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.
Every year I receive complaints from suppliers who feel that their system is underrepresented in the survey but since I always write to all the suppliers I know of asking them to promote the survey to their clients I don’t have too much sympathy with these complaints. “Why not ask your clients to complete the survey” is my stock reply.
So the survey is obviously flawed. It can only reflect the views of those individuals who take the time to complete it – a point I have made consistently since I was first asked to attempt an audit of UK users by the now defunct Museums, Libraries and Archives. They were the UK agency with responsibility for libraries and even they didn’t know the answer to the questions I have been asking since 2009.
I’m always grateful for input – even when a librarian awards performance scores that are clearly at odds with almost all other users of a system. I don’t eliminate these scores – I simply remind readers that it’s THEIR survey and to use their judgement as to how reliable their fellow librarians might be.
So why do I bother?
The survey, flawed and incomplete as it is, nevertheless offers some real insight into the concerns and aspirations of librarians seeking to improve their service with what is becoming an increasingly complex technology. That input helps me determine which issues the various agencies for whom I either work or offer advice – primarily BSI, ISO and BIC – should be focussing their efforts upon.
Supplier’s attempts to steer opinion toward support for their individual commercial agendas have, up to now, never damaged its overall value but this inappropriate commercial use of a small part of this year’s data forces me to reconsider the advisability of including supplier performance in future surveys. It seems particularly ironic that the company responsible for using my blog (without my consent) to promote their commercial ambitions have not seen fit to support any of the initiatives being promoted by those seeking to create a more open and competitive market.
Librarians are smart people so I’m sure that anyone who received a copy of a part of any survey would want to find out more about its purpose and limitations rather than accepting it at face value.
It would be unwise for anyone to rely on these results in making purchasing decisions. There is no substitute for doing the research I’m afraid. To make a sensible decision you need to talk to other librarians, industry experts and thoroughly understand what each company is offering – and why.
If you want to know how to interpret the survey results – ask me, not a supplier. What would you expect a competitor to say about another competitor? If the company circulating this information felt so strongly that it was firm evidence of support for their products over another’s I would have expected them to have the courtesy to ask me if they could use it in this way. The fact that they didn’t makes me suspicious of their motives – as it should any librarian that received it.
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.
Ruud and Sharon met me outside Utrecht – the town I had been pleased to call home during the time I spent founding Ameritech’s (now SirsiDynix) Benelux office almost 20 years earlier.
Our first port of call was the Eemhuis in Amersfoort. The Eemhuis – named for the region in which it is located, Eemland – is one of a number of new cultural ventures in the Netherlands variously bringing together libraries, archives, museums, art galleries and theatre under a single roof. I have already waxed lyrical elsewhere about the first of such ventures that I saw in 2012 in Bilbao – the Alhóndiga.
In the Netherlands “Kunsthuizen” (Culture Houses) are springing up all over the country creating vibrant new spaces that are clearly very popular with their clientele.
Once inside the first impression is of space. A long staircase leads to a café situated on the top floor of the main building where I had my first coffee of the day with my hosts and we discussed some of the differences between Dutch and British public libraries.
Dutch citizens pay an annual fee to join the library and often pay additional charges to borrow certain types of materials. Those that cannot afford the fees can apply for assistance. Typically libraries offer a range of tariffs. One I saw in Tilburg charges between €39 and €60 per year depending on length of loan period, number of books to be borrowed etc.
When it comes to RFID the model is often different too. Nedap work closely with partners in both the Netherlands and elsewhere. In Amersfoort another company – Aturis – has supplied much of the hardware and furnishings while Nedap supply the software. A large sorting unit near the entrance shows how this works in practice where Nedap’s software drives Aturis hardware.
Aturis supply all the current RFID library toys – sorters, tunnels, self-service kiosks, staff workstations, handheld scanners, and intelligent bookshelves with Nedap providing the library expertise and technical knowledge to hook it all up to a library management system (LMS).
Nedap also supply Amersfoort with customised issue stations designed to complement the overall library design.
For me the excitement mounted as Ruud advised me that our next destination was Almere, a library that has been the subject of considerable interest on both sides of the Atlantic since it opened.
I had seen Almere’s famous “retail model” used to great effect in Norwich’s Millennium Library some years ago but the bookshop type displays are used to great effect not only in Flevoland’s flagship library but in many other libraries across the country.
Almere possesses a truly stunning library. Innovation is everywhere – from the simple genius of the Serendipity Machine to the “Boekstart” briefcase received by every new reader upon joining the library.
Older children receive sturdier versions (minus the bears) that may be filled with items selected by the library staff reflecting the reader’s interests. Overall there is a strong sense of community in this “third space” where everyone seems to feel a strong sense of belonging to something rather special – which they do!
