Library RFID from the inside
By Chris Gabriel 4-5-15
In the beginning…
RFID has been around for decades, and was first developed by the military to identify friendly aircraft in World War II. It has come a long way since then and there have been some very lofty concepts for this technology. Some have made our lives much easier and some never made it to the light of day.
Library RFID is fortunately a concept that made it to reality, and regardless of who you talk to almost every public, private, university and college library has some kind of plan to implement this technology.
If you follow the progression for example of the written word, it is clear that as technology leaps are made in the form of inventions to solve a root problem, a better way will be found to save time and money eventually. With the first invention of the alphabet by the Greeks and subsequent laying down of text for posterity, the written word has gone from being scribed, manually typed, type set on a printing press, carbon paper and finally digitally created with limitless options to modify, enhance and duplicate.
RFID has undergone this type of progression in the modern library. The concept of RFID solving manual entry problems in the retail world prompted several managers at Checkpoint systems to look for applications and develop systems driven by RFID to solve every day retail problems like inventory control and item location.
Regardless of what you have been told, RFID for libraries was thought up and implemented first by Checkpoint Systems. At the time, security was a key driver for Checkpoint and was considered a mature business with many legacy customers in both library and retail markets. So, they were looking for the next big thing to sell to the retail marketplace and the library division presented the perfect closed loop circulation system of items to develop the RFID technology software and hardware.
The first system that was developed was The Intelligent Library System or (ILS) and implemented at the university of Connecticut library. The ILS system was a proprietary RFID system and was controlled by an enterprise server that managed every aspect of the system, from the security gates to the tag pads that read the RFID tags at the circ desk. The system proved to be a winner and was the largest installed system of its kind in the early 2000’s. But, like our old friend carbon paper and the electric typewriter, the development of newer concepts and technology standards have changed the RFID landscape in libraries to what we know today.
Today’s RFID is…
As other companies developed their own RFID systems to compete with Checkpoints offering, talks began about standardizing RFID and moving from proprietary technology to an open standard. Enter ISO, and the ISO/NISO standards that drive RFID in libraries today.
The days of proprietary RFID technology are gone, and an open standard that can be built upon by many companies is here to stay. For the library this is a major advantage and the reason we are seeing more and more library systems begin to implement RFID, and not hang back in the shadows watching their neighbors who were the first adopters.
THE POWER OF RFID
Do More with less…
The pressures on the modern library regardless of what market they serve are many, but the biggest is the struggle to do more for the patron with less money and smaller numbers of staff. Fortunately, RFID is the answer to the question of “how are we going to make this equation work”.
RFID enables the library to make the barcode record number for every item in their circulation data base wireless. This gives staff multiple advantages and has driven many companies to develop equipment to automate tasks that normally require many staff members and pages.
Circulation – Library staff working with an RFID enabled collection, can circ multiple items at one time for checkout and check-in. This allows two staff members per shift to do the work of 4 and still reduce lines at the checkout desk. Self-checkout stations, which were touted as time savers in the 90’s are now turbo charged and allow patrons quick and simple checkout of every item in the library. As self-checkout becomes the norm, these RFID stations will drive most checkouts in a RFID enabled library. Personal results in large library systems have shown that self-checkout can with proper planning and staff training take up to 95% of the checkout transactions in a library.
Security – Security antennas are an unfortunate fact of life in most libraries. Even if staff does not respond to alarms, the physical and audible deterrent to the theft of valuable library items saves your library thousands of dollars per year. RFID security gates are many in design, but stick to the ones that are produced by the company selling the RFID system to you. Aftermarket RFID security antennas are well, aftermarket. RFID security gates do not all perform at the same pick rates and can be the most challenging aspect of installing a good working RFID system. Manufacturers that have integrated software to manage the security gates is a must to find out what you lost and the times the theft is occurring.
Inventory – RFID is a tool that can solve the inventory problems of all libraries. Inherently, scanning thousands of individual items to achieve a real inventory of the libraries items is time consuming and staff intensive. Thus, this timely task is usually undertaken once a year by many libraries, and ignored by others as just too big of a task. RFID inventory wand units have evolved to the point where they do as good a job in accuracy as the manual method. Besides taking a credible count of items, the RFID enabled unit can weed collections, find lost items and alert staff of items that were shelved with security turned off in the RFID tag.
Throughput – A term that should concern every library and is a mantra in the retail world. The ability to circulate an item and get it back on the shelf in the proper location ready for the next patron who is looking for it. Enter the RFID enabled return technology that ranges from single book return units, to sortation systems that can handle hundreds of book an hour. Most RFID companies have these units and or partner with major manufacturers who specialize in these types of units. Large high volume library locations will benefit the most from these systems, and they can reduce major labor hours in a library and get that book back on the shelf days quicker than doing it by hand.
Who to talk to…
Although if you walk the ALA shows looking for RFID you will see many booths offering this technology, the real players can be winnowed to a handful.
What you want to look for is the following:
Companies with a large install base both in the US and Globally
Hardware and software designed in house
A history of constant innovation with their software and hardware
Adheres to the latest RFID ISO standards
Designs and produces their own RFID tags
Sales experts that have many years in the library RFID business
Large support team behind the scenes
Over 10 years of RFID sales history
Who to Avoid:
Yes, RFID will cut your need for staff and make your library modern in form and function. Be sure to involve all staff in the move to RFID and work with your RFID sales team to develop staff training and procedures to maximize the power of the RFID system. Drive self-checkout in every way possible, from item circulation and payment of fees and fines to becoming an information portal for other community or school services.
As RFID is embraced by both staff and patrons, it will provide a great platform for other automated services you may want to consider. Some few are automated hold stations, 24/7 remote library book vending, IPad and Laptop technology lending.
Stay tuned for more on RFID tagging, security gate design and placement.