Having just written about the impact of technocentric ignorance on the environmental movement, I feel a need to present San Francisco readers with a fascinating instance of the "infantile tenacity" of an IT project gone painfully wrong. The project is that of the new technology deployed at the Main Library branch of the San Francisco Public Library for checking in books. The basic idea is that you now put a book to be returned on a conveyor belt, which directs the book to a barcode reader, records that the book has been returned, provides you with a receipt (if you want it), and then moves the book to a back room where it is prepared for re-shelving (supposedly more efficiently, since the books can now be sorted). The system has been "running" (intentional scare quotes) for about a month, providing me with an opportunity to observe a variety of problems.
Most important is that the reader assumes that the barcode is on the outer cover of the book. While this is consistent with the current practice of adding books to the collection, many of the older books in the collection have their barcodes on the inside; so not all books can be properly processed by the system. I have been told that there is a major effort to update these old books, but I have no data on how that process is progressing. Suffice it to say that the system can "consume" a book, even if it lacks a bar code. (For a while I saw the system rejecting books by reversing the conveyor belt, but it was doing this for books where the bar code was in the right place. Since I have not seen any rejections lately, I assume that this "feature" has been removed. However, this means that the system will now accept books that are not library books, placed on the conveyor belt by mistake; and, as far as I can tell, if you make such a mistake, it may take a fair amount of time before the book gets to a human being who can return it to you.)
More interesting is the episode I experienced today. My wife had forgotten to return one of her books on time and asked me to take care of it for her. Sure enough, there is now a place where you can see a human being about paying the fine for an overdue book. What interested me from a human engineering point of view is that this site was not equipped to check in the book in order to calculate the fine. In other words you have to feed the book to the automatic system, which updates the database and then determines the amount of the fine (after which you can then go over to the fine-paying desk). This revealed two problems:
- Consistent with the preceding paragraph, the software does not always read the book properly (due, in part, to poor instructions on how to position the book on the conveyor belt); so the database may not get updated according to plan.
- I was told that my wife's record could only be consulted with her library card (and its barcode). Since we were about to leave town, I was not going to leave the Library without paying the fine and getting a receipt. This required "escalating" the problem to a supervisor who knew how to examine my wife's record, compute the fine, and provide the receipt. (It looked as if a second escalation was going to be necessary; but that "second level" was "in a meeting." Since I was trying to settle a debt on my wife's behalf, I figured I could exercise a bit of my own tenacity; and, sure enough, the supervisor had the resources to resolve the matter.)
I have now had several experiences with this technology. I have met with several people who keep assuring me that the problems are being resolved but who firmly refuse to admit that, in its current state, the technology is defective. (If it was not defective, why are problems being resolved?) Since I tend to come away from these encounters feeling as if I am the only one running afoul of this technology, I figure it is about time to suggest to any Library patrons reading this who have been "bitten" by this technology to let the Library know about it. It is not difficult. The Web site for the Library has a "Your Comments or Questions" page. I have no idea how many incidents of defective behavior arise every day; but the "party line" seems to be to persist with the new technology in the face of evidence of its defects (which, as I recall, is a working definition of psychotic behavior). Perhaps, if more of us report those incidents, the Library will return control to the human beings while the technology developers proceed with all the troubleshooting that still needs to take place.