NFC in the libraryFor some time now I’ve been trying to interest librarians, RFID and LMS suppliers and, well pretty much anybody who’ll listen, in the potential of Near Field Communication in the library. So far the response has been rather less than I’d expected. Bordering on complete disinterest in fact.

I did manage to join in a brief Twitter conversation on January 5th with American colleagues interested in getting more out of NFC initiated by NISO Director Todd Carpenter but nobody, including me, knew of any library anywhere that was using NFC for loans (or “checkout” as it’s known over there). Todd speculated that NFC adoption might happen faster outside of the US as there was wider acceptance of the technology in other parts of the world. Tom Bruno of Yale University thought that NFC might succeed where QR had failed.

Personally I felt that it would be the lack of data standards adoption in the US that would be a bigger obstacle to developing the potential of the NFC market since any company seeking to use anything other than the unique ID on an RFID tag would have to develop different solutions for each library. The UK and Australia I felt offered the best opportunity for developing new applications.

I’m in the process of writing a new book on RFID use in the library and spend many a happy hour trawling the internet for innovation. I recently discovered another Norwegian project called “UBook” that used NFC in some very imaginative ways way back in 2012. It made me wonder if there’s something in the water in Oslo since their Deichman public library has been providing me the best example of using RFID to link a library’s physical and virtual collections for some time now.

I have been speculating for some time now that in a library with public access wifi library users with NFC enabled smartphones ought to be able to take a book from the shelf, scan the tag and link directly to the library’s database to find whatever related resources – physical or virtual – the library has identified as perhaps being of interest.

Yet even in Oslo – where they clearly have talent and imagination – this doesn’t appear to be happening yet.

So what are the obstacles to making such a seemingly simple step I wonder?

Librarians I have spoken to tell me that there’s no point in creating a service that isn’t open to all, but that sounds increasingly like an argument against change to me. If I’m not housebound should I deny that service to those that are?

RFID suppliers have hinted that they are actively planning NFC developments  – FE Technologies (now part of Invengo)  in Australia and New Zealand and Bibliotheca in the UK for example – but there’s little hard information from either so far. Bibliotheca did bring an RFID scanner (attached to a smartphone) to market in 2013 but it wasn’t NFC and it was for staff use only.

Meanwhile Solus – a relative newcomer to the RFID market – tell me they have developed and even demonstrated NFC powered loans to a Scottish university but there was no interest in pursuing it any further than proof of concept. My recent suggestion – again on Twitter – that allowing users to use their own devices to borrow and return books might save expensive investment on self-service devices was met with at best disbelief and at worse ridicule – from librarians not suppliers. I still don’t know why.

Perhaps there are vested interests here that have persuaded the market that NFC has nothing to offer? RFID suppliers might not want to see their self-kiosks being replaced by smartphones perhaps? Particularly those that seek to extend their reach into new local government markets by developing new, non-library functionality for them? That seems unlikely. Why not develop smartphone apps instead?

Besides I spend a lot of time working with suppliers – LMS and RFID (and others) – and many of them are eager to find new markets for innovative products. It’s the librarians that are unenthusiastic they say.

Unenthusiastic? Or broke? If it’s the latter then surely transferring some of your service costs (painlessly) to your clients might help? A Belgian colleague disagreed. A 20% reduction in self-service kiosk demand wouldn’t result in a commensurate reduction in costs. Not even in the largest libraries? Not if ALL smartphones had NFC (which looks a pretty good bet for 2016 if not this year).

Ho hum. I guess I’d better get back to the day job. And the book.

But if anyone out there is – or plans to – start using smartphones for loans, returns, enquiry or exploration…you will let me know won’t you?

The second half of 2014 saw the first signs that its mandate on RFID privacy M436 might be gaining some teeth with the issue of two new standards EN 16570 and EN 16571 – respectively defining the display of warning signs in RFID-enabled establishments and the process by which Privacy Impact Assessments (PIAs) should be completed. The second of these documents, created under the direction of its Project Editor, Paul Chartier, gives details of the process to be followed in creating a Privacy Impact Statement (PIS) to be displayed alongside signs warning that RFID is being used in an establishment – a library for example.

