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A high-tech way to check out; Faced with shrinking budgets, the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library has started embracing a self-checkout system that makes use of RFID technology

You can use a self-checkout aisle at some grocery stores and big-box hardware stores.

You can print out postage at home to avoid the lines at the post office, and you can use an ATM instead of waiting for a teller at the bank.

And now you can check out your own books, CDs and DVDs at the library, because self-checkout stations are coming to -- or already in place at -- your neighborhood branch.

"I think it's great. It's fast, it's efficient. And it allows the other librarians to do what they have to do," said Sverdlik Ballard, a Buffalo resident who was checking out about 30 DVDs Friday afternoon in the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library on Jefferson Avenue.

The stations rely on microchips embedded in the items, which can be read by sensors at the self-checkout and at the main entrances to the buildings.

The Buffalo & Erie County Public Library is deploying the technology to update its circulation system and to make it harder to take library materials without permission.

The new self-checkout system has been installed at 21 of the system's 37 branches so far, and officials expect every branch to have the technology by 2015 at the latest.

"With our budget situation, we really have to maximize efficiencies," said Carol A. Batt, chief operating officer for the library system.

This same technology is used today to track everything from vehicles to pets, and people are growing used to performing tasks for themselves that used to be done by an office or store employee.

The library system began putting the technology in place at its eight city branches -- not counting the Central Library -- in 2009, followed soon after by its four Amherst branches.

A state grant and an efficiency grant provided through the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority are paying for the work, which is expected to cost about $2.5 million. "No operating funding. We are bare-bones. We would not have been able to implement this without grant funding," Batt said.

In the past, if patrons wanted to check out a book or CD, they had to wait for a librarian to do it for them.

Some branches in recent years offered a different self-checkout system, which required users to scan the bar code on the item.

Further, most library branches did not have a security system to prevent theft.

Batt said she could not provide statistics on theft in the system. But she said it is not a serious concern and that the efficiency benefits of the new technology are more important than the security feature.

Still, many branches previously were forced to put DVDs and CDs in an area where patrons could not access them. This required patrons to bring browsing cards for their selections to the front desk, where a library worker would take the cards and retrieve the items.

At the West Seneca Library, workers eventually put the DVDs back out on the shelves to save time for the librarians, said Catherine Foertch, the branch's director. But they placed locks on all DVDs, which had to be unlocked at the front desk before the movie could be viewed.

System officials and branch employees wanted a system to meet circulation and security needs, and that's where the RFID technology comes in.

RFID, or radio frequency identification, relies on a tiny tag containing a microchip and an antenna implanted in or attached to whatever is being tracked.

RFID tags are used in credit cards, EZPass devices and U.S. passports. They are implanted in pets to help with identification and used in industry to track inventory. The tags store information that is revealed when they are held near, or pass through, a reader.

To set up the RFID-based tracking system at the libraries, staffers have to place a sticker containing an RFID tag on each circulating item.

At the West Seneca branch, there are about 45,000 items, and it took more than a year for library staff to tag and encode each one, work done in between regular tasks, Foertch said.

"It's still sort of new, and we're still training people, customers, to use it," she said. "Almost all of them seem to enjoy it."

Systemwide, there are 3 million circulating items, and the tagging and installation of the RFID readers won't be finished until 2014 or 2015, Batt said.

The RFID system went online at the Central Library in February and, most recently, at the Kenmore and Kenilworth branches earlier this month.

Batt said the system expects to have the technology up and running in at least three more libraries this year: Lancaster, Marilla and Julia Boyer Reinstein in Cheektowaga.

To use the self-checkouts, patrons first scan their library cards into a bar-code reader. Then they place their materials on top of a sensor pad in front of a computer monitor, and the name of each item pops up on the screen as its tag is read.

When they've finished, they choose whether to print a receipt or have one emailed to them and then grab their materials and walk out through a security gate.

If an item hasn't been properly checked out, an alarm goes off, and two small lights flash red. At the same time, library workers receive a message on their computers with the name and description of the item that hasn't been checked out or hasn't had the tag's security feature "unlocked."

"Usually it's just a mistake," said Sandra Williams Bush, branch manager of the Merriweather Library.

In interviews Friday, Merriweather patrons said they liked the RFID system, which has been in place since March 2010.

"I think it's great -- it saves time," said Eugene Hailstock, a city resident who uses the library several times a week and was checking out DVDs of criminal-investigation TV series.

Jamaica Green, 21, a Bryant & Stratton student, and Amiana Sinclair, 19, an Erie Community College student, said they don't miss having to wait in line to check out books and DVDs.

"You just put everything on [the sensor pad] and go," Green said.

Library staff says most patrons have taken to the new system. But some have told staff they worry the technology will allow the libraries to run with fewer employees, leading to layoffs.

"I just think, in general, it's taking away jobs," said Victoria Stearns, a retired librarian and Town of Tonawanda resident who regularly visits the Kenmore Public Library.

Foertch and Bush said the RFID system won't replace librarians.

"When people are doing the self-checkout, it frees up staff to do other things," said Bush, such as answering reference questions and helping users on the computers.

The efficiency of the RFID system also allows staff to get materials back on the shelves sooner, Foertch said.

Stearns laments the loss of human interaction with the rise of self-checkouts. This can be as simple, she said, as a comment from the librarian on the book she's checking out.

"With ATMs, with everything you can do by yourself, it's forcing people into no social contact," Stearns said.

But library officials say patrons still are welcome to ask staff questions.

For libraries, this could be only the beginning for RFID technology.

Batt was asked whether RFID tags implanted in the skin -- some daring early adopters have willingly undergone this procedure -- could someday replace the library card.

"We've kind of joked about that," Batt said. "Anything's possible."

email: swatson@buffnews.com