Radio Frequency Identification Technology in libraries: meeting with the RFID experts

I came expecting yet-another-panel-of-experts. I left psyched up about creative uses for RFID which I hadn’t considered before. In other words, I got something new from the LITA International Relations committee sponsored discussion about RFID. Considering it was 8:30 in the godforsaken morning, that says something. I also nearly got frostbite since the Hotel Intercontinental has the coldest ballroom this side of Antarctica. Word to the wise — take a heavy sweater if you find yourself going there. My wee cardigan was no match for air-conditioning gone awry.

The details:

The panel was introduced by Nancy John from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Pat Harris, executive director of NISO batted lead. The big news from that corner is that NISO is sponsoring a workshop on RFID standards integration Oct.25-26 at the Texas Center for Digital Knowledge. Mark your calendars. I intend to attend if I can save my pennies. The workshop will include publishers, book sellers, librarians and industry knowledge managers. This is cool because there needs to be cooperation from stakeholders at every point in the publication cycle. Why tag your books if they can come that way from the publisher or book jobber? Speakers, agendas, sponsor information, registration and hotel information will be posted on the NISO web site after 7/15 (http://www.niso.org).

Harris began with a general introduction and overview of RFID technology which was totally appropriate for the mixed audience of RFID neophytes, nay-sayers, and veterans.
She explained the advantages of RFID use in libraries: circulation, self-service, workflow management, security, inventory, usage, and better work place (less repetitive strain injury). She briefly touched on the privacy controversy as a disadvantage.

NISO has been following RFID for at least 10 years and Harris says she believes RFID may be the trigger for the next round of major changes in libraries which will allow us to compete with the Barnes & Nobles of the world. There are many challenges, however, to RFID deployment at the global level due to interoperability issues. There are over 70 international standards pertaining to RFID says Harris. In order for libraries to strategically integrate RFID the profession needs to think about ways that RFID can help us manage rights expression and to gather new information on how people actually use libraries (this did get my spidey privacy senses tingling). Overall Harris says the market is maturing and librarians will need to embrace the technology as it evolves and that groups such as LITA will play a key role in determining how it plays out. Our community needs to focus on the emerging standards.

Harris finished her presentation a little early and introduced a surprise speaker, Leif Anderson from the Danish National Library Authority. The Danes have been working on RFID in libraries for some years and have recently developed functional requirements for the use of the technology in Danish libraries. The Authority started this work by setting five objectives for RFID use:

1 – it must support interlibrary loan
2 – it should have a full standards-based interface to any integrated library system
3 – It should assure reliance of information from several sources
4 – it should use the information from current bar code systems
5 – it should comply with existing international standards

Based on this the Danish representatives to NISO set up a meeting and invited all printers in the Danish market to participate. They set up a working group of vendors which included 3M, Bibliotheca and several European and Danish vendors. They have been working for several years to figure out how they can meet the objectives. Their report detailing the technical specifications necessary for a vendor to meet the objectives will be released next month.

The next speaker was Vinod Chandra, CEO of VTLS. He discussed some implementation issues a library might face after choosing RFID and provided a glimpse of future trends. He went through the typical workflow of a conversion and illustrated some operational issues that librarians might encounter during the process: incremental implementation, minimizing expenses, check station failures, gate issues and privacy concerns. If a library does implement RFID incrementally (one branch or collection at a time) then the system must continue supporting bar codes. Use volunteers or purchase pre-tagged books to minimize labor costs of converting. Use a test suite for the SIP protocol during the initial implementation to ensure that the response between readers and tags and integrated library systems can reconnect in case of power failure. Discuss privacy issues with your constituency in order to educate users and avoid problems. In the future systems will be more affordable and there will continue being multiple vendors innovating quickly. Minimize your risk of obsolescence by ensuring your equipment interoperates with other systems and has backward compatibility. Chandra says another future trend will be RFID software which is hardware independent — it can work with all tags.

