Originally Published: December 25, 2010 10 p.m.
PRESCOTT - For months, employees and volunteers at the Prescott Public Library painstakingly attached radio frequency tags to each of the 150,000 or so of the library's items.
Now the payoff: a new sorting system that reads those tags and automatically gets the checked-in books on their way to the right sections of the library.
Using an intricate system of sensors, the new sorter features a conveyor belt that moves the books from the library patrons' hands at an outside book-return receptacle through a "brain-like" computer and into the proper bins for return to the shelves.
Library officials say the new sorting system, which was up and running in early December, is saving a number of hours for the employees and volunteers.
Previously, Library Director Toni Kaus noted that returned books often piled up for hours as workers manually sorted them for return to the shelves.
Now - assuming they have the proper tags and are returned to the right book-return receptacle - the books race down the belt, make a brief stop while the computer reads the tag, and then drops into one of nine bins.
Because employees often do not have to touch the books until they return them to the shelves, Cindy Campbell, circulation director, says the new system makes for a smoother operation.
"We're handling the items less often," Campbell said. "The less we handle an item, the more efficient it is."
Not only is the system easier for the workers at the library, Kaus and Campbell stress that it is better for library patrons as well.
"With the rapidity of this, the books get on the shelves quicker," Kaus said. In addition, the items are checked in sooner - a benefit to library patrons who are returning the books on their due date.
On Wednesday morning, library volunteer Alan Perry was manning the system, quickly checking in books by loading them onto the conveyor belt. As one of the volunteers who had helped to attach the radio frequency tags to the library's items over the past year, Perry has first-hand experience of the long hours of preparation for the new system.
"This is the payoff right here," he said, pointing to the rapid check-in of the returned books.
Currently, not all of the returned books benefit from the new system. For instance, the library receives many books from other, smaller libraries in the county that do not yet have the radio frequency tags. When those books come in, they go into a separate bin, and library employees attach the tags.
Campbell pointed out that the location of the book-return receptacle also affects the efficiency of the system. If people use the book return in the alley behind the library, the books go directly into the system. But if they use the one in the parking lot off Marina Street, library employees must carry in the books and put them manually on the conveyor belt.
"We get more in the parking lot right now, and we're hoping to change that," Campbell said, adding that the library has maintained the parking-lot book return because patrons view it as more convenient.
At a cost of nearly $300,000, the new sorter is just the latest in a series of technological advances that the library has taken in recent years.
Most of that money came to the library from three sources: the Friends of the Library organization, which dedicated money to the sorting system from a bequest by former library volunteer Bess Brumbley; a Yavapai County Free Library grant; and the Prescott Library's share of the county library district's property tax.
Kaus said much of the money was "specifically earmarked for automation."
In all, Kaus estimates that the entire system, including the radio frequency tags and other preparations, cost about $500,000.
The automation has been crucial for the library in recent years as it has experienced record numbers of users and fewer staff members.
Just last week, City Manager Steve Norwood announced at a City Council meeting that the library had passed the 500,000-visitor mark for the first time.
Kaus noted that library visitor numbers have been rising each month during the current economic downturn, while the shrinking budget has resulted in about 10 percent fewer employees.
"It's lucky we had the funding to do this," Kaus said of the automation, which she said takes pressure off of the library staff.
Although the automated sorting system is new to the Prescott Library, it is not new to the area. Kaus pointed out that the Prescott Valley Library was the "groundbreaker" for the new technology in the region.