Good things come to those that wait and I waited to visit the KCLS Shipping Department in Preston until nearly the end of my jaunts! We headed out for trip number 27 for a lunch time tour of the wizard behind the curtain.
The shipping and materials distribution department is in east King County in a large warehouse-style building. While the library trucks parked out front certainly gave it away, its anonymity belies just how crucial to the operations of KCLS the automation and staff inside it really are!
To start our tour, we were greeted by Tony and introduced to Steve, the managers of the facility and our hosts for the afternoon. In addition to innovative library programs, part of KCLS’ world-renown is in its circulation capabilities. The Automated Materials Handling (AMH) system, utilizing RFID technology, installed in Preston is a large piece of this puzzle. It’s so impressive, libraries from many different countries visit the facility to see how KCLS moves its materials – nearly 12 million in 2010. They keep a map on the wall with color-coded pins to track everyone that visits and there is a fantastic distribution of color across the globe!
The AMH has three components: the inbound/outbound conveyor, the crane, and the sorter. Mixed materials from the libraries are stored in totes and picked up towards the end of the day at the libraries by one of six trucks. Each tote typically holds about 40 lbs and 40+ items. Once inside, the inbound/outbound conveyor moves the totes to the crane, which then sorts the totes. If it’s busy, the crane puts them wherever there is space and as it has free time, it will re-sort the totes to be more efficient for outbound delivery or sorting. (Fun Fact 1: the crane, previously nameless, has been nicknamed “The Tin Man” by a local Girl Scouts troop that toured the facility.) The crane also feeds the sorting line. Because KCLS is a large multi-branch system, materials can be picked up and dropped off at any library. In addition, the increasing number of holds means that there are books that need to be delivered from one library to another for a patron. Library Pages empty the totes onto the sorter’s conveyor belt, the RFID tag is scanned, and then the item drops into the correct library tote as the conveyor belt moves around. Filled totes are delivered back to the crane, which stores them in racks until the delivery driver requests them for their next route. (Fun Fact 2: Items that belong to other library systems are not recognized by the sorter and are kicked out of the conveyor. They are mailed back to their real library home every Friday.)
In addition to the day-to-day delivery of materials, Preston houses two other important functions. The first is the “Just-in-Time” collection. These materials are usually old information formats, like VHS, or very popular bestsellers. For older materials, it doesn’t make sense to have these items take up valuable shelf space in the libraries as they don’t circulate as often anymore. (Fun Fact 3: “Dark Shadows”, in VHS format, still circulates very, very well and I’m sure it’ll spike again when the Johnny Depp version releases!) On the other end of the turnover spectrum, patrons receive the bestsellers more quickly if they are delivered directly from Preston to their desired hold shelf. Again, it also helps with space as most libraries don’t have capacity for hundreds of copies of the same book on the shelf! The second function is the packing and delivery of collection material no longer needed to be sold. Because KCLS cannot receive any revenue other than property taxes, the profit earned from selling weeded materials is deposited with the KCLS Foundation.
It was very neat to be able to see the movement of material through the system and meet some of the staff that works hard to quickly deliver our books to us. In the future, I’ll have a much better appreciation of the books I put on hold. I know now just what it takes to get that book from the Kent, or White Center or Richmond Beach, shelves to my Redmond holds!