This article is from our guest blog contributor, Chris Martin, Head of Access Services / University Libraries, Loyola University Chicago
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of conversations within access services circles—notably the LIB-CIRC-PLUS listserv—have centered on establishing “contactless pickup” for the circulation of physical items. Yet for academic libraries, there is a lack of thorough documentation about models of such service, as well as an accounting of how they work. This post outlines how Loyola University Chicago Libraries planned and implemented our contactless pickup service this summer (with ongoing adjustments) and describes the results so far.
Systems Choices and Practical Considerations
The Libraries’ physical locations closed when Loyola transitioned to a remote learning environment on March 24. For most of the remaining spring and early summer, Libraries administration and staff were hoping to return to on-site work by early August, though limited on-site staffing ultimately did not begin until August 19, five days before the start of the fall semester. With this initial timeframe in mind, Margaret Heller (our Digital Services Librarian), Tori Golden (our Circulation and Collection Services Manager), and I (Head of Access Services), along with assistance and input from several other staff members, began the planning process for a contactless pickup service in late June.
Our choice of systems for contactless pickup was based on current availability, as well as familiarity and potential ease of use for both our staff and for users. We adopted Alma and Primo as our back-end service and discovery platforms in 2015. Since implementation, we have had users place physical item requests through Primo. As this internal workflow document details, the request process for users is fairly straightforward, only requiring (after locating the item and signing in) a couple of clicks and selecting a pickup location. The request process works smoothly, and we wanted to retain that aspect.
Booking appointments for pickup was another matter. While we use the booking workflow in Alma/Primo for media item requests, it would have been cumbersome to implement it for contactless pickup. Fortunately, Springshare had begun to document how libraries could use its new Spaces & Equipment module within LibCal for scheduling curbside and other holds pickup services in a contactless manner. (Spaces & Equipment replaced LibCal’s Room Bookings module.) We have used LibCal and other Springshare products for many years, and exploring Spaces only required us to perform a system upgrade. This led us to decide to try it for scheduling pickup appointments.
Other than systems, there were two other major practical factors to consider in our planning. One was that as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Loyola took a very cautious approach for building and campus management over the summer. Very few of our library staff had on-site access to our buildings this summer, and what access we had was restricted. Given our late return to limited on-site staffing, there was next to no time to practice or stage. As a result, we realized that the service we were designing needed to be something we could rapidly implement and adjust on the fly.
The other factor is that our major libraries—Cudahy Library and the Information Commons (IC) at our north Lake Shore Campus, and Lewis Library at our downtown Water Tower Campus—pose difficulties to any type of drive-up service. Cudahy and the IC are connected and right up against Lake Michigan, with several nearby surrounding buildings, and have no regular vehicle access outside of deliveries. Lewis Library is on the sixth floor in the very busy and traffic-dense River North neighborhood. This meant that we had to have a walk-up area for contactless pickup at both locations, while still allowing for proper social distancing. Because Cudahy Library (our “main” Lake Shore library) is closed for the fall semester but the IC is open, we determined that the first floor of the IC would serve as our pickup area, using existing shelving. At Lewis, it was best to have pickup take place at an area inside the library, but away from the circulation desk. As a result, staff there settled on using a combination of book carts and tables.
Designing and Implementing Our Service Model
After our upgrade to LibCal Spaces, over the course of several weeks and in conjunction with many other staff members at Cudahy, the IC, and Lewis, we developed an end-to-end workflow for contactless pickup. The most basic components are as follows:
- User places an item request in Primo.
- Staff pulls the item and scans it into Alma, generating a hold notification.
- User schedules an appointment for pickup using the LibCal link within the e-mail.
- Staff prepares the item for pickup and takes it to the pickup area.
- User comes to pick up the item, without staff being present.
