Enhancing the Self-Service Library with Visual Workplace Principles

By Christopher Raab
Associate Librarian, Franklin & Marshall College

Take a look around your local library, or any modern library for that matter.  You will likely see people interacting with a variety of Self-Service Technologies (SSTs) or Do-It-Yourself (DIY) service points. From self-discovery (catalog and database searching) to self-selection (open stacks and computers) to self-service (printer/scanners and checkout machines), the modern library is, in many ways, a veritable gas-and-go service station for the brain.  While modern sociologists have at times noted the negative attributes of self-service – such as diminished human interaction and increased consumer labor – this article seeks to explore and enhance the self-service experience within libraries, empowering patrons (and staff) through the application of visual workplace solutions.

But what exactly is self-service? When and why did it begin, and is all this change a good thing for libraries? To find answers, we must first define self-service, and then briefly investigate the history of its economic and social development in America.

Introduced in 1913, “self-service” is a relatively new term, created to define a “system used especially in a shop, restaurant, etc., by which customers serve themselves, instead of being attended to by a member of staff.”[1]  Wikipedia contains a somewhat lengthy entry on self-service, defining the concept as “the practice of serving oneself, usually when purchasing items.” Note the theme of service or transaction in both definitions, along with the emphasis on self-sufficiency and independence. One of the great appeals of self-service is the absence (or removal) of mediation. It is the ability to initiate, perform, and conclude a transaction on one’s own.  This freedom empowers the consumer, providing flexibility, efficiency, and control.

If self-service is about empowerment, it is no surprise then, that self-service is a growing trend in libraries. Libraries have always been about empowerment, from personal to societal.  But there is also the commercial or transactional side of self-service. To understand the development of self-service as a business model, we have to go back 100 years, to the opening of a newly conceived grocery store in Memphis, TN.

Enter the Piggly Wiggly

Wholesale food retailer and grocer Clarence Saunders opened America’s first self-service grocery store on September 16, 1916. Inspired by the efficiencies of increasingly popular coin-operated Automat Cafeterias, Saunders speculated that a similar self-service model could be applied to grocery stores. The European-style Automat, first introduced to the United States in 1902, quickly spread throughout northern American cities.[2] Until the early 20th century, it was customary for grocery shoppers to present their lists to a counter clerk, who would then proceed to fetch the items. Defying conventional wisdom, Saunders saw an opportunity in altering the traditional model of mediated counter service. He speculated that in exchange for greater selection, shorter lines, and lower prices, shoppers would happily accept the additional labor associated with it. He was correct, and by 1923, the Piggly Wiggly chain had expanded to more than 1,200 stores in over a dozen states.[3]

Self-service today

It’s been a century since Clarence Saunders championed the self-service grocery phenomenon. Where does self-service stand today, and how do we measure its impact? Just go grocery shopping, pay at the pump, rent a RedBox DVD, or visit an ATM, and you’ll quickly be reminded that self-service transaction points are more pervasive than ever. According to a 2016 NCR Corporation report, there were 191,000 self-checkout retail units worldwide in 2013, up 110% since 2008. By 2019, the number was estimated to reach 325,000 units.[4] Favorable attitudes toward self-service retail shopping appear to be growing as well. A 2013 Cisco Corporation global consumer report concluded that the majority of consumers surveyed (52%) preferred self-checkout stations to waiting in traditional cashier lines. An even larger majority (61%) indicated they were willing to shop in a completely automated store, with kiosk stations offering virtual customer service support.[5]

The lessons from Clarence Saunders and the Piggly Wiggly are many, but two clearly stand out. First, unconventional approaches are often less risky if they are predicated on successful models (in Saunders’ case, the cafeteria-style Automat.) Second, consumers will alter their expectations and behavior for increased savings of time, money, and control. It was true in 1916, and it remains true today. As ethnographer Alexandra Mateescu notes in her 2019 study, AI in Context: The Labor of Integrating New Technologies, “in the 1940s, self-service was popularized by retailers as an embodiment of American values of independence and consumer choice . . . By the time self-checkout machines were introduced in the 1990s, shoppers had already come to expect minimal customer service.”  In a recent interview, Mateescu elaborated upon her findings, noting that “consumers have been acculturated to the concept of ‘self-service’ for decades, so doing labor that used to be done by workers has largely been naturalized.”[6]