Paul’s company – Convergent Technologies – has been quick to alert librarians and their suppliers of the requirements of EN 16571 and has partnered with the French RFID organisation – CNRFID – to produce software that enables what the standard refers to as “Operators” to complete a PIS. This software can be purchased from either Convergent or CNRFID.

EN 16571 applies to any business using RFID but singles out libraries for special attention its Project Editor having a special interest in the sector having previously been PE for a number of other standards, most notably the somewhat over-engineered ISO 28560. Some of the requirements of EN 16571 would have profound implications for libraries. The need to label every single item that contains an RFID tag for example. Signing up to complete a PIS might therefore commit a library to more expenditure than simply buying the software.

So how should librarians respond to this new challenge? Convergent’s answer would probably be – “show us the money!” and that’s certainly one option. However the standard is not (yet) legally binding and may be enforced – or not – quite differently in different member states. The standard – like ISO 28560 before it – suggests to me that its creators may have been more familiar with the needs of the book supply chain than with running a library service and it is to be hoped that wiser counsels will prevail if it ever becomes the subject of legislation.

Book Industry Communication (BIC) – a charity funded by both the book trade and libraries – is an organisation that seeks to advise and inform its members on issues such as standards adoption. Its various committees and task-oriented working groups are populated by both suppliers and their clients (librarians) working in the sector. It liaises with other concerned parties (like the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)) to try and ensure that legislation is informed by those who work in the library sector rather than by EU experts who may have little experience of the day to day problems of running a library service.

BIC today issued an advisory notice to UK librarians about M436 seeking to reassure them that precipitate action is not necessary and detailing the approach it is taking on behalf of its members (and UK libraries in general). This might be summarised as “Don’t Panic” – but this should not seen as a call for complacency so much as a call to arms for librarians to be aware of the issue.

As a part-time BIC consultant I will be working with them to represent the interests of libraries in these cash-strapped times. I hope I can count on your support?

A recent article in Public Library News by my friend Ian Anstice talked about his experiences at the recent Spanish library conference in Badajoz. He had been invited to talk about the current situation in the UK – which horrified his audience – but it was another presentation that really set him thinking.

Jane Cowell – the Director of Public & Indigenous Services at State Library of Queensland in Australia – talked about library security and that set several hares running through Mr A’s thoughts – why do we need it and is it value for money being very prominent.

From my perspective it was quite refreshing to see these questions being asked at all. Security is a subject of many conversations in the world I most frequent – RFID.

In the confused and often confusing world of RFID the usual starting point for conversations I’ve had with librarians over the last seven years is not whether but when they should invest. Back in 2006 my advice was to wait until the market stabilised.

In effect that happened in 2011 when suppliers agreed to use common standards. By then more than 50% of UK libraries had spent the money anyway. Which I found rather ironic as if libraries hadn’t been so eager to buy non standards-based solutions we could have created a more open and integrated market rather earlier.

But that was then, and this is now. The main question Ian raises is, essentially, do we really need security? Which made me wonder if he has a point…

There’s not much advantage in investing in security if the cure is worse than the disease. To put that another way – is the cost of providing a solution higher than the cost of the losses? In my naïve, simplistic way I always assumed that someone somewhere does the sums when libraries go out to market for security solutions. But after reading Ian’s piece I’m not so sure.

In calculating the cost of losses we must take account not only of the actual cost of purchase but any intrinsic value of items. Are items irreplaceable, in heavy use, reference only? Would there be a reputational cost to the library of any losses? So calculating that side of the equation clearly isn’t straightforward, but is it done at all?

Then there’s the efficacy of the security. Reports from libraries switching to RFID suggest that even with pre-existing security systems up to 30% of stock listed in the catalogue cannot be traced when items are tagged. Many libraries used some form of security before they switched – and some even bought RFID solutions from the same company that sold the system being replaced. (I wonder if they got a discount on the new security system to compensate for the shortcomings of the original.)

These concerns apply to any form of security of course but – as you might imagine – my primary interest lies in the use of RFID. Are things different when the security system is based on that technology?

To answer that question let’s first return to the scenario that Jane spoke about in Spain – and that has been implemented in West Downs Library in Queensland.

