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Can RFID save Libraries?

With the demise of the printed word widely predicted, librarians are busy trying to find a new "role" for libraries. Add to this the challenges of reduced budgets and often a lack of IT expertise - and that challenge begins to look overwhelming.

Author: Mick Fortune

Faced with this seemingly impossible task of delivering improved and innovative services with fewer resources many have turned to RFID for help.

In many of the world's libraries RFID is seen as an adjunct to their existing automated systems. Libraries were one of the first services to embrace computer technology and most now use management systems of some kind (often abbreviated to ILS, LMS or even ILMS) to look after the day to day running of the library - everything from buying, tracking orders, receiving, shelving and, of course, lending items.

It is that last activity - lending - that has proved the most attractive to RFID providers and for many years some libraries have been replacing both their barcodes and their security systems with RFID in order to loan (or 'circulate') their stock.

New international data standard - ISO 28560

Concerns about the lack of a data standard somewhat limited the growth in some markets (although many countries developed their own standard),  but with the publication of an international standard for data - ISO 28560 - earlier this year, those concerns has been removed and interest and investment in RFID is once again on the increase.

Self-service

For most of the last 15 years the world library market has been dominated by a handful of RFID suppliers providing self-service and security systems to libraries that had already invested heavily in management systems. The demand for self-service has been a major driver for RFID adoption in libraries since it enables them to release staff from routine tasks as well as increasing throughput.

The downside of this focus on self-service was a lack of innovation in other aspects of service provision. Only in the last few years have we begun to see RFID based solutions being deployed to manage other tasks - like receiving new stock, carrying out inventory checks and checking for misfiled items. That's slowly beginning to change as new suppliers see the potential to develop applications for a single market - rather than for each individually - and librarians begin to realise that they, at last, have a choice to make. But other changes are happening too.

RFID In Libraries Nordic ID

"Smart shelves"

The key question librarians need to answer is "am I providing the resources my readers want?" Ways to answer that question include counting the numbers coming through the door and looking at the statistical reports of loans, but one measurement that has always proved elusive is the use of items within the library itself. This includes reference material that cannot be loaned (and so never appears in the reports) but also the lending stock - some of which may be consulted in the library without ever being borrowed.

There have been several RFID based solutions to this problem, the most ambitious being to make the shelves "active". Sensors are placed on the shelves to detect the removal of any item for consultation.

The deployment of active or "smart" shelves creates a number of other possibilities too. Taking inventory can potentially be done at the click of a mouse. Readers might be guided to their catalogue selections by a combination of phone or tablet map and flashing lights at the shelf.

System development

Most of the projects I've seen so far have been experimental but they have one important feature in common - they no longer link to the management system.

Freeing RFID from its dependence on pre-existing systems will, I have no doubt, prove irresistible in the long term. Finding new ways to interact with stock - like the projects at Oslo Public Library, Cardiff University and the National Library of Singapore - are key to prolonging the useful life of print and managing the integration and probable transition from physical to virtual resource provision. (The potential for using an item as a tool for discovery was a concept I first saw deployed in Denmark (for a pharmaceutical company) as early as 2007).

The only word of caution I would offer here would be to make sure that any projects are mindful of their impact on other systems. If your library already uses RFID for self-service linked to a management system (or plans to) - it may not be a good idea to have to add another tag - with another data model. Too many tags in an item could result in a degradation of all the services being provided - as well as costing more than necessary! Using common data standards and frequencies, if possible, could help prevent costly mistakes.

With tablets and smartphones now able to interact directly with RFID (NFC and the vast majority of library tags share the same frequency) the next few years are likely to see an explosion of new ideas and services in libraries using RFID.

Which could be their salvation.

 

More information about RFID in libraries at Mick Fortune´s blog.

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