Consolidation continues in the library automation sector as Bibliotheca this afternoon announced their acquisition of 3M’s global library business.

Rumours of a sale had been circulating for some months with China’s Invengo  – specialists in RFID – widely tipped to win the race to seal the deal.

The new company becomes easily the largest supplier of library self-service and security products in the western hemisphere and by combining the already established 3M’s Cloud Library with Bibliotheca’s recently announced Opus product, the enlarged company is likely to provide stiff competition in the e-lending sector for current market leader Overdrive – which announced its latest software product to the UK market only this morning.

Two separate deals – one for North America and another for the rest of the world – have been signed with Bibliotheca acquiring both staff and assets at 3M’s headquarters in Minneapolis.

One consequence that will be of especial interest my colleagues at Book Industry Communication (BIC) will be the potential international boost that this gives to their recently launched Library Communication Framework (LCF). Bibliotheca has always been one of the keenest supporters of LCF from the project’s inception and I am assured that this is set to continue.

More details to follow.

Today sees the official launch of the Library Communication Framework (LCF). Originally conceived as a replacement for 3M’s Standard Interchange Protocol (SIP) the framework has been several years in the making and has, through the active involvement of both suppliers and librarians working together, grown from a simple updating of protocols for running RFID self-service into a significant contribution to interoperability across a range of products and services.BIC

Exactly why LCF was developed has been the subject of many papers and reports over the period. The more enthusiastic reader will find a succinct (if somewhat dated) explanation in the BIC archive.

Having myself first proposed that a replacement for SIP was long overdue back in 2010 it was in fact my colleague Frances Cave who first suggested that a “framework” would offer a more flexible approach for the industry in general. The history of these early discussions and meetings up to the original launch of what was then called “BLCF” (the “B” standing for BIC) can be found here.

Renamed “LCF” (in response to a request from American colleagues, who thought the “B” might be thought by some to stand for “British”) the LCF working party – which it has been my privilege to chair – has expanded both in membership and scope since 2012 and over the last 18 months has seen the establishment of a regulatory mechanism to ensure that the framework remains current and avoids the problems – inherent in SIP – of allowing developers to add new values and functions almost at will. BIC – an independent organisation – will maintain and develop the framework for the benefit of all.

Most heartening – for me – are the number of both RFID and LMS suppliers that have already signed up to the LCF “Charter” – a statement of intent to comply with, promote and of course use the framework to develop better interoperability between systems. The astute librarian will want to scan the list of LCF supporters carefully and perhaps question why some suppliers haven’t wanted to support the aims of this entirely open framework.

Developing better interoperability and ultimately more closely integrated systems has been the dream of librarians for many years. There have been many attempts to solve the myriad problems of multiple formats, different architectures and a lamentable lack of industry standards. Most have sunk without trace. Libraries have responded to these disappointments in a variety of ways – single LMS procurements, moves to Open Source solutions and potentially even API heavy middleware adding significant cost without commensurately improving interoperability. The industry badly needs to put its house in order. The framework provides a starting point for realising that dream.

The framework is officially launched today and the press release can be downloaded here. A BIC Breakfast meeting in London on the 22nd October will provide an early opportunity for librarians and others to find out more about the framework, ask questions about its use and most importantly discover how making it a mandatory requirement in future system procurements will ensure the best return on investment for cash-strapped libraries. I and two of my fellow LCF working party – Catherine Cooke (Triborough Libraries) and Anthony Whitford (Capita) will be speaking – details here.

Note: Please don’t confuse the library communication framework with purchasing frameworks (such as that brokered by organisations like ESPO).

This is a data framework developed by members of the library profession working with their suppliers to improve interoperability. Purchasing frameworks essentially facilitate hardware purchase at discounted rates.

24. August 2015 · Write a comment · Categories: Uncategorized

A new header to celebrate new beginnings!

The wonderful city of Edinburgh. I can’t imagine why it has taken me so long to come and live in the capital city of this magnificent country.

This has been a year of considerable change for both me and for the profession with which I have been so closely linked (despite never having been a member!) for most of my life.

