Bookmobile Online Circulation via Cellular Telephone
The Bloomington (Illinois) Public Library serves a community of 48,000 and three adjacent townships with a population of 7,500. The bookmobile has a bi-weekly schedule of thirty one-hour stops around the city and townships and an annual circulation of approximately 35,000 items.
Bloomington Public Library received an LSCA grant from the Illinois State Library to circulate items via cellular telephone in July 1988. Before using cellular telephone, BPL used the regiscope system to check out books. This system uses a picture of the book pocket, a numbered date due card, and the patron's library card. The main library uses the Utlas circulation system. The grant was written to make circulation on the bookmobile compatible with the main library. This would give bookmobile patrons access to the same information as patrons using the main library, including titles at the main library, reserve information, information on overdue charges, and so forth.
Cellular telephone was introduced to the Bloomington-Normal area during the fall of 1988. Two links were assigned to the Bloomington-Normal area, but because of problems the FCC had in assigning the two links, there was a delay in the introduction of the cellular phone service in the area. BPL made the decision to work with Tower Cellular.
Equipment for the project was ordered in December 1988. The vendor originally promised equipment delivery within two weeks of the order date; however, actual delivery was made at the end of February. Equipment for the project included an Epson Equity I+ microcomputer and monitor, a dot-matrix printer, one internal 2400-baud modem, and an external 2400-baud modem.
A representative of Tower Cellular thought the computer on the bookmobile could share an Utlas communications port with the microcomputer used for Utlas in the Extension Services department. This meant the two computers could not be used for Utlas at the same time. A modem was placed in the Extension Services micro and a switch placed near the port on the 8-port concentrator to switch the port from the bookmobile computer to the Extension Services computer. The port was to be shared, saving charges for two ports of approximately $115 per month. At that time, BPL only had an 8-port concentrator, and all of the ports were being used, so there was no port for exclusive use of the bookmobile. Tower Cellular tested this configuration, but the terminal emulation software did not work correctly, so it was abandoned.
In mid-March, a 16-port concentrator was purchased and installed in the circulation department in place of the 8-port concentrator. A 2400-baud modem was placed near the concentrator and hooked up to a dedicated phone line, providing the bookmobile with its own port. The microcomputer on the bookmobile was hooked to the port at the library via the cellular telephone, completing the connection to the Utlas mainframe computer at the Resource Sharing Alliance at Illinois Central College in East Peoria.
Cellular telephone equipment was installed on the bookmobile by Tower Cellular in late March. Extension Services staff built a padded wooden container for the computer to ensure its safety on bumpy rides. The container held the CPU, the monitor, the uninterruptible power supply, and a printer. The equipment was tested several times and the bookmobile went online in April 1989.
The bookmobile was online through the end of May, at which time the bookmobile returned to the regiscope system to circulate books during the summer reading program in June and July. This was done because the cellular telephone system was very slow and the summer is the busiest time on the bookmobile. The bookmobile went online again in August and continued online through the end of December 1989.
The first full month (May) the bookmobile was online, the system was used for one thousand minutes at the basic package rate of $125 for the first one thousand minutes plus an additional 1,211 minutes billed at 29 cents per minute, for a total of 2,211 minutes or 36.85 hours for the month. The bookmobile has thirty stops over a two-week period, or approximately sixty service hours per month. The total bill for the month was $517.03.
Initially it was estimated that bills for cellular telephone would be approximately $100 per month. (Peoria received cellular telephone service before Bloomington, so estimates for the grant were based on figures provided by Cellular One in Peoria, which offered unlimited air time for $100 a month when the project was first investigated.) Later, estimates from Tower Cellular indicated the bills might be $700 a month. After several months of using the system, bills have averaged $300 to $500 a month depending on how busy the stops were and how many items were circulated.
The biggest problem with the system was speed. The system would only operate at 1200 baud. A baud rate of 2400 was tried but was very undependable. Sometimes the system was very slow to accept numbers wanded in and to display item information. Because of this, at busy stops people had to wait fifteen to twenty minutes to check materials out. System speed was not a problem at slow stops, but at the busy stops where patrons had to wait, complaints were received. This also created a space problem on the bookmobile for patrons waiting to check out books. The speed problem was the reason for returning to regiscope use during the busy summer months with the summer reading program.
Dependability has been a problem with cellular telephone use also. When the weather was stormy, the cellular telephone was undependable. Another problem occurred when one of the batteries in the bookmobile engine from which the cellular telephone gets its power was low. When this happened, the keyboard on the computer got stuck and staff could not get the system to respond. Upon checking the main cellular phone unit in the truck's cab, staff discovered the power on the phone surging in and out. The problem was the battery. This was fixed when a new battery was installed.
Another problem we encountered was the keyboard locking when the heat or air conditioning was being used on the bookmobile, perhaps indicating that more power is needed than the current generator can provide. When the computer is not working or locks, all of the transactions must be written down (charges and discharges) and then entered into the computer the following day. The computer seldom worked smoothly throughout an entire evening of two stops.
The major problem with maintaining the cellular telephone was the cost. Paying $100 per month is reasonable; paying $500 per month is too much, especially for a system that is slow and undependable.
The staff has not used functions other than circulation on the bookmobile, mostly because during a one-hour stop there is no time. While it may be desirable to offer these services, it cannot be done at a busy stop with limited space and a number of people waiting to borrow items. In any event, most of the people using the bookmobile do not request these services; they use the bookmobile as a browsing collection and check out what is available or reserve an item. One positive aspect of having the system on the bookmobile is identifying delinquent patrons.
Although the cellular telephone will be kept on the bookmobile for emergencies, it no longer will be used for circulation purposes. Staff are investigating other methods for circulation on the bookmobile. One option is packet radio. While the upfront costs seem high, ongoing costs are relatively low, and transmission speed is high. The library is also considering an offline Utlas program that will record transactions which can be dumped later.
If we could do the project differently, we would purchase a smaller computer. The computer is fairly large and is housed in a wooden case that is very bulky, taking up a great deal of space on the bookmobile. It also is very heavy and difficult to maneuver when a repair is needed. Further we would purchase a computer that is in stock, so we could start the project sooner and not have to interrupt it during the summer reading program.
BPL has not abandoned automation of the bookmobile. However, our experience indicates cellular telephone is too slow, undependable, and costly at this time.
Lori Logsdon is head of extension services at the Bloomington Public Library, Bloomington, Illinois.…