Did Spokesgay write this?

Here, then, are glories to come at the new Brentwood branch.

Directly across from the registration desk is the express self-check-out area, designed for ultimate flexibility and to keep you from having to wait in line for the simple transactions surrounding book check-outs. While located so that staff can help if necessary, it is the ultimate in customer convenience. It is so easy, in fact, that you can teach your children to be independent library users!

Indeed. You can teach them that the public sector in the 21st century is built on child labour. Adults will be there if and only “if necessary.” (Sort of like dads.)

Mind that alarm sounding on the way in, kiddo. Do you need the booster?


Surprise: An RFID-related topic I don’t intend to bitch about

RFID self-checkout is still an enormously expensive way to complicate every transaction a library item undergoes. (And now the cover story that RFID – a word that still is not four syllables long – was put in place to extend service hours without additional staff has been blown out of the water. It’s a pretext to fire staff.) I still set off alarms walking into branches. I still have trouble with any unusual request (e.g., return but put me back on the holds list). I still have problems. So do you! And our problems will never end.


The esteemed colleague who manages this project – in all fairness, about as well as it could be managed – has basically solved the problem of RFID (again: “arfid” or “riffid”) gumming up your CD drive or DVD player. The old tags were self-adhesive paper abominations more befitting the Soviet Union. Half of them you had to handwrite a barcode number on (around a curve). Half of them are stuck on imperfectly in the first place. The other half unbalance your drive, causing whirring or simply an unreadable disc. When they really heat up, they come unglued and can get stuck in your player (apocryphally). I’ve peeled several of them off just to get the damned disc to play. (Sometimes I put them back on, other times not, but in the latter cases I left a note.)

I was warned these things were coming, but I still didn’t know what the hell was going on when I saw them. Behold the StingRay by Smartrac. (PDF datasheet.)

‘Edward II’ with white stick-on RFID, ‘Guest of Cindy Sherman’ with transparent StingRay

It covers the entire surface of the disc. It’s transparent save for a silvery bit of branding (in Futura caps) and “Toronto Public Library” in black Helvetica, which I suppose could be worse. I don’t know how a civilian could peel it off. I don’t have a clue how you’d retag an item in-branch. You probably can’t.

Now look closely. The silvery lines around the periphery are the RFID circuit. It’s got one kilobit of memory (!) and Smartrac claims it can be read at a distance of 30 cm.

A weird, vaguely futuristic appurtenance. And the only thing remotely cool about this entire RFID boondoggle.

Spoke too soon about St. Lawrence

I wrote a quick post, with affection I hoped was obvious, about how St. Lawrence branch was getting a quick paint job and a few repairs.

Wrong. They buggered the old girl.

I walked in and was shocked by two things: Full-on “express” checkout and the fact that the Bookmobile DVD I was carrying didn’t set off the alarm. I’m surprised they put in self-checkout, I told the librarian, because you sure don’t have the volume for it. She instantly gestured that I should be talking to the nearby much older librarian. I said the same thing. Eventually all 99 branches are going to have it, she said. 98, I said. 99, she said, reaching for the list of branches so I could – I gather – sit there with a pen and tally them all up. If you’re thinking about Urban Affairs, they closed that one, I told her.

The returns slot has a shitty piece of paper over it reading RETURNS in Arial that I’m sure will be there forever.


A librarian berated a lady in a scooter loudly in a Chinese accent – while walking smartly away from her – that that’s where returns go.

Magazines are hidden in a corner. Every shelf looks like every other shelf. Let’s not even talk about the shitty labelling of everything.

I decided to get the fuck out of there. I went through the inside door and looked for the automatic-door button. Gee, is it where I think it is? I went back: Yes, it’s still at shin level next to the giant barriers now erected at the door. Nobody who needs the automatic door will be able to position a scooter or wheelchair by the button, lean over to press it at a weird angle, back up, circle all around, and line up perfectly straight to wheel through the now gated and alarmed exit toward a door that will by then be closing right on their faces. (What if you’re in a walker?)

I tried talking about this to the old lady. “Have you considered repositioning—”

“The rug? No! The door? I don’t understand your question.”

“Because you aren’t letting me finish.”

I was then asked to write it down on a comment form or something to save her the trouble – as she admitted – of having to call Facilities. Are you not the branch head? I asked her.

During this whole visit, that librarian did no visible work and often simply leaned on her elbows talking to other patrons. This is the mentality “self”-checkout produces: Don’t disrupt my boredom by talking to me.

