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Exeter College: Moving self-issue library systems forward

Sector relevance: Further education and Sixth Form colleges, a case study based on material originally produced by JISC Regional Support Centre for South West on behalf of the Excellence Gateway.


In 2010 Exeter College decided to investigate whether it could introduce a self-issue library system that would make more effective use of staff time in providing services to College users (ie. learners and staff) and increase the efficiency of the library. Three years later the college looks at plans for the future.

About Exeter College

Established in 1970, Exeter College was the first tertiary college in England.Rated the top performing further education college in Devon in Government league tables, published in January 2010, it offers a wide choice of full- and part-time courses and training programmes to students aged 14 to 19, ranging from NVQs, Apprenticeship schemes, and national Diplomas, to A-levels and the International Baccalaureate.Exeter College has close ties with the University of Plymouth, the University of Exeter and the University College Plymouth St Mark and St John, offering many higher education qualifications accredited to these institutions, ranging from Foundation Degrees to BA Hons.

The challenge

Our initial challenge in 2010 was to embed the self-issue system within the College’s current library management system (LMS), whilst ensuring that it would be secure and easy for learners and staff to use.

Different models and systems were investigated, including RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), which has the additional benefit of enabling multiple items to be issued concurrently.

Implementing RFID, however, necessitated the purchase of new security gates and retagging of existing library stock. Ultimately, the College decided to invest in EM (Electro Magnetic) self-issue stations, which were compatible with its existing security system, whilst leaving the option open to convert to RFID at a later date if required.

The activity

The background operational principles of the self-issue system will be readily recognisable to library staff.

In order to borrow items, College users place their College identity cards under a scanner, which is built into the self-issue station. They then slide the books they require through a separate barcode reader.

Returned loans are simply passed under the barcode reader and placed on a trolley for shelving later.

Items are desensitised and resensitised as they are issued and returned, and in both instances a receipt is printed out confirming the transaction.

The outcomes

The new self-issue system has demonstrated several benefits:

Less queuing at the desk during busy periods

Learners and staff have more control over their library environment

A more efficient and quicker service for learners and staff


Comparisons can be made to supermarkets, and public and university libraries – all of which are starting to have self-issue systems installed. It offers the customer more flexibility and the freedom to serve themselves.

Exeter College Library Systems Co-ordinator Trevor Leyland explains that the introduction of a self-issue system was not intended to entirely replace human interaction at the service points, especially as a number of borrowers may still prefer to speak to library staff in a traditional manner.

However, as predicted, it has encouraged independent and more informal use of the College library service.

Having proved popular with learners who have used it, Trevor explains:

“The feedback has been very positive from students, who are finding the system both visually appealing and easy to use. In fact, many now prefer using the self-issue system when borrowing or returning books.”

Trevor Leyland, Exeter College Library Systems Co-ordinator

 And although initially library staff were spending time helping learners while they became accustomed to using the self-issue terminals, Trevor explains they are now enjoying its time-saving benefits too.

“Ultimately, the introduction of the self-issue system freed-up staff time to ‘roam’ the library. By doing so, they are in a better position to offer more complex support to customers as they have become less involved with more routine counter duties.”

Trevor Leyland, Exeter College Library Systems Co-ordinator

 The introduction of a self-issue system was designed to further enhance the learning experience at Exeter College, by increasing the efficiency of the library service and enabling the delivery of more in-depth curriculum support. It reflects a wider College and departmental strategy of placing its learners at the centre of all its activities, and using new technologies to make resources available and readily accessible to them through a variety of means.

The future – EM or RFID?

Exeter College now recommends other colleges look into introducing a self-issue system for their libraries as, overall, it is believed that the introduction of self-issue has had a beneficial impact on the learning environment for students and staff.

Important factors to consider when introducing self-issue are the cost and time implications involved when choosing between an RFID or EM system. At the time of the original decision making process RFID required the purchase, processing and programming of new security tags, in addition to the installation of new RFID-compatible security gates.

Although EM systems are slightly less flexible than RFID systems, in that only one item can be issued at a time, and there are certain limitations regarding multimedia transactions, the cost differences were heavily in favour of the EM solution.

However, over the last three years the cost of RFID hardware has significantly reduced as the functionality has greatly increased.  The main inhibiting factor remains the cost of replacing the security system on existing sites but 2CQR now offer complete RFID starter packages which make the transition much more affordable. In addition to fines payment, multi-media display presentations and remote access, 2CQR offer a whole range of associated functions alongside custom made resources.  This has the potential to suit a range of institutions according to their budget, size and requirements.

We’re currently in possession of a RFID Baby in one location, a gleaming red Totem which accepts cash payments in our new Learning Centre, and have recently upgraded one of our EM Babies to RFID in another.  As RFID continues to become more cost-effective it provides a greater opportunity to deliver a more empowering and exciting library service.