As regular readers will know I have been working closely with an organisation called Book Industry Communication (BIC) – a charity supported by both the book trade and the library community – for many years. BIC’s mission is, as the name suggests, to improve communication across all sectors of the book trade (including electronic) and has been instrumental in establishing many of the standards now used in libraries.

This post has been inspired in part by an email from Kathy Settle. In a three-way discussion about BIC’s recent report on RFID privacy she commented that the sample poster template included at the foot of the web page (for use in libraries to help inform users about the potential risks associated with RFID tags) , “If it was my mum reading it, I’d think she would be very confused – and worse, very worried – about what this all means”.

She has a point. The public aren’t included in the long list of people for whom the guidance is intended – but it does suggest ways in which libraries should inform their users that RFID is being used by the staff.

By pure coincidence I received an email this morning from a library user who is writing his own application to interact directly with library stock. I can’t tell you what he wants to do with it in case he plans to sell it to other members of the public, but I can at least assure you that it is an entirely innocent idea that has some merit.

This may sound surprisingly ambitious – after all librarians have been rather slow to recognise the potential that now sits on their shelves – but such initiatives are likely to become increasingly more frequent as the public recognise that most of the stock on the shelves of our libraries are wide open to exploitation by anyone with a smartphone app.

Why a ‘UK’ guide? Well almost 100% of UK libraries now use essentially the same technology and standards whether they know it or not, so this guide will work for almost 100% of UK library users. There’s no mention of data models, frequencies, encryption, or any of the myriad other variables that make RFID sound more complicated than it is – and which have led to other countries choosing different paths to RFID deployment.

This guide is different from everything else I have written about RFID over the past 10 years or so. It is much shorter, and is for the individual who wants to write their own app as well as the ordinary citizen who just wants to borrow a book.

And of course it’s for Kathy’s mum.

A UK Library User’s Guide to RFID

What’s RFID?

RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification. Your library uses it to keep track of its books etc. It’s a very simple idea with a huge range of applications so you probably already have some form of it in your possession already. If you have a bus pass, travelcard (like Oyster), a bank card that you can just wave at a terminal or a library book the chances are that it has RFID on board.

There are lots of different kinds of RFID but they all have two things in common – they use a ‘chip’ to store information and an aerial (attached to the chip) to send and receive information. The ones in your library books are about the size of a credit card and are called ‘tags’.

Why is my library using RFID?

Well according to the findings of surveys that I used to carry out annually almost 100% of them are using it to allow you to borrow items from the library without the need to trouble a member of staff. Libraries call this “self-service circulation” and it’s a bit like using the self-service device to buy goods in a supermarket except that you don’t have to pay and you use a radio scanner to read a library RFID tag instead of an optical scanner to read a supermarket barcode.

Like supermarkets libraries still do use barcodes to manage their stock sometimes although the information in the barcode is also present on the tag – plus a whole lot more. The main reason libraries switched from barcodes to tags was to improve security. Before RFID libraries tried a variety of ways to protect themselves from theft – the most popular was something called ‘tattle-tape’ – a magnetic strip hidden in a stock item that could be magnetised and de-magnetised. Security gates at library exits used magnetic waves to detect any item being removed illegally. The system worked well but required expensive and bulky electromagnets to arm and disarm the strips. RFID simply writes a code to each tag to specify whether it can be borrowed or not.

RFID security devices often resemble the earlier electromagnetic ones but work in a completely different way so you cannot ‘mix and match’ the two technologies.

Is RFID harmful?

The technology has been in use for more than half a century without any reports of any impact on health and the voltages used to run RFID systems are very much lower than those used by electromagnetic devices.

Why does my library want me to know if they are using RFID?

The European Union issued a mandate some years ago that recommends that libraries (and other establishments) notify their users if RFID technology is in use in a location to enable them to assess any personal risk to their privacy.

Are there risks to my privacy?

Because data is being broadcast over the airwaves there is the possibility that a third party could intercept messages exchanged between your books and the library’s self-service devices.

However most libraries do not record any data that can be traced to an individual on their RFID tags. Anyone seeking to discover what someone is reading would also have to gain access to the library’s database in order to decode what would otherwise be just a stream of numbers flying through the ether. It is nonetheless a level of risk that the EU feels deserves advertisement by the library.
Your membership card by the way is still most likely to be using the ‘old’ technology barcodes which cannot be read by radio.

Is RFID used for anything else?

Some librarians have been very creative in finding ways to exploit RFID technology and use it for much more than issuing and returning stock. There are examples all over the internet and elsewhere in this blog. None of them offer any additional threat to library users over and above that mentioned above.

…….

So that’s my attempt at a user’s guide to RFID. I am aware that it will not apply to everyone but I think it works quite well for the majority of UK libraries. My thanks to Kathy’s mum for taking the time to read it and offer some helpful suggestions – likewise to Kathy for finding the time to do likewise.

A final word for librarians

If there are any additional concerns about public interaction with the library they should be troubling librarians rather than the public. The reason for my saying this concerns recent advances in a technology called NFC (short for Near Field Communication) that have resulted in many smartphones being able to read and write to library tags. As I indicated at the start of this post some members of the public are already using this capability to develop their own apps to interact with library stock. For the moment this appears to be for purely benign reasons.