St. Lawrence: Number 2 with a bullet of worst RFID renovations after Yorkville.

Duelling DVD due dates

I am having what is rapidly becoming an argument with TPL managers over due dates for multi-feature DVD sets. I mean things like entire television seasons or 10-DVD Glenn Gould retrospectives. (I’m not talking about something like a feature film with a second DVD of extras and so on. I mean more than one feature in a single package.)

‘Glenn Gould on Television: The Complete CBC Broadcasts 1954–1977’

I maintain what is actually true: In practice, you cannot watch everything contained in one of these sets in a single week. Yet the library acts dumb as a mule and assigns seven-day loan periods to every standalone DVD, no matter what it might contain or how many discs are in the package.

Shall we look at In Treatment?

  • Season 1: 1,290 min. (21½ hours)
  • Season 2: 870 min. (17½ hours)
  • Season 3: 840 min. (14 hours)

To enjoy the full series and return these items on the seventh day, you’d have to watch two to five hours a night for six nights straight. (Did you pick up the discs after work? Then you’ve got five nights.) For Season 3, we managed it, but only by doing absolutely nothing else and gobbling dinner Simpsons-style with the show playing.

My suggestion is straightforward: DVD series (as we could call them) get three-week loan periods. What does the library say?

  • We used to break up sets like these into individual discs, but people had to wait forever for them (and sometimes got them out of order). (Since we don’t do this anymore, why are we talking about it?)

  • If we did what you asked, people would have to wait ever so long for their holds to be filled. (Yeah, and their patience would be rewarded by actually being able to finish them.)

This is a library system that lends 70-minute compact discs, 30-page children’s books, and pedometers for three full weeks. The library already distinguishes DVDs from language-learning DVDs, which indeed get three-week loan periods. If you’re a fast reader, you can borrow a Best Bet and burn through it in a week.

But if you’re a normal person attempting to watch exactly what the library lends you, not only will the library not give you enough time to do so but will ding you a buck a day for returning the item late.

Which is worse, then? Terrible, awful, burdensome waiting periods or having 90% of library patrons frustrated and dissatisfied because it isn’t humanly possible to watch a full TV series in less than a week?

Why can’t the library survey users of these DVD sets and ask them the following?

  • Do you usually/always/sometimes fail to finish everything in the DVD set before you have to return it?

  • Do you return DVD sets late because it’s more important to you to finish the contents than to pay a fine?

  • Which would you be willing to accept – waiting longer on hold for an item but having three weeks to watch it, or getting it sooner but having to watch the whole thing in a single week?

Aren’t those really the issues? And don’t we already know the answers?

Exceptions that prove the rule

I gave up on Call Me Fitz and Spartacus in under five minutes each. Those went right back.

A spirit of caring and sharing and open dialogue with critics

I wrote to the Toronto Public Library board of directors calling for a moratorium on the gutting and defacement of old branches to install godforsaken RFID self-checkout systems, which do not actually work.

In a display of TPL technical acumen I have come to expect, Director of Branch Libraries Anne Bailey sent along a response – in the form of a scanned-image PDF. I assume this was a deliberate choice given that I am a journalist and an accessibility expert (in fact, I know a great deal about accessible PDF). I assume it was meant to frustrate reading of, quotation from, and distribution of their actual response. Let’s set that aside for a moment.

Bailey trots out various statistics that show most people use self-checkout (they have no choice) and most people like it. The latter says nothing about the endemic failures of the system, nor anything about staff who sit behind a desk and ignore you, or get angry at you when you bring a book near the antenna, or who initially tell you to go use that terminal over there instead of listening to your question, or yell at you from behind the desk when a book you’re carrying sets off their alarm, or chase you up the stairs when that latter thing happens.

Bailey is one of two people this week to insist the old Yorkville desk was not marble. Pictures or it didn’t happen, as the kids say. Neither of these people made a case as to why its replacement had to be MDF and so badly designed that staff can’t actually sit behind it or store a returned book there. Other than that, she pretty much ignores my objections and attested experience. She says nothing about gutting historic library branches, for example, just to convert its entire collection into miniature radio transmitters.

Bailey also promises that improvements to the user interface are coming. Someone else told me that to my face recently, in an actually helpful and informative way. Agincourt branch is the testbed, I was told, a fact TPL has been at pains not to publicize. Language choice on the system is better, there are fewer steps to take, and the crucial deactivation of security bit happens earlier in the process.

I am willing to accept these reports are accurate. But let’s refresh our memories here. Continue reading “A spirit of caring and sharing and open dialogue with critics”