This unpaid consumer labor, or newly recognized “shadow work,” has been analyzed at length by sociologists Craig Lambert and Christopher Andrews. [7] According to their research, automation has not only failed to reduce work and increase leisure time, it has actually taken paid work away from humans, transferring workplace tasks from employees to consumers. Based on recent Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) figures, Andrews estimates that the average American performs approximately 2 hours of “shadow work” a week, or 100 hours per year. While this is a significant amount of time, the trend has become so ingrained into our daily lives, most Americans don’t even recognize the extent of their involuntary labor on behalf of companies and organizations.[8]

The Do-It-Yourself Library

In the time since Saunders opened the first Piggly Wiggly, grocery stores have come a long way – from self-selection to self-checkout. Libraries have followed suit to a large degree, from opening books stacks to browsing in the late 19th century, to installing self-checkout machines in the early 21st century. According to a 2010 Library Journal (LJ) survey, 85% of libraries offer some type of self-service, and that percentage increases with the size of the population served. As survey coordinator Beth Dempsey concludes, “with consistently high marks from patrons and librarians, self-service options are changing the way libraries do business.”[9] A more recent 2016 study by the Baltimore County Public Library System confirmed the Library Journal findings, highlighting the positive, ongoing benefits of adopting self-service customer models.[10]

As libraries increasingly embrace the modern era of self-service, what can we learn from Clarence Saunders and the Piggly Wiggly? Saunders saw opportunity in altering the traditional model of mediated counter service and empowering his customers. Do libraries see similar opportunities to reinvent our mediated service roles, and engage our customers in new ways? When patrons use self-checkout, print microfilm, scan documents, initiate holds, release print jobs, or utilize makerspaces, they interact with library workstations. In essence, they become short-term library workers. If our patrons are now assuming more of this newly recognized “shadow work,” have we considered training them to use self-service workstations as effectively as possible? Have we asked for their opinions, or ideas for improvements?

 Library Patrons as Visual Workers

How can we assist in training patrons to interact with self-service workstations, and empower them to streamline and improve their outcomes and productivity? One solution is to identify and apply visual solutions, transforming library patrons into visual workers.  Visual solutions and visual thinking are integral aspects of the Visual Workplace (VW), a system where information is converted into simple, universally understood visual devices, installed at the point of use. Designed to be a “self-ordering, self-explaining, self-regulating, and self-improving work environment,” VW seeks to eliminate information deficits through the creation of visual solutions. [11]

So what do these visual solutions look like? They can take many forms, including visual devices, de-cluttered service areas, properly labeled tools, updated instructions, reduced motion, and the co-location of supplies.[12] The most effective VW solutions are often informed by user feedback, and inspired through shared examples. Many creative and useful library-related VW solutions can be found on the Library as Visual Workplace blog, and a host of additional, more general workplace examples can be found in the VW literature, or within the Idea Library of Visual Workplace Inc.[13]

Of all the tools in the VW workshop, visual devices are perhaps the most engaging. In her various publications on the Visual Workplace, expert Gwendolyn Galsworth describes a hierarchy of four types of visual devices. They include visual indicators (tells only), visual signals (grabs attention), visual controls (limits behavior), and visual guarantees (allows correct response only). These devices can be implemented in isolation, or combined to create a visual mini-system, such as a networked print/scan release station with embedded digital instructions, or an integrated security gate fitted with a counter, RFID sensors, and audio/visual alarms.[14]

As I noted in my 2013 introductory article on the library as visual workplace, a successful VW program empowers workers to share information, bring order to their work environments, and eliminate confusion.[15] As library patrons increasingly adopt self-service “worker” roles, it is important that libraries provide clear, concise instructions at the point of need. It is also essential that patrons be empowered to share their experiences – to provide feedback, to suggest improvements, and to develop innovative self-service solutions. Strategies to promote and gather such feedback may take the form of focus groups, suggestion boxes, point-of-service surveys, or ethnographic studies. It’s important to remember that VW garners its strength by listening to, and learning from, the people performing the task at hand.

