroff said he prefers to deal with a person, but uses self-checkouts at other businesses if he has to wait in line. He said he’d never even noticed the existing self-checkout system, tucked around the corner from the sweeping main circulation desk.
“As a little boy, I always remembered the librarian smiling at me,” said Doroff, a Longmont resident. “There’s something important about a person saying ‘These are due back in three weeks.’ I always felt I was letting my librarian down if I was late with a book.”