As indicated above, component 1) (User places an item request in Primo) is straightforward. Similarly, component 2) (Staff pulls the item and scans it into Alma) involves internal processing steps we established after implementing Alma. Component 3) (User schedules an appointment for pickup using the LibCal link within the e-mail) is where the old workflow changed. We had to rename and edit our On Hold Shelf notification in Alma to not only include the LibCal appointment scheduling links, but also indicate to the user that they must schedule an appointment (more on this below):
It took several iterations (and input from several staff members) for us to arrive at this version through table and XSL template edits in the letter’s configuration.
For our appointment setup in LibCal Spaces, we created two distinct locations—Information Commons Hold Pickup and Lewis Hold Pickup. Within these spaces, we created five “spaces” to represent hold pickup slots:
While the two locations have different hours, we used the same setup for both, including a maximum of five appointments per half-hour. When a user clicks on the link, they see the same style of grid, and after clicking on and submitting a time, they fill out their appointment information:
After submitting the information, the user receives an automated confirmation e-mail, and later receives a reminder e-mail two hours before the appointment time. Adding room directions to the space within LibCal automatically adds the pickup instructions to the reminder email:
Springshare has overhauled the LibCal Spaces module to help libraries maintain social distancing and reduced occupancy, so it is possible to add the hold pickup slots to building zones to ensure that zones are not over capacity. This was not practical for us given our short preparation time before returning to campus, but is a useful feature for other libraries who may be trying to balance their in-building services.
On the staff side, component 4) (Staff prepares the item for pickup) primary involves loaning out the item to the user within Alma, and then packaging it in an opaque bag. As another workflow document details, Cudahy staff also monitor the LibCal appointments for the day to determine what to package and take over to the IC. (At both locations, all items awaiting pickup are already on a hold shelf area behind the circulation desk.) For the contactless pickup slip at both locations, after some trial and error, we settled on user last name and the last four digits of their ID or barcode as identification. Having user last name helps with arranging bags within the pickup area in alphabetical order, though originally, we preferred to avoid this to better ensure privacy.
For component 5) (User comes to pick up the item), at both the IC and Lewis, the user has to swipe their Loyola ID cards to enter through the gates. While there are staff near the pickup areas, we do not require any interaction with staff during the pickup, and once the user finds their bag, they are set.
Based on a short experience with this workflow, three issues have emerged that required staff adjustments. The first, which we have particularly noticed at the IC, is when a student does not yet have their Loyola ID card. (Students log in to Loyola systems, including library-related ones, with a user ID that is distinct from their ID card number and barcode.) This is largely the product of intense demands on our campus card office at the beginning of the semester, combined with Loyola’s pre-semester decisions to suspend on-campus housing, leading to an entirely virtual learning environment for almost all students. At present, staff at the IC are verifying that students have items to pick up by checking the pickup area and confirming their current status, and then allowing them in for retrieval. We also adjusted the LibCal appointment scheduling form to better accommodate students without campus IDs, including the use of the last four digits of ID number or barcode as an identifier. (No one at Loyola receives a barcode until they have their ID card).
A second and more pervasive issue has been users coming by to pick up items despite not having placed a LibCal appointment for pickup. The decision to rename our hold shelf notification as Schedule Your Library Pickup—and the very specific language we use within the body of the e-mail text—is an attempt to make it clearer to users that they need to schedule an appointment for pickup. It is likely that we will need to further communicate this through our website information and other means.
Finally, there have been occasions where a user either requests more items after placing a LibCal appointment, or places more than one large “cluster” of requests closely together. Any user can request and pick up to 15 items per appointment, a number that we chose to balance user need with staff processing time. Our solution so far has been to keep a running log of any user with more than seven items awaiting pickup, and then contact them if necessary.
It is still too early to thoroughly evaluate our contactless pickup service, particularly from a statistical standpoint. Keeping in mind this semester’s virtual learning model and the lack of students and faculty on campus, along with other factors such as reduced library building hours and access, our current circulation activity is down nearly 90 percent from the start of the semester last year. Yet as we continue to adapt our existing systems for our service model, we feel that we have made a sound, sustainable, and flexible decision, one which will allow us to continue circulating items efficiently and safely as long as we have on-site services during the pandemic.
You can connect with Chris Martin on Twitter, @_camartin_
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