Sunday, April 6, 2014

Farmington, NM Library Remembers the Past, Plans for the Future

The ancient residents of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, tracked the seasons from rock observatories. Current residents of the nearest large town can track the seasons across the stone floor of the library.

When I visited the Farmington, New Mexico library in mid November, the low noon sun touched the edge of the winter solstice marker engraved into the floor.

If I had visited on December 21st I would have found the phrase “Winter Solstice 12:00” framed in light and the solstice celebration in full swing.

On June 21st the noon sun shines from overhead through a window atop the east door of the library to illuminate the summer solstice marker.
The Farmington Library sought community input while planning their new building, which opened in 2003. The cultures and landscapes of northwest New Mexico are reflected in the Native American and high desert motifs of the building.

The main entrance echoes the east-facing doors of hogans on the Navajo Reservation west of town. The central atrium, where the sun traces the time and space between the solstices, is the heart of the building. The library’s collections and services encircle the atrium and follow the cycle of life in a clockwise circuit.

Life’s journey starts in the Juvenile Collection on the south, moves to the Teen Zone in the west, and continues through the adult nonfiction and fiction sections. Multimedia resources and magazines wait on the east side, next to the entrance.

The library’s round design reflects nature in its paucity of straight lines. Chrome bookshelves fan out to in pie slices in the adult section, between the atrium and the glass wall on the north. The round windows in the interior and exterior walls remind me of portholes.

I checked email and downloaded digital photos and GPS coordinates in the Southwest Collection, protected by legions of kachina dolls dancing in glass display cases.


Beyond the rows of kachina dolls, a modern protector watches over the library’s materials. The Farmington Library was the first in the country where patrons check out all their own books and media. Their system uses radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, instead of the bar codes used at most libraries and in supermarket checkout lanes. The RFID readers in the atrium don’t have to “see” a visible bar code or demagnetize security “tattle tapes.” Borrowed materials just have to be close enough that the machine can scan their RFID tag with radio waves.

Pet owners use RFID tags when they get their cats and dogs “chipped.” If a pet gets lost, their name and owner’s contact information can be read with a hand held scanner.

I first heard of RFID tags in salmon. Thousands of young fish in the Pacific Northwest are tagged and tracked as they swim down the Columbia River on their way to the Pacific Ocean and again when they return to inland streams as adults to spawn and die.

I can't help picturing schools of shimmering books leaving the sea of library shelves and heading out into the world through the east entrance. I imagine the books expanding the minds of fifth graders, retired police officers, aspiring carpenters, and middle school teachers before returning to the stacks. Happily, the books, unlike salmon, make many round trips in their lifetimes.

When books return to the library, they are either walked in the front entrance or driven behind the READ sculpture to the automatic return in back. After patrons slide their returns through the slot, the RFID system checks in the materials and provides a receipt and a coupon for $5 off library fines.

This video shows the system in action. The last part, where materials are automatically sorted into bins, reminds me of the automatic gates that open and shut to sort tagged salmon for researchers to study.

The self check out--and in--system frees the library staff to help patrons and answer visitors’ questions. This has transformed the Circulation Desk of my childhood into the Service Desk in the Farmington Library’s atrium. A whiteboard next to the desk tells everyone they count: the board lists the number of people who visited the library and the number of book they checked out (themselves) the previous day. (A helpful commenter, below, pointed out that the numbers in the photo were from a Sunday, when the library is only open for four hours. On other days, 1050 to 1400 people visit the library.)


The library’s circulation system also freed up a security guard to do a short demo for me. He showed me the postage stamp-sized RFID tags inside each book. Then he showed me what happens when someone forgets to scan a book before they leave the library. We got prompt attention from the Service Desk.

The late afternoon sun had slipped below the southwest windows and the patch of light on the floor had disappeared by the time I left the library. I drove west into the sunset to Shiprock, NM before I turned north toward Boise.


The sun has made ten trips back and forth across the floor of the new library building. Last fall, before the winter celebration, the Farmington Library again asked the community to help plan their future. Area residents shared their ideas and hopes for the library in a time of shrinking budgets and growing populations.

The ancient residents of New Mexico faced their own challenges of dwindling resources. Farmington's modern library is meeting its challenges while grounded in the area’s ancient traditions.