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An Understaffed Simi Library Turns to Automated System : Books: With computerized checkout, the branch will be open 11 more hours per week and will need fewer workers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Responding to an uproar over greatly reduced hours at the Simi Valley Library, a city-county agency has agreed to buy a $90,000 automated checkout system to let the library keep its doors open longer.

Under this plan, the Simi Valley branch will be the first in the county to allow patrons to check out books themselves. The equipment, which includes an anti-theft component, will use a state-of-the-art computer that reads bar codes on books and library cards.

With the system, fewer workers will be needed in the building at any one time.

The system, which is also being considered for the Camarillo Library, will allow the Simi Valley Library to remain open about 11 more hours per week, county officials said. Operating hours have dropped from 54 to 32.

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Neither city officials nor library administrators believe the automated checkout will be the complete solution to the library’s woes.

Simi Valley leaders say the county should restore even more of the 26 hours a week it cut in August.

At the same time, library administrators warn that patrons will not see anyone at the reference desk during the added hours provided by the automated checkout system.

“I think the public is going to be unhappy with this as well,” said Alan Langville, manager of the county’s community libraries. “You’re going to have people coming in and asking where are the books on dogs, or what is the population of some country. And they’re not going to be able to get an answer.”

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The Simi Valley Library, which holds about 120,000 volumes and checks out up to 37,000 items per month, is the largest in the county’s 15-branch system.

In August, coping with a $1.7-million deficit, the county system slashed hours at all its branches.

Mayor Greg Stratton told library administrators the cut was “totally unacceptable” and that his city would consider taking over the library itself if the county did not move to restore some of the hours.

Dixie Adeniran, director of the county’s Library Services Agency, told Stratton in August the city could use its own funds to pay for expanded hours at the library. She also suggested the automated checkout system.

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Since then, the Board of Supervisors has restored four hours per week to the Simi Valley Library’s schedule.

Also, the Simi Valley Civic Center Authority, a city-county agency created in 1977 to sell bonds and finance construction of the library, has allocated $90,000 for the new checkout system.

This money had been left unspent after the library was built in 1979. It can only be used for building improvements, not for books or library salaries, city officials said.

The city-county agency will discuss the automated checkout proposal again next month after library administrators have specified which hours will be restored when the new system is in place.

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The equipment will include security sensors similar to those used in retail stores, Langville said. The device will sound an alarm if someone tries to remove a book without checking it out, he said.

The automated checkout equipment will probably be installed in December. And after a trial run, the library hours might be extended in January.

“How much of a work-saver it will be, we don’t know,” Langville said. “As things presently stand, we would offer those additional 11 hours without anyone on the reference desk. This really isn’t our philosophy and the way we want to run things.”

County Supervisor Vicky Howard, who also serves on the agency that is paying for the automated checkout, said: “Ideally, I’d like to have the reference librarians there all the time. But with the budget crisis we’ve been in, we have to stop thinking about doing business as usual.”

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Simi Valley Councilman Bill Davis said the automated checkout will help city leaders answer some of the complaints they’ve received about the reduced library hours.

But if the county cannot justify the remaining cuts or find a way to restore more hours, the city may still consider taking over the library, Davis said.

“I can assure you,” he said, “that’s still a possibility.”


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