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.

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.

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.