RFID for Libraries: A Practical Guide

Martin Myhill (Library – Forum Project Director ‐ University of Exeter, UK)

Program: electronic library and information systems

ISSN: 0033-0337

Article publication date: 26 July 2011




Myhill, M. (2011), "RFID for Libraries: A Practical Guide", Program: electronic library and information systems, Vol. 45 No. 3, pp. 358-359. https://doi.org/10.1108/00330331111151674



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

It seems all a blur now – or was it even a dream? Just over ten years ago I was fortunate to visit Santa Clara Public Library in Silicon Valley, California. As you might expect from the location, this was a HIGH TECH experience (with emphasis on the capital letters). Memory can play strange tricks over a period of time and psychologists will remind you of the concept of “Rosy Retrospection” where things seem better in the past. However, I recall that there was an automated drive‐in book return box, a standard book self‐return drop linked to a sorter for the various floors of the library, patrons who had a key fob rather than a library card and who were simply able to walk through the exit gates with a pile of books without pausing at a self issue machine (still in their infancy) or even pass the time of day with the library staff at a counter. What made this work – Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)? I was hooked. As I recall, the system was made by Checkpoint and linked to Innovative Interfaces Inc. Millennium Library Management System.

Pandian's book tells you all you have ever needed to know about RFID. From its Second World War beginnings in identifying “friendly” aircraft to the futuristic concept of RFID tags talking to RFID tags (presumably over a cup of tea in the library stacks overnight). The book is very well written and even includes a number of photographs – yes, photographs of tags. Therein lies some problems. Tags is plural, because there is not yet one standard. RFID was not developed for libraries but readily adopted by them as an efficient means of stock control imported from the commercial sector. As such, it carries some innate design flaws in the library environment. As the author points out, and not dissimilar to more common and far less intelligent electromagnetic (EM) tags, these are not security systems but theft deterrent systems – there is no such thing as a fully secure library apart from a closed stack. A pile of RFID tags can cancel each other out as the location has to be varied between items to lessen the risk of a signal conflict or other interference, mis‐reads or non‐reads remain common, tags do not have a finite shelf life and are so identifiable that they can be easily and illicitly removed by determined thieves.

At the start of the book I was certain that Paul Pandian wanted me to adopt RFID as the only contemporary means of library stock control with significant benefits over barcodes (“automatic” shelf checking) and potential (e.g. greater synergy with the book publishing trade). I emphasise that I started the preceding paragraph with “all you have ever needed to know about RFID” because the tense is important. This is a very honest book and by the end of it I was far less convinced about the value (and especially financial cost) of converting a large library of less intelligent, but already barcoded stock with EM security into RFID format. Many libraries have done so – and seemingly successfully ‐ but it would appear that the true value of RFID is still somewhere in the future and at a point where existing tags and systems may not be compatible.

So what of my Santa Clara experience? I was heartened to find reference to the same concept of “cardless” patrons and bulk exit lending in Pandian's RFID implementation case study of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, India. On page 122 it seems that this remains “in the future”. A great shame given a decade of huge development in library management technology and I'm certain that one of the book's conclusions is correct – there is never a “best time” to implement this type of advance.

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