All entries for Monday 12 March 2007

March 12, 2007

RFID & libraries

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I went to an event on Blended Learning at De Montfort last Friday. It was very interesting to meet with so many library colleagues and to see the refurbishment that De Montfort has just been through, especially given that they took inspiration from our own Learning Grid and that we are about to go through a refurbishment in our own Main library.

One of the workshops I attended was on implementing RFID: it was taken by my old chartership supervisor Alan Brine. Alan had been through the process to get European funding in order to put RFID tags into all the book stock at De Montfort. It seems that he learnt many lessons along the way, and it was good for other libraries to be able to benefit from his experience.

(NB I try to refer to library users as “users” or sometimes “students” and RFID reading equipment as “readers” in this posting but it does get confusing for those of an LIS background used to describing library users as “readers”!)

Coincidentally my Zetoc alert on various library publications flagged up the journal article I’m linking to, which is also about RFID in libraries. It concludes that “Issues about reliability, interference from noise, high implementation costs, and lack of a killer application in RFID systems remain to be resolved.”

Both the article and Alan explained some advantages to RFID:

1) RFID allows you to check in several books at one time, rather than having to check in each book individually. However, Alan noted that this is only the case if all the tags are not stacked on top of each other in the stack of books. Hence libraries need to consider where to place their tags within a book, and how to vary the position. (You can’t vary it much if you want to be able to scan the shelves with readers for a stock take/shelf tidy, though!) And it’s not all that convenient for users to return a big stack of books: they’d have to carry them all, which they don’t like doing, and if one of the books turned out to have been reserved, then they’d have to go through the whole pile to find it and separate it out. Also, students did not know that the new technology was all that different from the old barcodes so tended to put books on the check-in scanners one at a time anyway.

2) RFID tags can be added to videotapes, cassettes and diskettes and provide security for such materials that magnetic strips cannot. (Note that there are problems with metal CDs, however, as Alan described and as I previously commented on this blog. It is interesting that Alan explained that this was not an issue for most of the CDs in their stock at De Montfort as there weren’t many metal CDs. Apparently these tend to be ones that you copy onto yourself rather than commercially produced ones, so I would doubt that we have many at Warwick either.)

3) Library cards can contain RFID tags which can track library users. As noted on an earlier posting to this blog, we already use RFID tags to trigger the gates to open as users enter the library here. Would it be possible to use more powerful readers to ascertain the whereabouts in the library of any user was at any one time, though? If we could do this then we could perhaps offer users guidance on how to find material in the section they are currently in, through some kind of guide device, as described in the article. Potentially we could also track books as they move around the library in the same way. Is it a case of the signal power, the readers’ power or the number of readers in the library? I’m not sure. Certainly we might come across problems of cost and a lack of suitable locations (ie nowhere near metal shelving) if we were to consider putting in more readers. This sort of implementation wasn’t covered in the workshop run by Alan, however.

4) RFID tags enable you to use readers to check that the book stock is in order. The article seems to imply that the readers could tell if a book was in the “wrong” section of the library at any time. I may have understood it incorrectly because Alan’s description was of hand held readers being scanned accross the shelves to check for items out of order. Therefore there is still a lot of manpower required to check for missing items. Is it any quicker than an experienced member of staff scanning spine labels with his/her eyes?

5) The article also suggests that RFID could help libraries to keep track of journal stock. This is an issue for most libraries as journal issues are not loanable and therefore there are no loan statistics. Therefore it is quite difficult to tell whether some journal stock is being used or not. However, with the advent of more and more electronic journals, do we need to monitor journal stock on the shelves? And in any case, the process described in the article seems hardly more practical than running usage surveys as we currently do since it seems to suggest that if a journal issue is not where it should be when your RFID tag reading equipment is scanned past the shelves, then it must be being used, and that is how RFID helps to monitor usage of journals. How many times a day might we have to pass the readers over the shelves to monitor usage? How long would a check take? Would we have the staff to do this? It may be that the kind of tags and readers envisaged in the article are more powerful than the kind used by De Montfort where they described passing readers accross a shelf to identify the location of materials. In any case, could we reasonably conclude that a missing item from the shelf is in fact material that is being used?

The article also doesn’t address what I thought would be a big problem: people ripping tags out of the books in order to help themselves to the books. Alan’s experience was that this was not a problem, but he explained that another library that didn’t overprint its tags with its logos found that it did have a problem with people ripping the tags out.

So what are the advantages that can be had from implementing RFID now, in the way that De Montfort have done? I think I need more information about their implementation and how it works for them. Since they only began with RFID in earnest this academic year, for me the jury is out as to what kind of management information they can get from their tags and how useful it is for them.

Their book sorting machines looked good, but we didn’t get much time to explore those. I suspect that they do offer a significant advantage to the library when sorting stock to put back on the shelves.

And I’ll watch the space in terms of what level security the tags provide…

See our previous posting on RFID:

March 2007

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