Self-Service in the Virtual Library

So far, we have considered applying the benefits of the Visual Workplace to physical, self-service “workstations” located within the library. But what about the ever expanding digital or virtual library? Do the same VW principles apply to online, do-it-yourself “workstations” such as search catalogs, discovery layers, web forms, and remote authentication systems? If they do, how do we gather feedback from virtual patrons to improve these self-service environments?

In recent years, a number of librarians have addressed the growing DIY mindset of virtual library patrons.[16] In 2012, ALA conference presenters Bohyun Kim, Patrick Colegrove, and Jason Clark explored new roles and opportunities for libraries in adapting to rapidly changing user behaviors.[17] They accurately noted that traditional library services were designed to solve information scarcity through mediated service points. In a new age of information abundance, however, extensive mediation is no longer needed, and users now “expect efficient systems that allow them to serve themselves [and] meet their information needs.”

So how can libraries improve the experiences of virtual DIY patrons by implementing Visual Workplace principles? Ideas include conducting regular usability experience (UX) testing, creating online DIY guides, offering virtual chat help, engaging social media accounts, crowdsourcing solutions, embedding point-of-service instructional videos, exploring reference transaction logs, and mining web/database analytics.

The Future of Self-Service

Given our rapidly changing DIY society, what does the future of self-service look like? The answer may once again lie with an innovative grocery store concept – the “Just Walk Out” technology of Amazon Go. First introduced in 2017, Amazon Go stores combine sophisticated computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep machine learning to create a grocery store without lines or checkouts.[18] Amazon’s state of the art technology detects when products are taken from or returned to shelves, keeping track of them in a virtual cart linked through the Amazon Go app. When the customer is finished shopping, they simply leave the store, and their Amazon account is charged for the purchases.[19]

Could such a self-enclosed, checkout-free system apply to libraries? The answer is yes, and in fact, it’s already being implemented in the form of Open Libraries. First pioneered in Denmark a decade ago, Open Libraries grant patrons self-service use of the library outside normal operating hours.[20] Similar to Amazon Go, Open Libraries are accessed via patron accounts, in this case a person’s library card and pin code. During non-staffed hours, patrons may use all of the library’s regularly available spaces, collections, and self-service workstations.[21] A number of North American public libraries have recently experimented with the Open Library concept, and have reported mostly positive results.[22] While some concerns over security and privacy rights remain, the overall concept appears to be meeting the extended operational hour needs (and self-service preferences) of modern library patrons.

VW is the Key

Regardless of current or future manifestations of library self-service, Visual Workplace principles act as the mechanism to make modern library operations self-ordering, self-explaining, and self-improving. As the DIY mindset and technological demands of library patrons continue to evolve, we must develop visual solutions that will eliminate information deficits, streamline self-service options, and engage our newfound “patron workers.” Simply put, VW is a key strategy to unlocking the full potential of the self-service library – in whatever form it takes!


[1]  “Self-Service – orig. North America,” Oxford English Dictionary. https://www.oed.com/

[2] “In Praise of the Automat” Life Magazine Slideshow (Internet Archive), https://web.archive.org/web/20111230004650/http://www.life.com/gallery/60231/in-praise-of-the-automat#index/0 Accessed 18 June 2019, and “How an Automat Works, Postcard” Wikipedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Horn_%26_Hardart_automat.JPG

[3] Cianciolo, Jerry. “The Man Who Invented the Grocery Store.” Wall Street Journal Opinion/Commentary, 7 September 2016, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-man-who-invented-the-grocery-store-1473290513

[4] NCR Corporation Report. “Self Check-Out: A Global Consumer Perspective,” NCR, 2014, https://www.ncr.co.jp/wp-content/uploads/files/solutions/self/fl/fl_wpa/RET_SCO_wp.pdf