West Downs use Civica’s Spydus software as their management system (variously known as the LMS, ILS and even ILMS in Anglophone countries).  Only one of their nine branches has any form of security at that one is based on UHF RFID.

Spydus – like many LMS providers these days – offer a library “app” for readers to use on their smartphones and tablets. Once “logged in” a user is known to the system and can – if the library allows it – use the app to borrow and return items. This is done by scanning the item barcode using the mobile’s camera.

In the eight branches without security theft is of an order of magnitude that the library determined to be acceptable when they did their initial analysis. Sylvia Swalling (Library Service Coordinator at West Downs) suggested to me that this is “perhaps because we are a regional library service and things are a bit more personal… ”.

In the ninth branch the security is based on a UHF solution. Unlike HF – the predominant system in use in the world’s RFID equipped libraries – UHF doesn’t use security on tags as such. Instead the status of an item is set within the LMS once the barcode has been read. If the reader tries to remove an item that has not been released the gates will sound an alarm.

In an HF system the security gates generally have only to scan a security bit on the tag to determine whether items may pass but in the UHF model every item has to be verified with the LMS. This can cause delays in busy libraries and is perhaps one reason why using security at all is viewed rather differently in Australian libraries than in say a busy Inner London authority.

In another popular form of self-service in the international market sees readers store their user ID as a barcode in an app. Users then use this “electronic” barcode in the same way as a membership card and take their device to a staff or self-service device to scan in the usual way. My local supermarket uses the same solution for crediting my loyalty account. Whilst this is sometimes represented in the literature as being a “mobile” solution it barely qualifies as such since security and validation are entirely separated from the “app”.

For those libraries (the vast majority) using HF RFID the most attractive, value for money, option would be to have the user use their own device to issue items to themselves. Since HF based security systems rely on data being written and read directly to and from the tag (rather than by having to link to the LMS) a truly mobile solution requires that devices not only read item IDs but can also write the necessary data to an item tag in order for it to be removed from the library.

This can now be achieved using devices that are NFC (Near Field Communication) enabled. But devices also need to have NFC “opened up” for use by applications – and despite introducing the technology in the iPhone 6 and 6s Apple has not yet allowed anyone else to use it. So for the moment we’re talking about Android devices only.

In one scenario a user might identify an item they wish to borrow and interact directly with it via the item tag using NFC. Then, in the same way as kiosks interact with the LMS to establish if an item can be borrowed (interpreting loan rules, checking reservations etc.) If the device receives a positive response from the LMS it can write the necessary data to the tag allowing the item to pass the security gates. Otherwise the user will be told to replace the item.

Using this approach a significant amount of the cost of expensive self-service equipment is passed onto the library user. As the number of NFC devices owned by the public grows so the number of kiosks required might be expected to fall. Security costs fall commensurately.

So far I haven’t found a company that offers this option although there are variations that come close. In the UK and ANZ some RFID suppliers now enable staff to issue items at the shelf, either via NFC Android devices or using a standard 13.56 MHz RFID scanner attached to a smartphone. It’s a halfway house to full user-powered self-service.

This recently created (and almost accidental) ability of smartphones to communicate with stock opens up a number of other possibilities for interaction of course. In house use could be monitored, linking to related resources becomes possible via the physical item and not just via the catalogue, other RFID enabled items in the library landscape might be read in the same way as QR codes – with the advantage that RFID tags are dynamic and the data they contain can be altered, whereas QR codes are static.

Now all of that is still in the future – though probably not much more than months away. So for any librarians that are now pondering whether they should ditch their expensive RFID security systems and absorb the possible consequential losses I have another suggestion. Wait a while. If you were wise enough to buy after 2011 (or have subsequently migrated to the data standard) your original investment decision may be about to unexpectedly pay off more than any of us could have imagined as RFID delivers new ways of exploiting both your physical and virtual collections.

Of course if you bought non-standards based solutions – or the UHF form of RFID none of this applies. NFC only operates at HF frequencies.

So is library security worth the money? Well like everything else, it depends. The Australian solution works in their circumstances, and could work in some UK libraries too.

