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?

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.