British Columbia

Has self-checkout made libraries too quiet? Union pushes back against automation

The president of one of the province's largest unions is encouraging British Columbians to avoid self-checkout stations at their local libraries — or anywhere else they may find the ubiquitous technology. 

BCGEU president says checkout stations have taken the heart out of community libraries

The president of the union representing library workers in B.C. says she's worried that self-checkouts are minimizing the opportunity for librarians to interact with their patrons. (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

The president of one of the province's largest unions is encouraging British Columbians to avoid self-checkout stations at their local libraries — or anywhere else they may find the ubiquitous technology. 

Stephanie Smith, president of the B.C. Government Employees Union (BCGEU), told listeners of CBC's Daybreak Kamloops that the automated machines at the Merritt Library have dramatically changed the work of their librarians who they represent.

"One of the things [librarians] love most about their jobs is their interaction with the people who use libraries," she explained.

But now, Smith says, self-checkouts have minimized the opportunity for librarians to interact with their patrons, which threatens the sense of community both library visitors and employees seek.

Self-checkouts were introduced at all but one of the Thompson Nicola Regional District's 13 libraries in the spring of 2018. 

The machines, which were created to provide convenience for customers and cut costs for employers, have become an indelible part of the retail and service landscape. But the technology has also sparked a backlash from some consumers who complain that they can be difficult to use and threaten jobs.

Judy Moore, chief librarian for the TNRD's library system, insists it's not true in its case. 

"There's been zero cuts to our library budgets since the self-checks have been deployed," Moore later told Daybreak Kamloops. There has been no loss of staff either, she added.

Nor has Moore received many complaints about the machines, which she says have a high usage rate. 

"The rationale for bringing in the self-checks was to move forward with a new model of service, one that would provide for greater staff and community engagement efforts," Moore said. "We have an after-school club now. We have a book club that's appealing to our adults within the community. On trend, we have meditation and yoga that will be offered this fall."

Most people have seen automated checkouts at grocery stores. Now they are becoming more common place on other areas of the community -- including the library. Now, the BC Government Employees Unions is raising concerns about swapping out staff for machines within the TNRD 7:18

But the union president has her doubts. 

"Automation is often more about reducing labour costs than increasing efficiencies," she said. "I guess my question is do those self checkouts free up cashiers to do other jobs? Or, is it simply easier not to hire more cashiers?"

While retail experts believe automation is here to stay, some businesses have reversed course and decided to get rid of their machines. Earlier this year, CBC reported that three Canadian Tire locations in Toronto had removed the self-checkout option.

Meanwhile, the small American grocery chain, PCC Community Markets, recently said it was planning to take out automated machines from the nine locations that featured them.

To maintain their status as community gathering places, Smith hopes libraries will follow suit. 

"The heart of a library is the librarian and the people who work there," she said. "It's very difficult to have that feeling of that community hub when you're interacting with an automatic checkout."

And if library goers heed the BCGEU's call to boycott self-checkouts? "That would be problematic," said Moore. 

The BCGEU is criticizing the TNRD for creating automated check-outs for library visitors, because this could be costing jobs. The library, however, says this is not the case. 8:41

With files from Sophia Harris

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