For me the changes have been mostly positive. Certainly moving to Edinburgh feels like being granted a new lease of life. People still value their public library service here. A recent news report shows that, even with austerity, libraries in the capital are welcoming increasing numbers of visitors through their doors. I sense a greater feeling of optimism here than seems to exist south of the border – it seems to me that for the thirty years I’ve been working with Scottish libraries this has almost always has been the case.

But there’s no room for complacency here. Librarians here face the same challenges as their English counterparts. But the SNP is actively fighting to save libraries in Scotland and, like Plaid Cymru with its vision for the future of the service in Wales, has an altogether more positive and less fragmented view of their future than anything being brokered by English political parties.

So a mark in the ‘plus’ column for moving to Scotland!

In other news…

Despite having been mired in RFID for the greater part of the last six years I have retained an active interest in library systems. Since 2013 I have had the pleasure to be asked to advise on library management system (LMS) projects in both Scotland and Ireland – the latter culminating in the drafting of the specification and much of the business case for their national LMS procurement. Quite a refreshing change from ISO standards and self-service kiosk design! So much so that I recently closed down my company – Library RFID Ltd – and am now in the process of rebuilding that website to more accurately reflect my current activities.

Whilst I am still keenly interested in RFID I have become increasingly frustrated at the lack of ambition of both suppliers and consumers for developing the potential of the technology – particularly for mobile applications – and am consciously changing the emphasis of both this blog and my website in an effort to change this state of affairs.

Inspired by meetings earlier in the year with smartphone and tablet app developers in both the commercial sector and the universities, where new uses for NFC and RFID in libraries are already being planned, I think it’s definitely time to start building the foundations of the next generation of more mobile and agile library systems. A view that I hope will resonate with both the CEO of the recently-created library task force, Kathy Settle and the Arts Council’s Brian Ashley, both of whom were kind enough to find the time to meet with me over the summer.

I don’t believe anyone wants to recreate the kind of proprietary, fragmented solutions that prevented the RFID library market in the UK from functioning effectively for much of the first ten years or so of its development. The SCL’s efforts to create a single digital platform – assisted by consultants from Canadian application provider BiblioCommons – is I think a clear recognition of the lack of any kind of cohesion in existing library system provision. The Welsh and Irish decisions to implement a single supplier solution represent – in my opinion – another example of what happens when consumer patience runs out. I hope both succeed in improving matters but I am more than a little concerned that both solutions are fighting the last war rather than anticipating the future.

In my view there are no ‘silver bullet’ solutions and very few tech-savvy library systems specialists left in the public sector to assess the efficacy of the solutions being proposed – but I would say that, wouldn’t I?

In a effort to try and do something positive I’ve recently agreed to work with Ken Chad and some other equally talented library people (not necessarily librarians Steven!) in building a new model for systems procurement for libraries to replace the existing core specification originally created by former colleague Juliet Leeves back in the 1980s. Events elsewhere having unexpectedly given me some time to spare over the coming months.

Another ‘plus’ for library technology development!

Sadly for me there was one sad moment in all this excitement. In March Book Industry Communication (BIC) decided to make changes to the structure of its committees and working groups to better reflect the wishes of its membership which has ultimately ended my fifteen year relationship with the Library Committee. I hope we achieved some useful outcomes during my time – not least the adoption of a national data model for RFID use.

I am, for the moment, still actively engaged in promoting the Library Communication Framework – a project I initially proposed back in 2011 – but only until a librarian can be found to take over. I wish them and BIC well – and thanks for all your support.

Just one small tick in the minus box then.

Onward and upward… (Edinburgh  streets offer no other alternative!)

I’ve been talking to a lot of librarians recently.

I’m currently on the road in the UK spreading the word about new issues in RFID – Privacy, the impact of Near Field Communication (NFC) and something that regular readers of the blog will already know a good deal about – the Library Communication Framework (LCF).

Since the beginning of the year I’ve been speaking to heads of service in academic and public libraries beginning in Glasgow and now working my way south via Wallsend, Beverley and Preston. I was also very pleased to be invited to run a CPD session for academic librarians in the South East during March.

One of the many things I’ve learned along the way is that the procurement guide that Mark Hughes and I wrote for the National Acquisitions Group and Book Industry Communication  back in 2011 is still being widely used by librarians seeking to buy or extend their RFID solutions.

