Book-lending machines prove popular stand-in for Ottawa libraries

Aug 8 2011

By David Reevely, The Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA — In the year-and-a-half or so since book-vending machines run by the Ottawa Public Library were installed at the Hunt Club-Riverside Community Centre, the area’s councillor Maria McRae says she’s only fallen more in love with them. So much so that she says she’ll be pushing to have them installed in light-rail stations and possibly community and neighbourhood health centres — just about any public institution on a major transit line should at least be considered.

“The staff who are there all day, they’ll tell you that at least once a day, some little kid comes in dragging someone larger than them, squealing over what they might be able to get,” she said Monday. “There are nose-prints on the machines.”

The twin machines, which dispense books with the swipe of a library card, are meant to be a partial solution to a peculiar quirk: There is no library anywhere in River ward, which sprawls from Carlington in the northwest, across the Rideau River at Mooney’s Bay, all the way down to Hunt Club and the airport. Finding the right location and money in the budget has never worked out, so the kiosks were added as an experiment when the Paul Anka Drive community centre expanded. Besides their regular stock, the machines take returns (in an adjacent bin) and patrons can order books from other libraries online and have them delivered to the centre.

A full report on whether they’re doing the job is due in the fall, but McRae is already convinced. The machines are available whenever the community centre is open — libraries, especially smaller ones, have their hours limited by the significant costs of keeping them staffed. And those costs went up with the decision to add security to smaller rural branches, after a worker was sexually assaulted at the Metcalfe branch on a Monday evening in 2009.

According to library stats, the machines delivered 4,523 items between Jan. 1 and June 30 this year. In June in particular, the number went from 463 last year to 625 this year, for about 20 books going out a day. That’s a tiny fraction of what even a small library would lend out, but at a tinier fraction of the cost.

The two machines the city installed at the community centre cost $100,000 between them. The library pays to keep them stocked with popular books, to replace the tickertape that prints due-date slips (McRae says those rolls’ running out has been the only operational problem with the machines) and for a librarian to keep hours at the community centre on Monday afternoons and on Saturdays for people wanting to sign up for library cards. The new library in Greely, which opened in June and is about 3,000 square feet, cost $1.2 million to build. A larger and more urban branch, the Greenboro District Library, opened in 2006 and cost $7.7 million.

The Greenboro library on Lorry Greenberg Drive does a lot more than lend books, with a whimsical children’s section and computers and meeting rooms and a reading area with a fireplace, not to mention 150,000 items in its collection. And it serves plenty of people in McRae’s ward — the fact there’s no library specifically in River ward when there are locations just over the line makes the point a bit of a technicality — but McRae said the kiosks can be useful in lots of places.

“I’m not sure from a land perspective, there’s any place you could build [a library] anywhere in my ward,” she said. “And there’s just no way I could see council prioritizing acquiring the land and taking on the construction.”

Although these machines are believed to have been the first in Canada when they were installed in March 2010, the idea is spreading. Toronto’s library is considering adding similar kiosks to a renovated Union Station, for instance, to serve busy commuters catching trains and subways. That’s a model McRae likes.

“In our LRT tunnels, there should be these kiosks, and other ones like them, like so you can get a licence for your cat or dog, or the way you can renew your driver’s licence or your licence stickers,” she says. “There can be a little hub of these tiny-footprint machines, ready for people to use.”

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen