A Proposal to Study Public Library Borrowers' Experiences With
& Attitudes Toward Self-Checkout Systems

Student Showcase | SLIS | University of Alberta

Literature Review


While there is literature that discusses self-checkout within Library and Information Studies, this varies greatly in its approach. There is little structured research and much of what is written on the implementation and use of self-checkout within libraries is based on opinion or library statistics. Another group of library literature tends to group self-checkout with the broader category of self-service in general; overall, while library literature is usually sensitive to some aspects of user-friendliness regarding self-checkout or other self-service technologies, the main focus is often on implementation and library benefits (e.g. saving cost and staff time) with little attention paid to monitoring patron needs.

Another area which deals quite extensively with self-checkout is the field of business and marketing in the service-industry sector. However, again, while there does appear to be a larger body of research surrounding self-checkout in this area than in library literature, it is usually within the larger context of self-service technologies and self-service consumers. As is true with library literature, credible, well-designed research is rare while opinion pieces and statistics taken out of context is rampant. More so than library literature, business literature on self-checkout or self-service technologies focuses on the business gain and little attention is paid to the experiences of the consumers.

Libraries & Self-Service

Much of the Library and Information Studies literature gives at least a brief history of self-service in libraries as a way of placing self-checkout within a long tradition of evolution and innovations in the move toward self-service. These articles often refer to the move from closed to open stacks, the move from Browne cards to computers for recording patron information and withdrawls, and, more recently in the history of libraries, the move from library staff control to patron control over patron information, placing holds, and renewal of materials; even online public access catalogues are cited as markers of successful implementations of patron self-service (Helmick 1992; McLeod 1996; Morrow 1997; Stoker 1993).

Many of these same articles point to the growing trend in self-service across many service sectors and use this observation as an argument for increased self-service in libraries as well (McDonough 2004; McLeod 1996; Peterson 2004).

Libraries & Self-Checkout


There is little in the way of well-designed, credible research done on patrons and library self-checkout. The best example of this is a study done in 1998 by Robert F. Carey and Lynne McKechnie. This is a quantitative study done in a medium-sized library in Ontario that set out to determine if there were marked differences in variables such as gender, age, or familiarity with computers between users who used the self-checkout system at the library and those who preferred to use the traditional circulation desk for checking out materials. The study drew upon research done in marketing and banking to also determine if users who typically used self-service systems in other sectors used the library self-checkout stations.

The researchers used a "disproportionate, stratified random sampling" to select forty self-checkout users and forty users of the traditional checkout system (119). One of the researchers was stationed near the library exit and asked every tenth user of the traditional system and every third user of the self-checkout system to complete a questionnaire. There were two questionnaires designed for the study, one for each user group. Both groups were asked similar questions regarding their frequency of library use, their familiarity with computers, and were asked to rate the importance of variables such as privacy, independence and speed with regards to the circulation transaction.

The researchers found no significant differences between those who used the self-checkout and those who did not with regards to age, computer use, gender or frequency of library use. They did find that those users who preferred to use an automatic banking machine were more likely to use the library's self-checkout system. The researchers found that the "strongest significant variable" associated with the use of self-checkout was staff encouragement but also noted that users who preferred the traditional circulation desk indicated that they did so because they preferred the human contact (120).

In analyzing their data, the researchers make speculations with regards to some of the data they collected; in particular, with regards to how patrons rated variables like privacy, speed, etc. associated with checking out materials. The researchers use speculative phrases like, the "respondents may perceive" or that "it may be that library patrons ... ," without being able to refer to any of the respondents' actual experiences or thoughts (122). This lack of a patron voice is an area upon which more research with a qualitative approach should be focused.

There are other articles which are not based upon rigorous research methods or design but use, rather, a mixture of library circulation statistics and comments they have had from patrons to measure the success and reception of self-checkout systems in their libraries. For example, in Donald S. Leslie's article from 1993, "Patron Power," he is writing to promote a security-enhanced self-checkout terminal from 3M. Under "Test Site: Wilson Library," Leslie describes the implementation of the terminal in an academic library but describes the success of the system in terms of the number of items checked out within the first three weeks of the trial and then follows this up with comments from the head of circulation desk services repeating reactions from patrons (32). This article, along with others in a similar vein (McDonough 2004; Morrow 1997; Williams 1990), is argument enough for libraries' need to employ well-designed, rigorous research on innovations like self-checkout with transferable findings that can be applied in other library situations. Furthermore, while the need for some quantitative measure (statistics) seems understood from these articles, the passive gathering of perceived patron reactions in the form of comments denotes a misunderstanding of the need for qualitative studies that validate patron experience and allow the patron a voice.


As mentioned previously, much of the library literature surrounding self-checkout in libraries are opinion pieces from those who work in libraries. These pieces tend to fall into two camps: self-checkout is bad versus self-checkout is good.

In 2004, John N. Berry III, editor of Library Journal, wrote an editorial expressing his view that "the rush to self-service, the current fad of library administrators, is robbing libraries of one of their unique and very important qualities ... the guarantee that when patrons use a library, they will be afforded human interaction with people who are smiling, like their jobs, and know they are there to help" (10). In a subsequent issue of Library Journal, a letter from Sandy Ashworth (2004) agrees with Berry. The value of Berry's editorial, and of those that support his argument, is that it does present personal experiences and feelings about self-checkout in libraries; it also, however, displays a need for further qualitative research to determine real patron experiences.

