Until recently, the 98-year-old Rockefeller University library in New York loaned books on the honor system.
Now it gets a little help from a computer chip that allows books to be checked out any time of the day or night -- without the assistance of a librarian.
The new device, called the Intelligent Library System, is the creation of Checkpoint Systems Inc. of Thorofare, N.J.
The computer chip acts as an antenna that connects with a database computer in the library. Patrons activate the system with a microchip that contains their name and other information. At Rockefeller, the chip is embedded in the ID card. Patrons can then sweep the books over a detector, much like the check-out clerk does with a can of tomatoes at a grocery store. The computer registers the book as checked out and issues a receipt with a due date.
An exit detector receives a signal from the chip and determines whether the book has been indeed checked through. If not, an alarm will sound.
The book can be returned through a depository which again detects the chip and tells the computer that it has been returned.
Emmett Erwin, Checkpoint Systems' library division director, said the system provides privacy for library customers.
"Kids may be checking out books on sex or AIDS or adults may be wanting a book on personal bankruptcy, something they don't want to go up to a librarian with," he said.
AT SOME LIBRARIES,
the Intelligent Library System will replace existing Checkpoint Systems setups. When some sticky-fingered patrons of the Free Library of Philadelphia were taking the name too literally, Checkpoint Systems in 1967 put metal plates in the books and put detectors at the door to catch those skipping checkout.
In recent years, the metal bar was replaced by the electromagnetic strip, which also has found widespread use in the retail world.
But the computer chip may make them both obsolete. Current systems pose problems for libraries. For one, there is the problem with false alarms from other kinds of metal on a person.
"We have so many types of media: computers, computer discs, tape recordings," Mr. Erwin said. "Magnetic devices will ruin this type of media."
The new Intelligent Library System is in use at the Rockefeller University library and at the public library system in Gloucester County, N.J. It was recently on display at a national library conference in New Orleans.
Rockefeller University chose the system after having problems with stolen research journals.
"We needed a system that did not necessitate staff intervention, because the library is open 24 hours a day, but the staff is on duty only eight hours a day," said Patrica E. Mackey, head of a 12-member staff at the Rockefeller library.
James Gugluzza, who works in two labs at the university, said he likes the system, though if there's a malfunction when there isn't a librarian on duty, a patron can't take out a book.
LIBRARIAN AMY VONK
explained that the system won't work if a student card has expired.
"If it happens at night, they get a message on the screen that says: `Your card is not being accepted. Please come back to the circulation desk (from) 9 to 5 p.m.,"' she explained. She said the librarians call security, who can update the card.
"Since we got this security system in people are allowed to bring their bags in also," she said. "Before, a lot of books were being stolen, so they had to leave their bags at the security desk, so people are glad about that."
The chips also provide a quick and easy way for libraries to inventory their books, normally a time-consuming process, Mr. Erwin said.
At Rockefeller, a consulting staff of 10 people used to perform the inventory, at a cost of $200,000. Now, by using an electronic wand, a library staff member can do the inventory in a day or two, Ms. Mackey said.
"It will also find a misshelved book," Ms. Mackey said. "If a book is misshelved, it's just as good as lost."
The current cost of the system is about $100,000 per library, which should be recovered in about two years from reduced costs and lost books, Mr. Erwin said.
Mr. Erwin said the system likely would next be used in video stores. Future applications could include supermarkets and other retail outlets, and studies are under way to determine if the system could simplify airline baggage handling.
And if Rockefeller is any indication, the system will be turning up at more libraries.
"Even when we're open we notice people using this instead of coming up to the counter," Ms. Vonk said.