But that could change of course.

Apple’s recent announcement of the upcoming release of iOS 11 caused ripples of excitement across the RFID and NFC worlds – not least among those of us with an interest in libraries.

Sadly, on closer inspection the announcement still falls short of providing a means for libraries to fully exploit the NFC technology already resident in later iPhone models – and already available to Android users.Stripping away the technical jargon essentially what Apple have done is to allow their devices to read RFID tags. On the face of it this sounds like good news but Apple will only support the reading of tags in a specific format – called NDEF. This is a kind of “lowest common denominator” format that can carry data payloads in a standard format. To read a library tag with a smartphone requires the data on the tags to be stored in NDEF format – which it generally isn’t.

The NFC Forum identified the need for a means to read non-NDEF tags some time ago and identified libraries as one of the key sectors that would benefit from smartphone support of this activity. They suggested that,

“… an NFC app running on an NFC-enabled tablet can easily read the book title or ISBN number from the tag, thereby supporting a search for book reviews or summaries.”

(I can think of a whole host of other activities that would also be possible, not least the ability to self-issue items at the shelf.)

In 2015 they published something called NFC-V. Again – to keep it simple – this allows NFC readers in devices like smartphones to read tags that have been encoded using ISO/IEC 156693 – the format used by the majority of library RFID systems, including all of those currently in use in the UK’s public and academic libraries.

Android already supports NFC-V, Apple iOS 11 will not.

I’m a librarian using RFID why should I care?

  1. Cheaper self-service

One of the most expensive components of RFID self-service is the kiosk. To issues items in an RFID library you change data on the item tags. That’s what kiosks do. With a suitably equipped smartphone users can do this for themselves – greatly reducing the number of kiosks needed to manage borrowing. This is especially true of academic libraries where a higher proportion of readers have smartphones.

Security gates work in exactly the same way whether items are issued by phone or at a kiosk.

  1. Turning the collection into a discovery tool

Some libraries have already found ways to link shelf items to other resources – both within and without the library. At present an item has to be removed from the shelf and taken to a reading table in order to do this but with NFC-V enabled a reader would simply hold their phone against an item to be instantly directed at other resources/events/interest groups etc.

  1. Instant reviews/curated content

Already offered by some mobile apps (using the onboard camera and barcode recognition software) users could immediately have access to reader reviews or curated information about items (as identified by the NFC Forum above) simply by holding their phones against an item.

These are just some of ideas I’ve been sharing with library suppliers for some years now. They all tell me that without Apple making NFC-V available in iOS the sums just don’t add up and development is stalled. That hasn’t prevented one or two brave (and talented) individuals in our universities from building applications for Android but what we still need is some sign from Apple that they are considering giving greater priority to a technology that could significantly improve library users’ experience as well as increasing the value (and therefore sales) of iPhones across the global library user population (quite a big number I would think).

I’ll be talking to library suppliers about how we to persuade Apple to ‘do the right thing’ over the coming weeks.

If you use RFID in your library why not join us?

This year’s survey was not actively promoted outside of the English-speaking world. Without the support of suppliers and others it is frankly beyond my means and ability to attempt a truly global survey.

Nevertheless a few readers of my blog and followers on Twitter did take the time and trouble to answer the survey in English – and I am extremely grateful for their support.

With such limited numbers it is not possible to gain any kind of accurate picture of the international scene but the answers are nonetheless interesting.countries

There were 7 responses from 4 different countries.types

Library types were mixed – including the only National Library to have responded to this year’s survey.uses

Despite the low numbers one obvious difference between these European libraries and their counterparts in the UK, ANZ and North America is the extent to which RFID is being deployed. Everyone uses RFID to prevent theft with only one not also using it for circulation but beyond these two functions the number of libraries using RFID for User Identification, monitoring in-house use of stock and automated materials handling were all proportionately higher than outside of the European market.suppliers

Bibliotheca+3M were once again in the majority in these European libraries with both Nedap and Autocheck appearing for the first time in this survey – both in the Netherlands. One other Dutch supplier – that I know very well! – also completed the survey but their answers are not included as I was only looking for the opinions of librarians.

All the respondents use HF frequency solutions and all use SIP to communicate with their library management software. Only one also used an API to deliver additional functionality.

Only Bibliotheca+3M libraries replied in sufficient numbers to be worth analysis and their results are given in the following table,

Poor Not very good Good enough Very good
Answering helpdesk calls? 0% 0% 100% 0%
Responding to development requests? 0% 50% 50% 0%
Quality of their advice? 0% 0% 75% 25%
Resolution of hardware problems? 0% 0% 75% 25%
Quality of project management? 0% 0% 50% 50%
Response to equipment failures? 0% 25% 50% 25%
Response to software problems? 0% 25% 50% 25%
Speed of implementation? 0% 0% 75% 25%
Relationship with your ILS/LMS/ILMS provider 0% 0% 75% 25%

 

Finally three libraries had found other uses for their self-service kiosks – all three allowing users to make catalogue enquiries. No-one used their kiosks for non-library services and no-one had, so far, allowed library users to use NFC equipped smartphone in conjunction with stock.