Nedap have made their own contribution to the building’s modern design by incorporating their self-service offerings for loans and renewals and returns units in modern minimalist units that contribute to the overall design concept of the building.
Day one of my “whistle-stop” tour concluded with a visit to Amsteveen to see one of Nedap’s innovations – RFID-enabled returns shelving.
Ever since I was a child using my local library in Plumstead (London) I have known that the most interesting items are the ones that other readers have just returned and I am told that statistics now prove that newly returned stock remains the most popular place for library users to browse.
Turnaround time between return and availability for loan is something of a holy grail for librarians. In larger libraries – like Almere – the volume of returns is so high that the fastest way to achieve this is by using a high speed sorter and responsive staff but in smaller libraries – like Amstelveen – they use a different approach.
RFID enabled shelves allow readers to return items simply by placing them on the “In” shelves. Scanner/readers in the shelf separators send item information to the Library Management System (LMS) which advises the user whether to place the item on the shelf or in the returns slot (if the item has been reserved or recalled by staff for any reason). I was a little sceptical about the probability of borrowers following instructions carefully but was told that mistakes are rare. Perhaps paying for your library service helps generate a stronger sense of social responsibility – even ownership.
The borrower receives a receipt to prove return and any items that have not been reserved are immediately available for loan to the next borrower – at the same station. While I was trying to take a picture of the unit I was constantly interrupted by browsing readers eager to see what was exciting the interest of the denizens of Amstelveen.
And so came to a close my first day revisiting the libraries of the Netherlands. My thanks to Ruud and Sharon for ferrying me around, answering my impertinent questions and generally being the perfect hosts.
Day Two – Brussels
The MuntPunt is a library and communications centre in the heart of Brussels. Part of its function is to provide Dutch speakers living in the capital with a public library service and to provide its RFID solution a Dutch company – iTrack bv – was selected. iTrack’s CEO Marc de Lange met me at the Muntpunt together with the Head Librarian Leen Lekens.
Our tour in fact began outside the library where Marc was eager to show me the bullet-proof book drop iTrack designed and built to ensure that only library items are returned through the sliding panel protecting the book drop. The area next to the library has its share of anti-social inhabitants during some periods of the day and no-one wanted to risk empty beer bottles, or worse, being delivered at 3am!
A valid reader ticket must be scanned before the slot will open to allow the deposit of returned items (seen just above the instructions for use in this picture).
An interesting design feature is the transparent screen which allows readers to see exactly what is happening “behind the scenes” as items are returned.
This idea has been taken a step further in Tilburg where instructions have been stripped down to the minimum as can be seen in this short video.
In each case the wooden shelf in front of the return slot hides a scanner. Readers place items one by one the shelf where they are scanned and their identity confirmed on screen before the system will accept their return. The system will automatically reject multiple items or any attempt to fool the system by returning a different item to the one read. This is achieved by a second scanner inside the return slot.
All items received, whether from the external or internal units, are transported via an elevator to a lower floor for sorting as may be seen here. This reduces noise in the main part of the library. With 27 bins the potential for noise is considerable so another innovation introduced by iTrack switches each conveyor unit off as soon as it has transported an item thereby reducing the overall sound levels except at the very busiest of times.
My visit ended with a tour of the building taking in the theatre, play space (for video games etc.) and the Grand Café – the original building to which the MuntPunt is now attached. Itrack have also designed self-service circulation points – which were in constant use – and security gates from which the panels can be rapidly detached in case of the need for an emergency evacuation.
Day Three – Tilburg and Gouda
My second day with iTrack began at their offices in Tilburg where I was introduced to some of their latest gadgetry for use in the library before setting off to a local branch of Tilburg libraries to see another version of their self-service returns unit (as shown earlier in this article).
In Tilburg the retail model that has proved so popular in Alemere was in once again in evidence (above left) as it was in our next port of call – the converted chocolate factory that is now the main library in Gouda (more famous in the UK for its cheese of course).
This was, by some distance, my favourite library. The library is housed in a former chocolate factory famous for making chocolate figures (especially at Christmas time) and the sweet cigarettes that I used to “smoke” as a 6 year old – and which are probably now banned from sale everywhere!
To preserve the link with its past the whole building uses an industrial theme throughout. Metal shelving (above right) is used for the main collection while stacks of wooden pallets are used to display popular titles (above centre). Not only does this work well from a design perspective but it no doubt helped to keep costs down!
Here items aren’t borrowed and returned but rather “loaded” and “unloaded”. (below left) and even the existing 3M RFID loan stations were redesigned and refurbished by iTrack to keep costs down (below right).