But if, like most UK public libraries, you have already heavily invested in RFID I think it’s a very different matter. Can you buy RFID without the security? Yes – but why would you? The only component that would be an extra cost would be the gates – and as others have pointed out – that’s nothing like as big a figure as the rest of the RFID infrastructure and software. Consider too the possible savings to be made on staff and self-service terminals.

As with most things it pays to look at the whole picture. That will become even more important as RFID solutions become more sophisticated. The important thing is to do your homework.

For some time now my iPhone has been issuing daily reminders to me to write about my August visit to Woolwich and Wandsworth. My apologies to my gracious host and old friend Diana Edmonds for taking so long to sit down at a desk again and go over my notes.

However, as is so often the case, the passing of time has already brought new developments in the story that hopefully make it more informative – so here is my account of my return to the noble town of Woolwich, Greenwich Leisure Limited and a brief profile of one of the newest members of the RFID scene in the UK – Solus UK Limited.

Diana invited me to see what GLL were doing in both Greenwich and Wandsworth some time ago. As something of an advocate (one might almost say “pioneer”) of new technologies in libraries I knew that GLL had recently invested in new self-service kiosks and digital tables from Solus and I was interested both to see the devices in action and to discuss how the problem of interoperability – a perennial topic of discussion among London libraries were being overcome.

The first, and very gratifying, impression one has on arriving in Woolwich Library is of excitement. The place was simply buzzing with enthusiasm. Peoples’ network PCs were in high demand near the entrance, while two lively children’s groups were occupying another corner. About twenty members of the knitting circle were engaged in lively debate and creativity in one of the glass cubes that are made available to a large number of interest groups. And that was just the ground floor.

More »

Being an enthusiastic supporter of RFID I was pleased to see Apple finally embrace NFC in its latest iPhone range – albeit a little half-heartedly – joining the growing list of devices that already support the technology.

Apple’s diffidence in restricting NFC to payments for the time being is perhaps understandable given its enormous market potential and their caution should probably be applauded.

For libraries the potential is obvious. Library users in possession of an NFC device potentially already have access to any item bearing the most common type of RFID tag since they not only operate at the same frequency as NFC but support communication protocols that enable devices to read and write data to both smartcards and item tags (subject to any encryption or data-locking that may be in place).

Up until now NFC has been rightly viewed with some caution by librarians since it could be used maliciously in libraries using RFID for self-service etc. The UK’s library and book trade standards body – Book Industry Communication (BIC) – gave an assessment of the risks and issued its guidance for librarians earlier in the year. To date there have been no reported malicious attacks on library stocks so it would seem that the optimism the document expressed was justified. More »

Recently I have received a number of communications about my 2014 Library RFID survey that have given me cause for concern.

More than one sent an attachment – a PDF copy of Part 3 of the survey – the section that gives details of supplier performance against a number of different criteria. Flattering though it was to note that someone in America (the PDF had an American date format on each page) had thought the survey of sufficient interest to make a PDF copy I was more than a little concerned to discover that the file was being distributed as part of a marketing campaign by a US RFID supplier because, taken out of context, the information it contained might be misleading.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to remind readers who may not have been reading the survey for themselves (and that presumably includes those who were sent a copy from by this US supplier) how the results are compiled – and how much credence should be given to the findings.

The first thing to remind everyone is that it is by no means a comprehensive survey. No-one on the planet has any clear idea how many libraries use RFID technology – I read an article only this morning about the number of new UHF installations in China alone. I can’t email every library on Earth so I rely on the goodwill and enthusiasm of those who use and supply the systems, and in some countries, the help of professional bodies and standards agencies to promote the survey. More »

Day One – Amersfoort, Almere and Amstelveen

Following a most enjoyable visit to Lyon for the 80th World Library and Information Congress in August I accepted invitations from two companies operating in the RFID market to go and visit their installations in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Having previously worked in both countries (for three different companies!) it seemed too good an opportunity to see not only how RFID is being used but to renew my acquaintance with the two library communities. I was also eager to see how public libraries in particular were facing up to the challenges that seem at times to be overwhelming their UK counterparts.

My hosts for the first day were the recently renamed Nedap Library Solutions (@nedaplibrix). Having met with Sharon Beening and Ruud Owens in Lyon – and having had some contact with an earlier UK incarnation of Nedap’s library division I wanted to understand more about a company that works extensively with business partners in the UK and elsewhere but which does sell directly into the UK market.

