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In the News: Billings library expands book access with outdoor kiosk

January 14th, 2022

TOM ACKERMAN, Billings Gazette, January 14, 2022

Patrons at the Billings Public Library can now pick up a book in the middle of the night, should they feel so inclined.

The library’s foundation has purchased the first of as many as three secure lockers for users to retrieve books that they’ve reserved online or by phone. The kiosk is available 24/7.

“I had seen some other libraries doing this and thought this would be something really exciting for us to try,” said Kelsie Rubich, information systems coordinator at the library. The project is the first of its kind in Montana.

The kiosk is located outside the south entrance of the library.

Organizers intend to place the second locker in the Heights and then expand to the West End and possibly Lockwood, said Rubich. The foundation has secured funds for the second unit and has begun funding for a third. The kiosks cost $100,000 each.

“We know that library users’ schedules have changed so much since the start of the pandemic, and we were eager to adapt to meet new needs and challenges,” said Gavin Woltjer, director of the library.

Patrons can place book holds on the library website or on the Montana Shared Catalog app. To open the lockers, patrons sign in with their library card and PIN number. Items will be available for pickup for seven days once they are stored in a locker.

The kiosk holds 54 lockers with as many as 20 items per locker.

The library previously offered a curbside service where they hand-delivered items to customers outside the library. The service was offered from April 2020 to June 2021, delivering over 200,000 items, said Rubich.

“The curbside model was really a way for us to continue to provide library services in the midst of so many unknowns. When COVID numbers started improve and we rolled back some of those services, we expanded open hours but we lacked the staff to do both. It’s really exciting because the lockers bring back the curbside model without negatively affecting staffing as well,” said Rubich.

Patrons checked out close to three times more materials before the pandemic than at the curbside service.

The library is now fully open again, and the kiosk was 30% full in the first week of operation.

Oscar Thomas browsed DVDs during his first visit to the library in months, but the kiosk will motivate him to visit much more frequently, he said. “It makes logical sense as the next step. The curbside service worked, and this improves on that process,” he said.

Students Blue Luther and Akela stood in line to borrow items for a school assignment they are working on together. After hearing about the kiosk, they agreed it would be a convenient solution.

“It really does make it easier because I’m one of those people who has a tight schedule, and I can’t always come in to grab my hold. Having a kiosk out there where I can just go out, grab it, and run back to my car; makes it so much easier because then I don’t have to come in, go through the paperwork, and then they have to find my book,” said Akela.

Linda Williams perused book titles with four or five books already in her hands. Browsing books is critical to her reading experience, she said, so when the inside of the library was closed for COVID, she didn’t go.

“There’s authors I’ve never heard of, there’s books I’ve never heard of, and I would’ve missed an awful lot if I didn’t just walk in here and start looking,” said Williams.

James Canty, another frequent patron, is familiar with kiosks because they are common in New York City, where he is from. He appreciates the convenience.

“Plus, a lot of times people want to read things that are private…Sometimes we still deal with the stigma of people not understanding the expansion of other people’s minds,” said Canty.

The library also offers an electronic book service, though library organizers find print books to remain an important component for Billings readers.

“We were blown away by the support of the community for this project,” said Leslie Modrow, director of the library foundation