[5] Cisco Corporation News Release. “Self-Service Shopping Grows in Popularity, According to Cisco Study,” The Network, 5 June 2013, https://newsroom.cisco.com/press-release-content?type=webcontent&articleId=1200551

[6] Merchant, Brian. “Why Self-Checkout Is and Has Always Been the Worst.” Gizmodo, 7 March 2019,  https://gizmodo.com/why-self-checkout-is-and-has-always-been-the-worst-1833106695

[7] Lambert, Craig. Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day, Counterpoint Press, 2015; Andrews, Christopher. The Overworked Consumer: Self-Checkouts, Supermarkets, and the Do-It-Yourself Economy, Lexington Books, 2019.

[8] For a comedic twist on “shadow work,” see comedian Rod “Rod Man” Thompson’s self-checkout routine at 9:50 sec of “Comedian ‘Rod Man’ Live (start 9:50 sec).” YouTube, uploaded by RodManTV, 31 January 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yfd1wop9-Sc

[9] Dempsey, Beth.  “Do It Yourself Libraries,” Library Journal, vol. 135, no. 12, July 2010, pp. 24-28.

[10] Sigwald, Richard.  “Self-Service Customer Service Models in Libraries,” Journal of Library Administration, vol. 56, no. 4, 2016, pp. 476-478.

[11] Galsworth, Gwendolyn.  Visual Workplace, Visual Thinking. Visual-Lean Enterprise Press, 2005. pp. 10-11.

[12] Galsworth, Gwendolyn. Visual Systems: Harnessing the Power of a Visual Workplace. AMACOM, 1997. pp. 3-19.

[13] Visual Workplace Inc. “Idea Library,” https://www.visualworkplaceinc.com/mobile-in-house-sign-shop/idea-library/; Library as Visual Workplace blog. Christopher Raab, 2011, http://libraryworkplace.blogspot.com/

[14] Galsworth, Gwendolyn.  Work That Makes Sense. Visual-Lean Enterprise Press, 2011. pp. 173-212.

[15] Raab, Christopher. “The Library as Visual Workplace,” The Journal of Creative Library Practice, 11 February 2013, http://creativelibrarypractice.org/2013/02/11/library-as-visual-workplace/

[16] Kim, Bohyun. “Research Librarianship in Crisis: Mediate When, Where, and How?” ACRLog, 1 August 2011, https://acrlog.org/2011/08/01/research-librarianship-in-crisis-mediate-when-where-and-how/; Farkas, Meredith. “The DIY Patron: Rethinking How We Help Those That Don’t Ask,” American Libraries, 23 October 2012, https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2012/10/23/the-diy-patron/

[17] Kim, Bohyun, Patrick T. Colgrove, and Jason Clark. “I Can Do It All By Myself: Exploring New Roles For Libraries And Mediating Technologies In Addressing The DIY Mindset Of Library Patrons.” American Library Association Annual Conference, 2012, Anaheim, CA. https://www.slideshare.net/bohyunkim/i-can-do-it-all-by-mysef-exploring-new-roles-for-libraries-and-mediating-technologies-in-addressing-the-diy-mindset-of-library-patrons

[18] “Frequently Asked Questions.” Amazon Go, https://www.amazon.com/b?ie=UTF8&node=16008589011

[19] Wingfield, Nick. “Inside Amazon Go, a Store of the Future,” The New York Times, 21 January 2018, https://nyti.ms/2G3iTwb

[20] Holmquist, Jan. “Open libraries: Self service libraries – the Danish Way,” Jan Holmquist, 6 April 2016, https://janholmquist.net/2016/04/06/open-libraries-self-service-libraries-the-danish-way/

[21] Ibarrondo, Clifford. “A Self-Service Experiment.” American Libraries, 1 November 2016, https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2016/11/01/bibliotheca-gcpl-self-service-experiment/

[22] Adler, Erin. “Libraries Without Librarians? Twin Cities Systems Try It.” Star Tribune, 1 June 2019, http://www.startribune.com/libraries-without-librarians-twin-cities-systems-try-it/510713442/?refresh=true