But this is not an austere building. There is plenty of humour here too. Throughout the building explanatory notes on the floors tell the visitor about the work that was done in each area during chocolate production (left) while upstairs the study carrels look like very comfortable containers (right).
Even the warning signs in the auditorium warn children against the perils of running riot in the library…
Gouda’s library was an uplifting experience for me and shows what can be done even in times of austerity to create vibrant public spaces for everyone to enjoy.
From an RFID perspective it was also a good example of the work that can be done by smaller suppliers to create modern technology-driven management solutions often working with limited budgets.
From a personal perspective the trip was good in parts. Since my own conversion to the potential that RFID might offer I have been striving to persuade others that – with a better understanding of how the technology might work in a library context – RFID could be so much more than a labelling system.
There are, it seems to me, two major obstacles that have prevented the technology from delivering its full potential over the 20 years or so that libraries have been using it. The first – and probably the greatest – was the lack of any concerted effort by library communities around the world (with some honourable exceptions) to develop a common approach to using the technology (common data standards, national data models). The second is the continuing dependence of most RFID solutions on 3M’s SIP protocol – and that protocol’s focus on circulation.
Knowing that the Netherlands had agreed a national data model some time ago I was hopeful that RFID use there might be more adventurous than in the UK – perhaps some more co-operative projects or at the very least more installations with a mix of hardware from different suppliers. In fact I saw neither – which to be honest was a little disappointing but not entirely surprising. Like the UK there is no agency tasked with ensuring that the national data model is actually being used and, again like the UK, rumours persist that suppliers haven’t always supplied systems that use it.
But the data model only overcomes one of the obstacles to greater exploitation of RFID. Certainly a single data model, based upon one of the two international data standards, would go a long way towards encouraging developers to create RFID applications that will work in any library but a bigger problem is the growing diversity of communication solutions on offer.
Like the majority of UK and US installations LMS/RFID connectivity is generally achieved using 3M’s ageing Standard Interchange Protocol (SIP). Like most of their global competitors both Nedap and iTrack use SIP for almost all third party communication and primarily use only the borrower and/or item barcode IDs to interrogate the LMS to and determine the validity of self-service transactions.
In many markets SIP extensions are used to fill any information gaps that may be required to carry out more sophisticated tasks but its limitations tend to limit the extent to which RFID companies can innovate. Functions not directly concerned with circulation aren’t directly supported by SIP and some management system providers use Application Program Interfaces (APIs) to enhance services like inter-library loans, accessioning, collection monitoring and the promotion of special collections.
In fact I saw no evidence of APIs being used to deliver additional functionality to Dutch and Belgian libraries and little innovation in terms of new services or the automation of management tasks. What I did see were two companies, with very different approaches, striving to innovate within the same constraints as their UK counterparts. There is much to admire about the way each has gone about this task. New approaches to self-service design and solutions to particular problems abound – but I still believe that there is still much more potential in the technology that is still not being exploited.
iTrack bv can be found at http://itrack.nl/
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.
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 ad 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.
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.
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 »
A perennial question is which library management systems have been successfully installed with which RFID solutions?
I’m never too eager to publish this information since I fear that some may simply look for their ILS/LMS and see which RFID suppliers they should consider. Why is that a bad idea? Well if you’re not buying a solution based on the data standards recommended by the various national bodies around the world (the vast majority of them based on ISO 28560) then I suppose it’s the only way you can be sure of buying something that might work. More »
Last week’s publication of survey results provoked a couple of people to ask me how many UK public libraries are now using self-service kiosks in their libraries.
It’s a difficult question to answer for several reasons. Suppliers don’t publish lists of their clients, not every library responds to the survey, some libraries may still be using other technologies to support self-service (something that began long before RFID appeared),not everyone using RFID is in fact using it to provide self-service and even those that are have not deployed it across the whole authority. More »
An area of the keenest interest each year is the question of supplier performance. In previous years information supplied has been grouped by company and a summary report sent both to respondents and suppliers. All information provided remains anonymous to ensure that none of those brave enough to venture an opinion can be readily identified by their supplier. My reason for giving this guarantee is that I am told that unhappy suppliers sometimes discourage criticism quite vigorously and, though I recognise that protecting everyone’s identity is not a foolproof way of establishing completely accurate information about supplier performance it is probably the only way to give some respondents the confidence to share their opinions. More »
With so many replies to this year’s survey I will be publishing the findings as a series of posts – reflecting my progress in analysing the data. Today we begin with the basics – where the replies came from and how the respondents are using RFID to enhance their operational abilities.
This year has been more successful in gathering data from beyond the English speaking word than in previous years and future posts will compare the situation in the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand with some of the more mature European RFID markets – in France, Germany and the Netherlands. For now however I hope this first post will be of some interest… More »