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Kristy Thompson scanned her library card, tapped in her pin number and walked into the Elko New Market Library Thursday afternoon, motion lights announcing her entry into the darkened space.

She picked up the books she'd requested — all of them for her 5-year-old, who loves trucks — checked them out and left, without help from a librarian.

"This has been really great, because it's open seven days a week," said Thompson, an Elko New Market resident. "It's just really convenient for people, especially when you work when the library is open."

The library in Scott County is one of a handful in the Twin Cities that have implemented a new self-service model. Patrons access books, computers, printers and meeting rooms at times when the library isn't staffed.

The idea relies on technology — including security cameras, electronic doors and self checkout kiosks — to monitor what customers are doing and ensure everyone's safety.

"I think it is going to be a trend that catches on and we're really excited to be a part of that," said Kristy Rieger, library technology manager for Scott County. "It's been a very nice add-on ... [but] it is definitely not to replace regular library services."

Scott County, which calls the model "extended access," also uses the technology at its Jordan library. While the Elko New Market and Jordan libraries are open with staff just 24 hours each week, they're open for extended access 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day — an additional 88 hours weekly.

Dakota County is piloting the self-service concept at the Farmington Library. Hennepin County has implemented the technology so patrons can pick up their held materials before and after regular hours at the Arvonne Fraser Library in Minneapolis' Dinkytown and the Ridgedale Library.

Among the largest providers of the self-service technology is Oakdale-based Bibliotheca. Both Hennepin and Scott counties are using a Bibliotheca system called Open Plus.

Scott Hackstadt, the North American director of Open Plus, said about 1,000 library branches worldwide and 40 in the U.S. are using the product.

"If you survey the community about what they would like their library to offer, more hours is always near the top of the list ... but it's very expensive to do it because of staffing [costs]," Hackstadt said.

Typically, once one library system in an area tries the concept and people can see it firsthand, other libraries show an interest, too, he said. The total number of library users often grows.

"That makes the library more relevant," Hackstadt said.

Steve Harsin, past president of the Minnesota Library Association, said that while the idea may seem daring, "there are libraries around the world that are open 24 hours per day."

Self-service hours are one option along a "gradient of services" that extend library hours and access, he said. A first step might be a remote locker system where customers can pick up books they've put on hold when it's convenient.

Washington, Anoka and Carver county libraries have locker systems.

Anoka and Carver counties said they've thought about adding self-service hours, while Hennepin County is exploring options to expand what they offer.

"We will be watching how things go with Dakota County Library's self-service model to determine if it is something we should consider in the future," said Aubrey Fonfara, a Washington County Library spokesperson.

South metro a hot spot

Dakota County began its pilot at the Farmington Library several weeks ago. It runs for six months, allowing library officials to collect data and then report results to the county board.

The technology means the library is open more than 70 additional hours each week.

"The response from the community has been tremendous," said Margaret Stone, Dakota County Library director.

The idea is to eventually expand to other county libraries, Stone said.

To use the library during self-service hours, patrons must obtain an access card, which is different from their library card. The card is issued after they fill out an online form, watch a short training video and agree to follow library policies. Users, who must be 18, are responsible for any guests they bring in.

Dakota County spent about $40,000 implementing the idea in Farmington. The county "developed a home-grown product" by using security technology the county already has, Stone said. "That helped it be less expensive for us."

Rieger said that in Scott County, which introduced the system in Jordan in November 2021 and at the Elko New Market Library in September 2022, feedback has been "generally very positive."

The cost at each library was $5,000 for equipment plus $16,000 for the annual subscription.

Parents with young children like using the extended hours, as do commuters, senior citizens and those who come early in the morning for some personal time.

Rieger said using computers and Wi-Fi is also a popular activity during the extended hours.

In Scott County, 450 people have signed up and it's been used about 3,500 times since September 2021, Rieger said.

The county plans to expand the service to the New Prague Library this spring and the Savage Library after that.

Safety and staffing

Implementing self-service hours often brings questions about safety and concerns the technology could gradually make librarians obsolete.

In Scott County, where each self-service library has six security cameras in place, Rieger said officials are "very, very, very concerned" about safety.

She said the Elko New Market police chief advised her on appropriate placement of the library's cameras and they talked through procedures if there were an emergency when the library is unstaffed.

"One day, there will inevitably be something we'll have to address, I'm sure," Rieger said.

The idea that librarians will be less in-demand if self-service hours take off is one Bibliotheca addresses with clients, Hackstadt said.

"Everything we're doing is about making libraries more important to the community," he said. Increasing libraries' relevance can actually mean more library funding in the long term.

Amy McNally, Hennepin County Libraries' deputy director for public services, said in some communities, help from library staff is among the main features visitors are seeking. It wouldn't make sense to add self-service hours in those situations, she said.

McNally said that one of the myths of adding self-service hours is that staff aren't necessary. Even during self-service hours, librarians are sometimes working in the back and it takes staff to do tasks like processing holds, for instance.

Stone, of Dakota County, said she's spent a lot of time reassuring library staff that the added hours are to increase access for patrons and unrelated to staffing needs.

"Staff are still the most important thing we have in the library," Stone said.