imageRFID companies have been quick to respond to the challenge of keeping libraries open in these austere times. All the major UK providers now offer individually designed solutions to enable cash strapped local authorities to extend opening hours by managing access to buildings outside of staffed hours with some of the more desperate authorities now rumoured to be considering using this opportunity to remove staff from some service points altogether.

With library buildings now being converted to 24/7 operation suppliers have seen the potential to repurpose them as service delivery points for a wide range of council services. Kiosks originally designed to issue books and pay fines now offer citizens the opportunity to pay for other council services. Bibliotheca were first in the field with their ‘My Community
product but others, like DTech’s ‘access-it’ clearly have the potential to develop along similar lines.

In this rapidly evolving landscape LMS company Axiell appear to be taking a rather different approach.

The last few months have seen some major changes at Axiell. With Grant Palmer’s tenure ending earlier this year and Sven Totté, Axiell’s Lund based CEO now working with the Nottingham based UK team it is perhaps unsurprising that the company’s direction now reflects a more Scandinavian view of the library market.

With the concept of the Library Service Platform (LSP) steadily gaining traction in the market place (most recently with EBSCO’s potentially game-changing announcement of support for a new Open Source project in the academic sector) it’s interesting to see similar language being used to describe the new product offers from many LMS and RFID providers, Axiell included.

Axiell have been announcing a steady stream of new products and partnerships since mid 2015 that now seem to be part of a strategy of steering the company towards enabling the kind of library service enjoyed by the Danes – as recently described by my friend Jan Holmquist on his blog.

In addition to providing cross platform support for staff (including volunteers) functions through their ‘Spark’ product Axiell have also announced a partnership with Scottish company SOLUS to provide mobile applications for library users – which could potentially include the possibility of using mobile devices to self-issue items at the shelf.

Perhaps the most surprising announcement – and the original impetus for my call with Sean Meagher (Axiell’s UK Marketing Manager) on Tuesday morning – was their decision to return to the policy of combining LMS and RFID solutions in a single offer. This is made possible by a little known quirk (in the UK at least) in the deal that established Bibliotheca’s European operations. The Danish arm of this company, Bibliotheca A/S is jointly owned by Axiell and Bibliotheca and continues to supply their own portfolio of products to the Scandinavian market.

UK customers of Axiell will now have the freedom to choose between Bibliotheca UK’s range of products and services or be supplied and supported by Axiell – using hardware and software supplied from Denmark.

Both companies support both the UK data model for RFID data and BIC’s Library Communication Framework (LCF) and I am assured that there will be no pressure placed on existing Bibliotheca UK clients to switch over.

So what’s the difference between these options? Well I’d like to think that in part at least it represents a choice between a Scandinavian public library model and the more austerity-driven agenda of UK local authorities, but that’s both an over-simplification of the issues and certainly naive. The real choice is probably between Axiell’s more unilaterally integrated approach to service delivery and the freedom to choose the solutions you want – and integrate them yourselves.

Probably the most important consequence of these changes is that Axiell clients now have a choice offered by no other LMS supplier and the ability to decide which solutions most closely match their vision of the future of their library service and not just which kiosks they like best.

 

Pleased as I was to reach my holiday destination (Cartagena in Colombia) yesterday I was almost as excited to receive the news that self-service loans – and more – are at last available for library users in the UK.
SOLUS are, like me, based in Scotland and like me are eager to find ways to exploit the full potential of RFID and the new app does just that. Borrowers in RFID equipped libraries will be able both to issue items at the shelf and clear security in a single operation. Those still using barcodes will be able to use their devices cameras to issue items but will still have to deal with whatever security system (if any) is in use separately.

Returns can also be handled using mobile devices.

Dovetailing with the launch of “self-service” within the Library App, SOLUS has also announced the Q1 launch of “SOLUS Pay”, its mobile payment solution, which will allow users to make payments from within the App.

Initially aimed at library charges there are no payment limits with SOLUS Pay so both library services and their wider parent organisations will be able to pay other service charges through their Library App.

 

Full press release available here.

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?

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 »

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 »