Flattering though this is it is also somewhat alarming! There have been many changes since 2011 – most of them flagged up on this blog – which were not addressed in the original guide. Anyone still using it, particularly anyone issuing it without amending the sample questions to reflect local circumstances and/or requirements, is unlikely to be taking full advantage of the new services, standards and benefits that have appeared over the last 4 years, not to mention the danger of making expensive mistakes.

Realising how dated the guide had become I withdrew it from all my sites last year. My plan is to produce an updated version for publication next year but in the meantime there is one particular innovation that I really think ought to be included in RFP you may be planning – RFID or otherwise.

I refer of course to my pet project – the Library Communication Framework (LCF).

The framework was developed over two years by suppliers from both the RFID and LMS (ILS) markets working together with librarians and assisted by consultants from Book Industry Communication (BIC). A great deal of information has already been published about LCF both in print and on the web. I wrote an article for CILIP’s Access journal that contained an explanation of why it was needed and what it is last year and there is a more detailed explanation on the BIC site.

Put simply it is nothing less than an attempt to create a more interoperable environment for library applications. Using it RFID system can speak unto RFID system – and both can speak to the Library Management System. It’s not an API or a web service (although both are supported) it’s simply a set of standard data elements and values that can be implemented in whatever way best suits developers. The LCF is completely open and supplier independent and the whole process is managed by BIC on behalf of the library community.

The framework will grow as new functionality is added and as new application providers come on stream. A management team and website is already in place to make it simple for developers to add new elements and data as required but unlike SIP quality controls will ensure that it maintains its integrity as it develops.

All of this is discussed in detail elsewhere so today I just want to suggest a few additional questions that you should be considering adding to any tender or RFP you might be about to issue – whether based the original guide or not.

Many suppliers are already using LCF to develop new functionality so it’s worth checking to establish whether the one you are inviting to sell you a solution is one of them so I would consider asking,


  1. How is your commitment to the Library Communication Framework demonstrated in your future product development plans/roadmap?
  2. What specific functionality are you achieving today via LCF?

Functionality developed using LCF can be readily transferred to any other supplier that supports it while functionality that has been specifically developed by a particular combination of RFID and LMS (ILS) supplier is less likely to be available if you change either so if you’re buying a new RFID system consider asking,

  1. Which functions of your system have been implemented or made possible using integration methods that are unique to your current LMS (ILS) – RFID supplier (i.e. using API’s and/or customised code rather than defined open standards such as SIP2/NCIP/LCF)
  2. What specific functionality will be lost if we choose to change our LMS (ILS) in future?
  3. What services and costs might we have to budget for, in the event we chose to change our LMS (ILS) in the future?

Obviously it would be sensible to ask essentially the same questions of any potential LMS (ILS) provider.

The whole area of interoperability has been a bugbear for librarians and providers alike for many years now. LCF seeks to put this right by presenting developers with the choice of using a more open means of implementing their solutions. In the UK all the major RFID suppliers now support both data standards and the LCF.

Readers from outside the UK – or those with systems that were installed pre-2011 might therefore consider asking a couple more questions:

  1. Are there any proprietary elements of your solution that might prevent another supplier from interoperating with solutions provided by your company?
  2. Please provide details of sites where your solutions work alongside other RFID applications/systems in the same library.

Hopefully anybody currently struggling with procurement using an RFP will find this helpful however if you’re buying through one of the many framework agreements out there I can only wish you ‘good luck’ since – so far as I am aware – none of these issues are addressed by any of them.

Over the past two weeks I’ve been talking to quite a few UK librarians about RFID issues. A few had misconceptions about some aspects of the technology and suggested that it might be helpful if I posted about them here. So here goes…

  1. RFID self-service doesn’t use sensitisers.

Many libraries invested in Electromagnetic (EM) security systems long before RFID appeared. These usually relied on a thin strip of metal (often called “tattle tape”) hidden in the book’s spine.EM

When items were borrowed a “de-sensitiser” reversed the polarity of these strips allowing them to pass security gates – set to sound an alarm when they detect sensitised items. High voltages powered the de-sensitiser which transmitted electricity in much the same way as an electric toothbrush does.

When self-service units first appeared in libraries they included these same de-sensitisers together with barcode readers to allow readers to issue their own items.

