August Miller, Deseret Morning News
Rob Clarke checks out books from the Provo library using a radio-frequency system that processes items faster. Orem will install a similar system.<BR>

PROVO — Little, red-headed, 4-year-old Anna Naef gained a little confidence when she pushed a pile of children's books onto one of the new check-out scanners at the Provo City Library at Academy Square.

"I'm good at this," she told her mom, beaming.

The computer agreed, booping and dinging as it sent a radio frequency through the stack and automatically checked out the books sitting idly on the scanner. When one pile was done on Thursday, Katy Naef put them in her bag and handed her daughter more books.

The high-tech checkout system does more than boost preschoolers' self-esteem. Since Provo installed the $500,000 radio-frequency IDsystem in October, check-out lines have been nearly eliminated, returned books are back on the shelves faster, and librarians have more time for other jobs.

The system is cutting-edge for libraries. In Utah, only the Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County library systems and Utah State University's campus libraries have radio-frequency technology.

Orem's library is next. Last week, the city was awarded a $264,000 federal grant to switch to radio technology. The city will combine the new cash with other grants and donations to pay for the system, library director Louise Wallace said.

Katy Naef used to stand in long checkout lines with little Anna and her 2-year-old sister, Elizabeth, after the popular morning story time for preschoolers. The lines snaked out into the middle of the library, just as they did at the 6 p.m. closing time on Saturdays when customers were checking out DVDs, CDs, books or magazines for the weekend.

Even with the maximum of five librarians checking out books, the old one-at-a-time, bar-code system was painstaking.

"It was horrible," Naef said. "Now it's much better. There are still a lot of people checking out books after story time, so sometimes we have to wait two minutes, but that's it."

Now only one or two librarians check out books, but there are eight self-checkout scanning stations easy enough for a clever 4-year-old to use. Just scan the library card and the items, and that's it.

Short lines aren't the only benefit.

For example, patrons can use a debit or credit card to pay overdue fines at the machines.

More importantly, a scanner attached to the return chute checks in books as they run down the belt into the back room. Naef has been able to return books and immediately go to a computer in the library and see what was checked in and what she has to look for when she gets home.

That also means hot items like, say, the latest Harry Potter book, often are back on shelves within a day. That's as much as five times faster than before.

"Sometimes books would pile up on long tables in the back and sit there for a week," Provo librarian Elisabeth Shorten said. "Now they occasionally sit for a day, at the most."

Provo has 275,000 items, which were checked out 1.5 million times last year. Orem has 280,000 items, and usually has a circulation of about 1.3 million. In the new system, every item needs a radio-frequency tag, a laborious process.

But Provo Library Director Gene Nelson said it is paying off in the short lines and quick turnarounds. He's looking forward to using another feature, handheld scanners to take inventory.

"We'll be able to scan a shelf and see what is in, what is checked out and what is missing," he said. "They even blink if a book is out of order."

Fewer librarians at the checkout stand mean more librarians available for returning books. And as librarians leave for retirement or other jobs, Nelson has shifted some hours to other jobs. He created a full-time position for a community relations coordinator.

Shorten said the librarians love the new system. She wouldn't want to transfer to a library without it.

"It's made it so much nicer," she said.

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