Underutilisation of self-service libraries in Chinese cities. The absence of a patron-centric perspective

Date19 September 2016
Published date19 September 2016
AuthorLihong Zhou,Yaqian Song,Tong Zhou
Underutilisation of self-service
libraries in Chinese cities
The absence of a patron-centric perspective
Lihong Zhou, Yaqian Song and Tong Zhou
School of Information Management, Wuhan University, Wuhan, China
Purpose Self-service libraries (SSLs) have been regarded as an effective approach to provide
convenient book services to the enormously large populations of Chinas cities. These SSLs are in fact
automatic book service machines, which provide a combination of services, including reading card
issuing, book lending and returning, and book reservations and collection. However, despite acclaimed
success, SSL services are not well received by patrons and are underutilised. The purpose of this paper
is to identify and understand the causes of the underutilisation of SSL services in Chinese cities.
Design/methodology/approach This study adopted an inductive approach and a case study
research design. The SSL services in Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei Province, were adopted as the
case study, in which 20 public librarians, SSL workers and managers, and library patrons were
approached and interviewed using semi-structured question scripts. The interview data were analysed
using a thematic analysis approach.
Findings The analysis pointed to 13 causes in three main themes: management problems, service
limitations, and the implicit role of government. Further conceptualisation of the findings revealed that
the underutilisation of SSL services has resulted from the absence of a patron-centric perspective and
the negligence of patronsneeds and requirements. Therefore, to increase the popularity and usage of
SSLs, it is necessary to develop patron-centric management mechanisms through which patronsneeds
and requirements can be effectively understood and responded to.
Originality/value This study aims to develop specific suggestions to improve the usage of SSLs.
Furthermore, although this study focuses on SSL development in China, this research can provide
useful suggestions and implications that can be shared across international borders.
Keywords China, Case study, Library services, Publiclibrary, Self-service libraries, Underutilisation
Paper type Case study
1. Introduction and research background
The Chinese economy is undertaking a critical turn because the tradition al
manufacturing industry is no longer able to sustain economic growth. As noted in
the 12th Five-Year Planning Report(State Council of China, 2011), which is the
national steering report issued by the State Council, the future of the nation relies on
knowledge creation, innovation, scientific achievements, and the protection of
intellectual property. This report delivers a very clear message that the nation should
turn from Made in Chinainto Innovated in China(State Council of China, 2011).
In this light, the Ministry of Culture published another high-level political report,
titled the 12th Five-Year Plan for Public Libraries. This report points out that it is
essential to encourage active reading and learning, as well as spontaneous knowledge
innovation from the general public (Wang, 2012). Therefore, as also stated in the report,
public libraries should become more active and strategically important for economic
growth (Xiao, 2014; Li, 2015).
To support this strategy, the central government of China significantly increase d
public spending and financial support to the public libraries (Chen, 2014; Yu, 2015).
According to The Statistical Yearbook of Chinese Public Culture and Cultural Relics
Library Hi Tech
Vol. 34 No. 3, 2016
pp. 521-538
©Emerald Group Publis hing Limited
DOI 10.1108/LHT-05-2016-0054
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
(Ministry of Culture, 2014), from 2011 to 2013 the central government invested
CNY 7.56 billion, CNY 9.35 billion, and CNY 10.71 billion annually to support the
development of public libraries in China.
In this case, self-service libraries (SSLs) have been widely regarded as an effectiv e
approach to extend the services of public libraries and to provide convenient book
services to the enormously large populations of Chinas cities (Yang and Liu, 2010;
Yang, 2013; Zheng, 2015).
SSLs are not a new technology, but are typically referred to as book vending
machinesor book dispensing machines. In fact, SSL services were initially
experimented and implemented in Japan and Sweden (Hampshire and Sanford, 2009;
Tseng and Kuo, 2009), and subsequently accepted, established, and well received
worldwide, such as in the USA, the UK, Denmark, Australia, Singapore, and the UAE
(Tseng and Kuo, 2009; Monley, 2011; Johannsen, 2012). Moreover, Monley (2011)
identifies three major advantages of adopting SSL services: first, they provide 24/7
access to collections with minimal staffing cost; second, they have the ability to locate
library services in densely populated neighbourhoods and high traffic locations; third,
SSLs enhance the flexibility and innovation of library services. As such, experiences
gained from global SSL development can provide international perspectives and
success stories to the development of SSLs in China.
SSLs were introduced to Mainland China in recent years (Xiao et al., 2010; Hsiao and
Tang, 2015). In some major cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou,
Fuzhou, and Wuhan, SSLs have been deployed in commercial centres, transportation
hubs, and residential areas (Zhong, 2009; Zhai, 2012; Li, 2013; Wu, 2015).
SSLs in these cities are really automatic self-issue and return service machines,
which are designed to provide a combination of services ranging from issuing cards to
lending and returning books and reserving books (Wu, 2008; Jia, 2010; Mo, 2011). Each
SSL can accommodate up to 400 books. Patrons can borrow and return books in as fast as
15 seconds. Patrons use a touch screen to complete book borrowing and returning processes
at their convenience, 24 hours a day (Zhai and Wang, 2012; Wang, 2012; Yan, 2015).
A number of Chinese librarians and researchers have praised the development of
SSL. Comments made by Xiao (2014) and Zheng (2015) have stated that SSLs provide a
brand new horizon to public library services and revolutionise traditional public
services from static into dynamic and proactive. Huang (2014) and Wu (2014) claim that
by using flashy new technologies, fully automated systems, and personalised services,
SSLs can quickly win peoples hearts.
However, very recently, it has been reported that SSL development in Chinese cities
has not been as successful and popular as claimed (Hu and Lu, 2012; Tian, 2012; Zhao,
2015; Wang, 2015). On December 26, 2015, a news report on China Central Television
News revealed that SSLs have been greatly underutilised. A CCTV reporter visited and
observed the SSLs in Chaoyang District in Beijing. Shockingly, based on several hours
of observation, not a single user paid any attention to the SSL facilities. Other regional
media have reported similar findings. For example, on August 5, 2015, Hubei Daily
reported that although the SSL network had been in operation for more than three
years in Wuhan, the capital city of the Hubei province, only 221,073 books had been
borrowed using the citys SSL machines between 2012 and 2014. This is a disturbingly
low number considering that there are more than ten million residents in this city.
This paper reports on one of the very early research studies, which aims to identify
and understand the causes of the underutilisation of SSL services in China. It is
expected that through systematic research and analysis, pragmatic strategies can be

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