Up until 2014 there had been few Nedap users in the annual survey – despite their obvious considerable presence in the Dutch library market – and I wanted to know more about the development of their product portfolio –especially since the Netherlands developed a national data standard for RFID some time before the UK. More »

On July 31st the European Union finally published directive M436 on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). M436 has been in process for so long that many RFID users may have forgotten all about it some time ago. A few may never even have heard of it.

M436 attempts to deal with concerns over the privacy issues that have surrounded this technology since it first appeared – in libraries over 20 years ago. The directive is “application agnostic” – meaning that the rules apply to RFID users regardless of how they are using the technology. Libraries are one of the key areas of activity already earmarked by the EU for special attention and will certainly feel the effects of mandate M436 over the next few months/years.

Locations will be required to display a sign

Locations will be required to display a sign

There are two main elements to the directive as I outlined in my “quick guide” for librarians back in 2013. The first, and simplest, is signage. Locations where RFID is being used will be required to display a sign advising users of this fact.

The second, and slightly more demanding requirement is to carry out a Privacy Impact Assessment in order to produce a Privacy Impact Statement that should also be made available to anyone wishing to understand the implications of the use of RFID in an establishment. In a library this might be displayed alongside the sign – or advice be displayed indicating where the statement can be found – on a website for example.

 

The directive is in effect a European standard for RFID privacy. As such it has no legal force at this moment, but may grow teeth if either the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) or the European Union itself decides it requires formal legislation. Certainly the display of signs and the creation of a Privacy Impact Statement should now be regarded as “best practice” for librarians.

Book Industry Communication (BIC) established a Privacy Group (which I chaired) in 2013 to maintain a watching brief on the progress of M436 and to liaise with the ICO in order to ascertain that body’s attitude to possible legislation. This group will now be reconvened in the near future to initiate its education programme for librarians wishing to know more – or to comply with the directive. Invitations have been issued to both the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) and the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) to participate in this process.

 

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the issue of Near Field Communication (NFC) devices being used in conjunction with RFID systems. A quick search for “NFC” on this blog will throw up articles going back over several years explaining why this is an issue that needs to be considered and what steps might be taken to minimise any risks.

BIC has now published its guidance for librarians – available here.

The guidance is the product of BIC’s NFC Working Group and draws heavily on the opinions and expertise of most of the major RFID suppliers in the UK market. As the person tasked with bringing this project to completion I would like to add my personal thanks to representatives of 3M and Bibliotheca in particular for sharing their advice and suggestions so freely.

Is there any cause for concern?

Well the best way to find out is probably to read the document and then perhaps talk to the experts. The incontrovertible fact is that smartphones equipped with NFC can now read and write data to and from almost all the RFID tags used in the world’s libraries.

So it’s probably a good idea to find out what that might mean for you.

 

15. July 2014 · Write a comment · Categories: Uncategorized

The following is an article I wrote back in February for Access – CILIP’s Public and Mobile Libraries Group Journal.

For reasons that are still unclear to me it has never appeared, and since tomorrow sees the establishment of the governance body for BIC’s Library Communication Framework – something I believe will help deliver better and more economic solutions for our beleaguered public library service – I wanted to raise awareness among UK public librarians about the work done on their behalf by some of the agencies with which I work so – after advising the editor yesterday – I am publishing it here instead.

Besides, I spent a lot of time writing it and it seems a pity to waste the effort.

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Helping to meet the challenge of technology

The UK public library service is changing.

That’s the least provocative opening I could think of – and about as anodyne as most of the remarks made by politicians I’ve read these past few years.

It is nonetheless an obvious truth. Whether you see the future of the service as being a community hub, entirely digital or returning to “traditional” values (whatever they might be) there can be little disagreement that the service will have to deal with some major challenges.

Many of these challenges are of course political in nature. Should library hardware, paid for out of library budgets, be re-purposed to pay your council tax bill for example?

Others may require commercial interests to be aligned with public expectations – should digital services be available universally?

But whether these challenges are political, economic or cultural there is a common thread that I believe runs through almost all of them – technology. More »