RFID self-service looks almost exactly like its EM counterpart but works in a completely different way. Instead of changing polarity on a bit of metal RFID depends entirely on data.

Library RFID tags usually comprise an aerial and a tiny chip stuck to a label. The data resides on the chip, while the aerial transmits data values to and from other devices via a scanner/receiver. Security is managed by writing specific values to an area of memory on the chip.

No high voltages. No magnetism. No sensitising or de-sensitising.

Because data is used to carry out the security function it is important for libraries know what data is being written – and how.  This is one reason why data standards are so important in RFID installations. RFID scanners using the same frequency – in another library for example – constantly scan for tags, and since not everyone uses the same values to set or clear security data false alarms can and do occur.

  1. It’s not the RFID system that makes the decisions.

This is a perennial topic. Every year I run a survey of RFID use in libraries around the world and one of the most common complaints I receive is that suppliers of RFID systems are very poor at responding to development requests.

Whilst many of these complaints are fully justified a significant number are asking for changes that could only be made by the management system (aka ILS or ILS) supplier.

All RFID solutions in use in UK libraries depend on a connection to the LMS. It is the LMS that continues to hold all the information – loan policies, borrowing limits, locations etc. All the information required by the RFID system – for displaying items on loan, fines owed or even to determine whether an item may be borrowed – is carried between the LMS system and RFID device by a message of some sort. This may be a web service, an API or some other proprietary means but most often it will be 3M’s “SIP”.

The Standard Interchange Protocol has been developed over many years to allow communication between an LMS and self-service systems (some of them RFID). It was designed primarily to support circulation and has been in use for over almost 30 years.

So RFID suppliers seeking to extend functionality for their clients are often restricted by their dependence on this protocol. Many have sought to improve matters by forming partnerships with specific LMS companies but of course the solutions they develop in this way are by definition bilateral in nature (i.e. they only work for products developed by the two partners).

The UK industry is trying to improve matters by developing an alternative to SIP called the “Library Communication Framework” (LCF).

  1. Adopting standards doesn’t usually require re-tagging stock

I frequently see messages on the RFID lists (particularly in the USA) from librarians explaining why they have decided not to use standards. One of the reasons given for not doing so is the cost.

taggingThere are of course still some costs incurred in switching over to a data standard but one of those often suggested – the cost of tag replacement – is often unnecessary. As I mentioned before a tag comprises a chip, an aerial and a sticky label and it’s the chip that matters here. Most of them are manufactured by the same supplier – NXP – but even if yours aren’t there is every chance that they can be converted without having to replace them.

In the early days of library RFID suppliers used many different manufactures for their tags and some of these products were discontinued, leaving library clients with no alternative but to replace existing tags altogether. That all changed in 2011 and it’s a simple enough matter to ask your supplier whether it’s possible to make the switch. Anyone wanting to future-proof their implementation should seriously consider doing so.

Some companies already offer hardware that will automatically convert tags to the UK standard as they are borrowed and since all UK suppliers have undertaken to support both their own and the UK data standard there should be no need to swap tags.

  1. You don’t have to buy everything from the same supplier

Before RFID suppliers agreed to support the UK data standard they each decided what data to use and critically where and how to store it on the chip. This often varied from site to site as some librarians mandated data elements they wanted to store.

This state of affairs rapidly created an inflexible market in which libraries had no choice but to buy all their RFID supplies from the same company.

Framework agreements – very popular with the public sector – have tended to perpetuate this practice and most procurements are still based on buying from a single supplier.

Academic libraries have proved more adventurous than their public sector counterparts in asking suppliers to support existing systems – usually by writing bespoke software to read another supplier’s data model – but this has become unwieldy for suppliers and libraries alike so most new installations use the standard – making it easier to mix and match hardware from different suppliers as well as allowing librarians the freedom to buy any new products that support the data standard.

On Wednesday NXP made a seemingly routine product announcement about their new RFID chip designed especially for libraries – the reassuringly geeky sounding ICODE SLIX 2.

The press release doesn’t say very much about the reasons for the chip’s development, rather it concentrates on the improvements it will bring to library users of RFID technology. The more technically minded can download the full specification of the chip here.

