Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)-based technologies have grown into a major portion of the library automation landscape. While this topic has not been covered extensively in Smart Libraries Newsletter, RFID increasingly warrants attention. Not only are larger numbers of libraries investigating and adopting RFID products, but there are important conversations taking place regarding new standards and issues of interoperability with existing technology infrastructure components. This topic has been on my mind as I prepare for my keynote presentation at the CLIP RFID Conference to be held in London in November (http://www.cilip.org.uk/rfid2010/).
In the current economic climate, libraries struggle to maintain budgets in a difficult economy, the efficiencies and innovation made possible through RFID-based technologies can be an important aspect of a libraryís technology strategy. Though not necessarily a panacea for all libraries, itís an area of technology of increasing significance with an ever-expanding reach. RFID-based technologies today fit best into public libraries with moderate to high circulation volumes. Many academic libraries, especially those that serve large undergraduate populations, also experience the need to leverage technology to handle physical collections more efficiently. For these kinds of libraries, investments in technology can lead to improvements in service to patrons through more efficient handling of routine tasks related to physical materials. These investments give librarians and other staff more time to focus on providing services of higher value. Librarians should be careful to avoid the patterns we often seen in retail outlets with self-service, where too few personnel remain to deliver high-quality customer service.
RFID lends itself to more sophisticated automation of the process of handling library materials, to a degree that is not possible with conventional barcodes. Compared to barcodes, RFID offers several important advantages, including the ability to identify an item in close proximity without the need to find or touch the actual tag and the capacity to store the status of the item along with its identifier or other data. These characteristics enable many forms of automation related to self-check, returns with automatic sorting, as well as security systems that sound an alarm at an exit gate for materials not allowed to leave the library, such as reference materials or items from the circulating collection not properly charged out.
Academic or research libraries with large collections and lower circulation volumes may not find sufficient benefits to justify the expenses involved with converting to RFID from barcodes. Some research libraries have made use of RFID with selective parts of their operations, but Iím not aware of any with multi-million volume collections that have performed a wholesale conversion. As I do more research on RFID deployments, Iíll be interested to learn about the libraries with the largest collections that have fully tagged their collection.
I think that public libraries have a long future with physical books and will continue to need strong automation support like that provided by RFID. Sure, ever higher proportions of their collections will come in digital form, but I think that itís a long way into the future that the typical public library will see a huge impact on its need to handle physical materials. I think that media lending will see changes first. Lending CDs and DVDs represents a large portion of a typical public libraryís circulation activity. Given the rapid shift away from publishing on physical media in favor of streaming delivery, one of the most pressing issues for libraries today involves finding ways to remain relevant through this critical transition.
I should also point out that many libraries implement functions such as self-check and automated materials handling without RFID. These functions can also work with conventional barcodes. King County Library System, featured in this issue for its Evergreen implementation, operates a large-scale self-check and and automated return and sorting systems using barcodes.
This arena of RFID-based products raises a variety of questions related to standards and interoperability. Some relate directly to the technology itself. The technology is beneficial if the tags employed by one library can be read by its peers and partners, especially by those mutually involved in resource sharing or inter-library loan. Libraries also want to avoid proprietary solutions that lock them into a single vendor. They prefer to have the ability to acquire equipment form different suppliers without having to re-tag their collection. We also need standards that will ensure that the tags used today will continue to be supported through multiple cycles of equipment replacement. Since RFID tags rely on computer chips which naturally turn through technology cycles very quickly, we need to know that those that we buy today wonít be phased out as obsolescent, but will endure for reasonably long periods. Given that RFID finds use in many different industries, some standards apply very broadly, with profiles and best practices developed to address library use specifically.
Iím especially interested in the issues of interoperability among the different components of a libraryís technology infrastructure. In the present stage of library automation, weíre seeing the integrated library system become increasingly decoupled from front-end discovery interfaces, connected through applicable standard protocols or APIs. As libraries implement RFID equipment, we also face the need for interoperability with the core ILS, mostly using protocols such as SIP2 or NCIP. Yet, the functionality addressed by these protocols is limited and efforts are underway to modernize how these systems interoperate using Web services and to extend the vocabulary of supported features and functions.
As with any other technology product, investment decisions must take into consideration a total cost of ownership that considers all expenses though many years of use. These calculations can be especially critical when evaluating strategies involving potential reductions of personnel versus efficiencies gained through RFID-based technologies.
The obvious cost components of an RFID implementation include the initial cost of equipment such as self-check stations for patrons, equipment needed at the circulation desk; return stations, sorting systems, the cost for the RFID tags for each item and personnel costs for installing tags. Ongoing costs will include service contracts on equipment. As with all other technology products, upgrade or replacement costs must be factored into the longterm budget. With RFID implementations, new generations of equipment and tags that warrant new investments may become available over time.
I expect that RFID will become a larger portion of the library technology sector, initially in routine functions such as self-check and processing of returned materials, but eventually in other areas that will tap the potential of the technology to offer more innovative services to library patrons. Self check and automated materials handling improve the efficiency of traditional operations. The challenge lies in using the technology in ways that go beyond perceptions of reducing labor costs, but in delivering new services that library patrons will value.
When looking at the library automation industry broadly, we can expect RFID technologies to represent a growing opportunity. Sales for new ILS products once dominated the industry. As the ILS market became increasingly saturated and presented limited opportunities for new business, weíve seen many companies become involved with new discovery products. Given the growing importance of RFID-based products, I expect to spend more time researching issues relating to the technologies involved and providing more coverage in this newsletter.