RFID and Smart Shelves!

19 Jun

I’m really interested in how libraries are using RFID. If you know a library that has it, or indeed your library uses it, could you let me know?

For those of you without, RFID stands for Radio Frequency IDentification. Tags that have this enabled allow transmission of stored details through radio frequency waves, and hence are proposed to replace the barcode in libraries. It has been used for inventory and stock control in warehouses for some time, and could be used for similar tasks in libraries.

For a full explanation of how RFID works see Wikipedia especially the history of their entry into the library world.

In the circulation world I see the biggest benefits as removing repetitive manual handling tasks, for both borrower and for library staff:

  • RFID enabled Self Service  machines allow borrowers to set down on the reader up to 8 books and they are checked out in a pile. No more explaining how to align the spine and barcode, no more asking borrowers to checkout each book separately!
  • blogged earlier about how we are using RFID media tags, along with a ARS (Automated Returns System), to remove the manual handling we had with our dvds. They are high use items, and have to be opened each time they are returned to make sure they have the correct dvd in them. Now RFID tags store information about matching case and dvd as a set, and the automated returns system checks them on return. Removing manual checking for staff!
  • A related use is jukeboxes, with automated checkin and checkout for books/media. I blogged about these earlier.
  • Another use is for inventory or stocktake. Instead of checking each item visually, RFID tagging of books on shelf can allow you to walk alongside the shelf, with a “wand” or RFID reader scanning the shelves, and recording stored data.We trialled this several years ago for our largest branch in the reserve/short loans area. There was a large problem with items being put back on shelf out of order, or highly prized items being ‘hidden’ in another call number area. The idea was to reduce the manual handling component of constant shelf ordering. At the time it was a little disappointing. The scanner did not cope well with distinguishing tags on thin spine books, being more likely to pick out thicker books close by.
    Although there have been improvements, this problem known as “collision” is still worth checking before you buy any products. Libraries are encouraged to place tags in books in different places, so that there is less chance of 1 tag being in direct line with another. Also the wand had to be scanned across each shelf quite slowly, so it had it’s own manual handling problems. However others may have better experiences to tell now.
  • A feature advertised now by vendors is the idea of loading lists of required material into the “wand” and then scanning shelves. So if you loaded a list of all your missing books, you could then scan sorting shelves etc to see if you could locate the material. Again this sounds wonderful, however in practice in a large library with many shelves, would require a lot of scanning of each shelf separately with the wand – manual handling again.
  • So on my Circulation Christmas list is the wonderful new product Smart Shelves. Basically shelves are RFID reader enabled so that each shelf registers the RFID tagged items placed upon it. Link this to your LMS and you can tell borrowers exactly what shelf, floor etc the item they are looking for is stored on. So if it is on a sorting shelf, or mis-shelved, the item is still not lost.
    Taken to it’s logical conclusion some areas that do not require fine graded sorting for browsing could even reduce staff time spent on reshelving items. eg returned items could just be returned to the 621.381 shelves in no particular order,  as borrowers could check the catalogue on mobile phones and go directly to the correct shelf.
  • A related innovation adds GPS to the mix, and offers the ability to map the path to a book for a borrower through their mobile phone, or another hand held device.

Academic libraries have been slow to move towards RFID, as costs would be high to retag every item in large collections, and originally the choice had to be made between RFID or barcodes. Now many vendors offer hybrid machines. Our current Automated Returns System has separate scanners – 1 for barcodes and 1 for RFID tags. However there cannot be hybrid exit gates, so there is one area a library looking to run a staged progression into RFID, would have to expend twice the funds on.

There are also common concerns about the security of RFID tags in the academic library world. See Alan Butters 2008 article for full analysis.

  • Physically it is felt that as RFID technology is discussed on the Internet, students would learn how to deactivate them easily. I have heard that covering the tag with aluminium foil will block its signal, although I haven’t tested it! The tags themselves are very visible; a large white square with raised bumps, due to the radio antenna contained. So again there is discussion that these tags could be easily removed by borrowers trying to steal an item. Clever vendors have produced tags where the sticker is labelled on front with the library emblem, or some other distracting icon – however they are still visible if someone is searching. Another idea is to place the tag between 2 pages, and glue them closed. This is still a far cry from the hidden “tattletape” running on electro magnetic detection currently on every item in academic collections.
  • Security concerns are also raised in terms of privacy. RFID readers are available for public purchase, and some feel that they could be used to show what someone has borrowed. As some libraries propose RFID borrower cards as well, this could reveal borrowers personal details in the same way. Apparently it is also possible for individual borrowers to buy a blocker, so it could become an opt in choice!

Finally – standards for RFID are evolving. Before purchasing anything it would be good to check what standards your proposed purchase is compliant with, and whether at this stage it would knock out other equipment you wish to add in, in the future. Alan Butters is Australia’s expert on this so you can search his name on the Internet, or read his VALA 2010 paper.

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7 Responses to “RFID and Smart Shelves!”

  1. Penny June 20, 2010 at 8:14 pm #

    the joint library we’re associated with is getting it. I love the possibilities that it opens up but we’re not yet considering it. I’m hoping we will in the future though.

  2. Mal Booth June 21, 2010 at 12:18 am #

    Thanks Ruth. You’ll be delighted to read that I am referring to these notes in a meeting today to progress our RFID EOI/RFQ.

    • Ruth Baxter June 21, 2010 at 3:28 am #

      Ooh. It was written inbetween soccer breaks so hope it’s reasonably reliable!

  3. Mal Booth June 21, 2010 at 12:20 am #

    Oh, and correct me if I’m wrong, but smart shelves in the library world are still a way off as far as the Australian market is concerned.

    • Ruth Baxter June 21, 2010 at 3:32 am #

      Someone offered them to me not last VALA the VALA before … Would it have been STLogiTrack? But they cost a fortune.

  4. Mal Booth June 21, 2010 at 4:30 am #

    Correction to my typing above. We will be doing an EOI/RFP (not an RFQ!). We had Alane here all day today.

    In your last para, you re-named Alan as Alan “Sybis”. He is still a Butters!

    • Ruth Baxter June 22, 2010 at 1:32 am #

      Whoops! Lucky I’ve learnt how to edit.

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