There were no additional comments.

 

A very low response from the USA this year, but a better one from Canada so I have combined the responses from both countries to produce a view of the North American market as a whole.types

A total of 24 organisations responded 18 from the USA and 6 from Canada. In both countries the public sector appears to have invested most heavily in RFID (100% in Canada). The ‘Other academic’ category comprised 3 community colleges and 1 research institution.uses

 

Circulation and theft prevention tied for the most popular use of RFID at 23 each. Both collection management (13), and automated materials handling (12) were more popular than in previous surveys, AMH significantly higher than in either of the other international markets examined so far. Each of the bottom four applications listed here represents only one library – relatively lower than in the other markets examined.frequencies

North American users appear to be much better informed about the frequencies they use in their library RFID solutions. Only 1 library claimed to be using UHF supplied by a company that does not supply this option. The rest either identified HF as their chosen frequency or did not answer the question.ils

Dependence on SIP in North America is the highest of all the markets analysed. Only one library was not using SIP – 4 used both SIP and APIs. The most common use of APIs appears to be in conjunction with Automated Materials Handling (AMH). This is an area of library activity that in the USA in particular appears to be more open to competition than elsewhere with several respondents indicating that they had purchase an AMH solution from a different supplier to that which supplied their other RFID applications.suppliers

A very similar pattern to the UK and again completely different to Australia and New Zealand Bibliotheca+3M dominate the North American market. (All the Canadian libraries that replied were their clients except one that declined to give a name).

The list of ILS/RFID partnerships is as follows,

 

 

Innovative Interfaces & Bibliotheca+3M 5
SirsiDynix & Bibliotheca+3M 4
Ex Libris & Bibliotheca+3M 2
Polaris & Bibliotheca+3M 2
Evergreen & Bibliotheca+3M 1
Polaris & Envisionware 1
Polaris & Techlogic 1
SirsiDynix & Checkpoint 1
SirsiDynix & Sentry 1
SirsiDynix & Techlogic 1
TLC & Techlogic 1

 

Supplier satisfaction tables for each of the nine areas assessed follow below,

helpdesk

devreqs

advice

hardwareprobs

projman

equipfails

softwareprobs

implementation

ilsrels

I asked respondents if they wished to make any additional comments about supplier performance. There were a few (5) concerns expressed about the changes at Bibliotheca+3M – about the same percentage as in the UK. I’ve omitted those from those from this very short list,

  • We’ve ended up developing local expertise for our sorting system, and call (our supplier) much less frequently.
  • Ordering RFID tags takes forever! Communication is terrible. Wrong send to name, shipped to wrong address, no response, etc.

 

Only one (Canadian) library indicated that their members had access to NFC applications that interacted directly with library stock, which allowed them to  discover related items. Four used self-service kiosks for operations other than circulation, one for booking library assets and two for catalogue enquiries, the remaining one did not say what else they did. No libraries used library kiosks for non-library purposes.

Finally, respondents were asked to share any additional thoughts they might have about the survey or RFID in general. There was only one reply – from Canada,

  • I would like to see smartphone apps that will check out library materials and disarm the security to cut down on the need for self check out stations, etc.

I am indebted to both the National Acquisitions Group and Book Industry Communication (BIC) for sponsoring me to write a revised version of the widely used (and much copied!) Guide to Library RFID Procurement published in 2011.

A great deal has changed in the 5 years since the old guide was published. RFID has found its way into many more aspects of all of our lives, libraries included. The emergence of mobile technologies that can read library RFID tags by using an RFID technology called Near Field Communication (NFC) has opened up even more possibilities for using the technology and new applications are now appearing almost daily – some of them written by enthusiasts and students rather than the big commercial companies.

Libraries around the world can now use RFID to help them manage many more processes than simply self-service loans and returns – from building access to stock disposal and everything in-between.

So writing a new guide was something of a challenge! I should warn any plagiarist that they really won’t be able to simply this guide – or even the specification of requirements – in support of a procurement process without doing some work of their own. This guide focuses on helping you define what you want to achieve with the technology – rather than enabling suppliers to tick some boxes on a form before you hand over large sums of money for a solution that doesn’t quite deliver what you expected.

But before anyone criticises me here for being negative about those who use or supply RFID solutions I should say that both constituencies have been equally vocal in urging me to “do something” about the procurement process for some time now. It clearly helps neither party if requirements are ill-defined.

So this guide seeks to steer you toward a better definition of your needs and desires for this still developing technology whilst still ensuring that you ask the right questions – about standards, privacy etc. – of potential suppliers. Who knows what you might be able to achieve with RFID over the coming years? You may surprise yourself!

I am however mindful of the fact that many procurements are still driven by a desire to replace staff so I have tried to emphasise the questions that still need to be asked of potential suppliers to do that, so that even if you have no interest in making stock interactive, automating your accessions processes, saving money on kiosks by encouraging users to use tablets and phones, using the technology to improve user experience, facilitate consortia creation and co-operation or any of the many other things you ought to be doing with RFID you will still find it useful.

You can download a copy of the new guide here.

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?

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.