The automated book-dispensing machine at El Cerrito's del Norte BART station doesn't receive the attention it did just a couple of years ago.
The same is true for the two other vending machines in Contra Costa County than loan library books from the county library system.
All three have seen a notable decrease that has coincided with a marked rise in usage of electronic books, said Cathy Sanford, deputy librarian for the Contra Costa County Library.
The county’s Library-a-Go-Go machines, which allow library cardholders to borrow and return books just as if they went to a library, are located at the del Norte station, the Pittsburgh/Bay Point BART station, and Discovery Bay’s Sandy Cove Shopping Center.
When the machines were first installed in 2008 and 2009, statewide and national organizations lauded the county for its innovation.
One of the most prestigious awards the Library-a-Go-Go program earned was in 2010 from the American Library Association, which recognized the Contra Costa County Library as one of three libraries in the nation with the best use of cutting-edge technologies.
“We were looking for a way to reach people where they are, rather than have to make them come to the library,” said Sanford, the project manager of the Library-a-Go-Go program. “Customers said they wanted fast, convenient, easy access.”
The Library-a-Go-Go machine at the del Norte BART station was launched in June 2009. The large blue machine, located just outside the BART turnstiles, is open 24/7 and offers a selection of about 400 books, a list of which can be found on the library website. Sanford said the machine is regularly restocked so that it contains popular books customers actually want to read.
After being open just weeks, the machine at the Del Norte BART station had circulated 468 books, a number that rose to 1154 in the next fiscal year, 2009-10, according to Sanford.
But that was the peak. In the 2011 fiscal year, the Library-a-Go-Go machine circulated just 408 books, and as it stands with a few days remaining in this fiscal cycle, the machine will probably circulate only about 235 books in 2012.
The statistics for the other two Library-a-Go-Go machines display a similar trend. The machine in Discovery Bay performed the worst, circulating fewer than 100 books in both 2011 and 2012.
Sanford believes this marked decline in the circulation numbers is because of the proliferation of eBooks and eReaders.
“When we installed these machines around 2009, you have to remember that was right before the e-reader evolution—or maybe better put—revolution,” she said.
The El Cerrito location was chosen because it is has the largest number of connecting transit agencies in the East Bay and because more than 8,000 daily commuters pass through the station, according to a report made by the library staff.
But Stanford said that in recent years, more and more commuters have opted to read electronic copies of books on their handheld devices.
The trend toward electronic versions of books is demonstrated by the steady increase of the county library’s own eBook program. Circulation of the county’s eBooks has nearly doubled in the last four years, jumping from just over 62,000 eBooks circulated in 2009 to more than 120,000 circulated in 2012.
The other cause that Sanford sees for the decreased use of the Library-a-Go-Go machines is the loss of a library staff member at each machine.
When the machines were first installed, a library employee was stationed at the machine to help customers with any library card problems and to encourage people to borrow books.
Because of budget cuts, the library could not continue paying for a staff member to stand by the machines. But with recent improvements in the library’s budget, Sanford hopes this may change.
Sanford is optimistic about the future of the Library-a-Go-Go program. Because the library received multiple grants to install the machines, which require little upkeep, she said the program remains beneficial without being costly.
“I still believe there’s a market for it,” she said. “They were paid for with grants, they are still used, they require little maintenance or interference—that’s a win for us.”