The poor benighted librarian reading this announcement – which has been duplicated by the excellent Marshall Breeding on his website – will however probably be simultaneously confused and reassured. After all just about all the major players (in the UK RFID market at least) have made supportive and excited noises about the significance of the new product in the announcement – and I know from my annual surveys that librarians trust their suppliers above almost everybody else in the market (apart from other librarians) when it comes to RFID.

So why this post?

Well you can call me a sceptic (people do you know) but I take very little at face value and there are some threads running through this announcement that raise questions in my mind. Coupled with other information I received last week I’m beginning to wonder whether we’re about to see a realignment in the library automation world that we haven’t seen the like of since the birth of the Internet.

Let’s look at what the statement says and try and figure out what’s going on here.

After the usual “it’s all going to be so much better” messages we are told that,

“The SLIX 2 is fully compatible with existing ICODE library systems, ensuring that over 5000 public and university libraries already using ICODE SLIX and ICODE SLI based labels can migrate and benefit from the latest technology without difficulties”.

Which is good news for the 5000 (where ARE all these libraries, and how are they being counted I wonder?) but there will be many more libraries out there NOT using the ICODE family of products that won’t. Unlike most RFID users libraries tend not to replace their RFID tags – and their “product” lifecycles are significantly longer than in retail for example.

So the chances are that many libraries will still be using tags that even predate the existence of the ICODE family of products. An obvious point I know – but I know some librarians who will think that this statement means everything’s fine. When it may not be.

The next point that caught my eye was,

“In addition to improved scanning and reading capabilities the new SLIX 2 introduces near field communication (NFC) technology to enhance library services.”

Now THAT’s a really interesting way to present information that already applies to ANY RFID tag using 13.56 MHz tags (and that’s ALL of them in the UK by the way).  Regular readers will be aware that the potential for NFC devices (like smartphones and tablets) to be used to alter or delete data on RFID tags is something of an obsession of this author’s. It’s been possible for years now, what’s different is the recent surge in the number of NFC devices on the market. To me this sounds like spin – the implication that NFC has been “added” suggests that it hasn’t been possible before. But it has. For ages now.

What the data sheet will also tell you is that NXP are introducing a number of new features on this chip that will enable suppliers to password protect, and even kill tags. Librarians should consider two aspects of this news.

Firstly that this protection will only available on the new tags, and secondly that password protection may not be the answer to the problem because of the way in which libraries actually work (something frequently misunderstood both by RFID suppliers and manufacturers alike). Integration with an LMS might indeed be made more difficult if RFID suppliers start to manage additional aspects of the circulation process – and that’s one of the reasons for my opening, somewhat hyperbolic(?), remarks about change.

The last part of the announcement to which I want to draw your attention is this one,

“The new chips offer additional memory space to store dedicated URLs without compromising the library management memory areas. The URLs will point to internet spaces that contain additional information related to the book or media.

Sophisticated content, such as movie trailers, author bios, book reviews, and much more, becomes automatically accessible through NFC-enabled mobile devices as they tap marked areas on the books. “

Sound familiar?

Again regular readers (and those who have attended any of my conference presentations in the last few years) will be aware that I have long advocated the use of physical stock as a discovery tool for other resources. Examples of this obvious benefit already exist in libraries as far apart as Australia and Norway. By linking with a discovery system – or even an OPAC – library users can already enjoy the benefits of using books, DVDs etc. to discover author interviews or live performances for example (it’s already documented on this blog).

But the difference here is that the URLs that make this possible will be stored on the chip – rather than on a remote database which, in the light of the recommendations on user privacy in the EU’s mandate to standards bodies – M436 (as discussed at length on this blog and elsewhere), may be almost culpably reckless. The mandate isn’t only concerned with the data present on tags but also with what might be inferred from it. Someone carrying an item with a URL on it could easily be inadvertently advertising a personal or commercial interest to someone equipped with the right (and probably free) software on their smartphone.

So what to make of all this?

To me it all sounds like the RFID market has run out of existing products to sell to its traditional library market and has decided to take on the LMS companies for their circulation business.  It’s not a surprising development – the potential has existed for many years now, what was missing was a chip that could support the additional features that would make an entirely RFID based circulation solution possible. Until now.

Of course this is not an overnight process. First librarians will need to buy the new chips that make the reinvention of circulation possible.

I wonder what they cost?

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.

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