Shai Robkin of Integrated Technology Group discussed the “real world” of RFID by listing constraints to implementation — financial, physical, political, existing infrastructure, personnel — and suggesting questions librarians should ask themselves before beginning a conversion project. In the financial realm there is usually a separation between a library’s capital and operational budgets. A change in operational budgets might affect your ability to maintain RFID. In the physical realm do you have a high percentage of A/V in your collections? Metal causes interference for the radio signals and can hinder the effectiveness of your implementation. Also consider how much metal shelving you may have. In the political realm ask yourself if you have buy-in from all stake-holders. Ensure that your technical infrastructure the is capable of handling RFID. Is your integrated library system compatible with your RFID vendor? Robkin says that not all vendors implement the SIP protocol as its written. Finally, doing a conversion can be labor intensive. How will you staff it? You need to educate your staff as well as your constituents. How will you manage self-check stations? They will require some employee oversight during the first few months.

Lynne Jacobson discussed her library’s experience by outlining their decision for changing to RFID, explaining their vendor selection process, showing a video of their automatic sorting system in action (that was pretty darn nifty), and entertaining audience questions. We learned that her library had problems initially with jewel cases breaking in the sorting bins but using a stronger brand alleviated the issue.

The session ended with a presentation by Lawrence McCrank which rocked my socks. The man, as Michael Stephens is wont to say, “gets it.” I think he scared some of the more conservative members of the audience. Nancy John mentioned something about rabble-rousing and alternating between feeling excited and irritated by McCrank’s prophecies when she provided the post-speaker summary.

Rather than discuss the same ol’ same ‘ol this-is-how-RFID-works-and-this-is-how-we-done-good thing he talked about how to use RFID to be user directed instead of collection centered. McCrank has used something called immersion theory to design the library of the future and it’s all about the ubiquitous computing baby. He’s creating this visionary playground at Chicago State University but he was careful to let us know that political and economic reality enforces a great deal of compromise. The real deal won’t look exactly like the dream.

CSU is using the Pareto principle to their advantage. They have closed stacks utilizing an automated sorting and retrieval system (ASRS) where 80% of their lower circulating items reside. The 20% in more active use is retained on the shelves as a browsing collection. RFID provides a double layer of security for them because it’s used when an item leaves the retrieval system and once again when a patron checks it out.

McCrank says that RFID can be used as an integration point in the information environment. Using a smart card to gain access to the library can help mediate copyright and intellectual property issues. The smart card can retrain an individual’s preferences to make an entirely personalized library environment. Imagine that you and your card’o’customization enter the library with a backpack full of books you’re using for a research project. The card could signal the OPAC, retrieve the MARC heading and use the LCSH headings to create a metasearch that t navigates all of the library’s A&I databases, the OPAC, and recall all the necessary physical items from the ASRS.

I found myself intrigued despite the glaringly obvious privacy concerns with this scenario. McCrank also mentioned the possibilities of integrating course management software and e-reserves into the mix. This is consistent with the top technology trends — people aren’t going to come to the library web site to retrieve things, we’ll need to push content out where its needed.

Ultimately McCrank was not dismissive of the privacy issues but that is a sociopolitical issue which requires sociopolitical solutions. He asked the audience to deeply consider that the benefits of RFID may outweigh the drawbacks. Given that RFID will be included on everything from refrigerators and passports there may be bigger things to worry about than tracking books.

I’m still not convinced that the benefits will override the potential erosion of my civil liberties but McCrank made an appealing pitch by shifting the focus of RFID in libraries from collections to users. I do agree with McCrank when he says that in order to remain relevant librarians will have to accept that ubiquitous computing will be part and parcel of our environment. We need to come up with intelligent solutions to the problems so we can derive the advantages of RFID.

After an audience Q&A Nancy John summarized what the speakers said. In short: we learned about how RFID is used, the concerns, and the need for interoperability. Our colleagues in Europe are doing excellent work. We got practical answers to thorny questions about work flows and conversion. The real world does differ from the potential we see. We have lots of possibilities to consider but librarians are thoughtful in how they select RFID systems and will continue to keep alive the dialog about abuses.