Those opinion pieces in favour of self-checkout and self-service technologies are much like Berry's editorial but they express a viewpoint that patrons want self-service options and that patrons should have a choice between traditional systems or self-service (Jenkins 2004; McDonough 2004; Peterson 2004; Stoker 1993). Again, these pieces reveal the need for credible qualitative research to determine patron experiences.

Business & Self-Service


Interestingly, much of the business literature dealing with self-checkout and self-service more generally, mirrors how library literature around the topic has been taking shape. The main difference is that, because motivation for businesses to encourage use of self-service derives primarily from monetary sources, there is a greater emphasis on encouraging consumer use without concern for consumer experience. Most of these studies are also quantitative in approach. For example, Bateson's groundbreaking study in 1985, set out to determine how customers make choices when offered traditional forms of service and an option of self-service. He began with a qualitative study to determine variables that were important in these choices and found "dimensions used by consumers that transcended any of the specific services discussed" including time (time-consumption), control (respondents needed to feel in control when receiving a service), effort (more participative services required effort), dependence (reaction against feeling dependent on others to provide service), efficiency, human contact, and risk (psycho-social, financial, performance) (51). These variables were reworked and used in Carey and McKechnie's 1998 study.

In the quantitative portion of his study, Bateson used a mail-out questionnaire and determined that those customers who used self-service in one service area were more likely to use that option in another area.

Bateson's study was well designed and presented in a detailed manner. There were some aspects if his study that would reduce its credibility today (e.g. he did not define "white collar workers" and "blue collar workers," the two groups he recruited for two separate focus groups). However, his study is still important today and could be a starting-point for further qualitative research, as well, regarding how customers make choices and how they use self-service technologies.

Another well-designed and well-done study was McPhail and Fogerty's 2004 study of mature Australian consumers' use of self-service in banking. Like Bateson, these researchers began with a qualitative study to develop a questionnaire for a quantitative study, the results of which the paper was primarily displaying. By focusing on people over 50 years of age, they were able to zero in on a particular demographic which has not been studied specifically. While McPhail and Fogerty's study findings did support previous findings that users of ATM's tend to be "younger olds, better educated and have held professional jobs in the past" (307), perhaps of more use to libraries is in the conclusion that because consumers need to invest time in learning new technologies, they must perceive a benefit to using them at all.

Other research studies in the business literature follow Bateson's in that, rather than focus on one service sector, they include all businesses that offer self-service options (Daikoku 2004; Howard and Worboys 2003; Mander 2004). However, the presentation of this research often does not include its credibility. While Mander (2004) and Daikoku (2004) do include method in their reports, they include little more than the name of the method and the number of people who participated, presenting conclusions without discussion of analysis. In Howard and Worboys' 2003 study, there is no mention of method, approach or analysis. Furthermore, this article makes sweeping conclusions, which are the basis for their recommendations to businesses, without delving into the data that produced these conclusions (they identify three "groups" that emerged from the quantitative aspect of their study: speed "more male, younger", human contact "more middle-aged", control "more female, older"[388]). These articles seem to rely on the weight of authority that the term "research" carries. They are also good examples of the need for better research in this field.

In library literature, there were articles that quoted statistics and patron comments as evidence for self-checkout and this certainly exists in the business literature. An example of this is an anonymous piece, "Self-checkout" (2003) that takes results from a survey by ACNielsen and prints the results with no context for the study or any critical examination of the results. As with the library literature written in this vein, the critical element of a rigorous study is missing and would be valuable in validating the results.


As with library literature, there is no lack of opinion pieces on self-checkout and self-service technology. These pieces are usually observations or personal opinions based on personal experience (Hershbein 2004; Robbins 2004; "SuperValu" 2003). Again, these pieces show the need for a valid qualitative study that sheds light on customer experience.

Overlapping Issues

What is interesting about looking at and comparing the literature between these two areas are the overlapping elements of self-checkout, and self-service in general, that arise in implementation and customer appeal. For example, in implementation, many pieces identified the need to make clear to the customer the benefits of the self-service option (Howard and Worboys 2003; Leslie 1993; Mander 2004; McPhail and Fogerty 2004; Williams 1990).

One of the benefits that was identified in both library and business literature was privacy of the patron/customer. In "SuperValu" (2003), there is mention that certain items that people would steal before, rather than face the embarrassment of purchasing from a person (like condoms and home pregnancy-tests), were being purchased at the self-checkout terminals. Carey and McKechnie (1998) also note the advantages for privacy with self-checkout terminals.

Another major aspect of implementation that was seen to be important whether in a grocery store or a library was to have staff trained on the terminals and have these staff available to train and encourage patrons/customers to use the self-service option (Carey and McKechnie 1998; Howard & Worboys 2003; Robbins 2004; "SuperValu" 2003; Williams 1990).

In all of the literature, there was a severe lack of studies specifically on self-checkout technology and a lack of qualitative research to find out the "why" of customers using or not-using self-checkout technology. The sense was that this "why" question could be answered by quantitative studies but clearly this is not the case when speculations are made regarding how patrons perceive or experience the self-checkout system.

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