“The British Library is to lead an 18-month scoping project to establish the demand for and possible shape of a ‘single digital presence’ for UK public libraries. 

Funded by Arts Council England and the Carnegie UK Trust, the project will investigate user expectations and demand for what a national online platform for public libraries might deliver, and will explore the network of stakeholder groups and organisations best placed to make it a reality.” (Full text here)

For reasons I still cannot quite fathom the theme from Star Wars began playing in my head as I read this announcement last week. Perhaps inspired by a new hope or possibly the realisation that a force was awakening – either way it took me somewhat by surprise, especially as the announcement went on to mention that,

“The scoping project will build on the work of the Single Digital Libraries Presence Steering Group…”

Wait a minute – wasn’t that the name of the group of which I was a member? I checked my notes and found this snippet from the minutes of its last meeting in April 2016.

“The issue of achieving wider engagement with suppliers was discussed. Mick Fortune offered to organise preliminary discussions using his BIC network (as all but one of the major suppliers were already members of BIC) with a view to identifying a single representative to attend future steering group meetings.”

Clearly Carnegie and the British Library had been very busy since then – but it soon became clear from social media and my mailbox that some people remembered my involvement with the Steering Group and were wondering what had happened to that idea of meeting with suppliers – and why had I thought it might be useful in the first place?

So here’s the story – so far…

 

Following the meeting in April BIC (Book Industry Communication to give it its full name) agreed to take up my suggestion that we start talking to the SDLPSG but to meet first with Kathy Settle (CEO of the Libraries Taskforce). I was personally very eager for this meeting to take place as I thought there was more potential for progress than both sides probably believed at the time. (I’ll explain my reasons for thinking this later.)

That meeting was facilitated by Kathy and her team and took place in Whitehall at the end of June 2016 with both parties agreeing that it was a very positive encounter. BIC members were keen to tell Kathy about the efforts they were making to improve system interoperability through initiatives like the Library Communication Framework (LCF), products and services that were already available to libraries that might be deployed to improve the user experience and the frustrations of a procurement process that still depended heavily on ticking off the required elements in a completely outdated UK Core Specification and consequently missed any opportunity to talk about developing the service. (I think both parties were slightly surprised to discover how much their thinking overlapped.)

Since then we have held several more meetings and the group has now expanded to include the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL), industry experts and many other interested parties including – at our most recent meeting in Rugby in July – the British Library’s PLR agency. The philosophy of the group has been very much to try and get anyone with a contribution to make around the table.

I was pleased to receive an email on behalf of the group late last week informing me that the British Library plans to talk to us once the project is underway.

 

That’s the ‘what’, now here’s the ‘why’.

My belief that dialogue with existing suppliers of library systems infrastructure – be that LMS, RFID, mobile apps, or any of the many specific applications that interact with one another in the library systems arena – is likely to be of benefit to the process of building a Single Digital Presence (SDP) is based primarily on my experiences over recent years with projects involving both Scottish and Irish public libraries. Granted almost 30 years as a supplier also plays its part but for the past 10+ years I have been working both through BIC and as a campaigner to try and preserve and even dare to try and develop the public library service.

My experiences in Scotland and Ireland tended to reinforce the discoveries uncovered by BiblioCommons, the SDLPSG and the round table discussion that was the immediate genesis of the new BL project.

The first problem in almost every discussion I have about SDP is – what exactly is it? Attempts at a definition tend to reflect the interest of the definer. Providers of websites offering access to online union catalogues may see it as another website providing access to library holdings whether physical or digital. A digital content provider – like e-books or online reference tools – will most likely see it as providing easier access to their content via any means possible, an LMS provider (and those familiar with managing them) may see it as being a single LMS to run a nation’s libraries.

The consumer (remember them?) probably doesn’t care so much about what form content takes they just want it to be easy to find and use. And I suspect that’s essentially what the SCL wanted when it asked BiblioCommons to carry out their consultancy on building their SDP. The trouble was that BiblioCommons was at the time a commercial organisation that made its money primarily by developing highly customised interfaces to other people’s systems running in a single library service.  So unsurprisingly they defined SDP as being an overlay (probably theirs) to run across the full range of online resources that might be provided in a modern library. All of this was to be an additional charge over and above the cost of buying and maintaining all of the subsidiary systems that would underlay the BiblioCommons ‘wrap’ and would need to be scaled up to handle the entire public library service…

Not quite what you might call an truly integrated solution to the problem but the report did raise some important points that the new British Library scoping project will doubtless consider.

Not the least of these is governance. Let me explain why I think this is so important.

In recent times the idea of a single LMS to run a national library service has become very popular. Personally I have grave doubts about the wisdom of this approach – commercial monopolies rarely see continuous development as being as vital as those that have to differentiate themselves from the competition. I am not opposed to the idea of a single LMS – the US State of Georgia successfully implemented an Open Source solution across its public libraries some years ago but I believe it succeeded because the state took ownership of the system and continues to develop it on behalf of Georgia residents.

This was essentially the thinking behind the Scottish Library and Information Council’s SEDAR project and five years ago I was asked to carry out an evaluation of progress so far.

SEDAR (Stirling and East Dunbartonshire Area Resource) was an attempt to deliver a cost-effective national solution for Scottish public libraries. Open Source solutions were very popular at the time – partly in the (often mistaken) belief that they are much cheaper to buy and run – and four library services had already signed up to use Evergreen. The hope was that all Scottish libraries would eventually run on a single system but the project was encountering difficulties. My brief was to find out why and make recommendations for fixing them.

I discovered that the addition of each new authority’s holdings had led to discrepancies in the catalogue and consequently to how information was displayed. A growing list of workarounds to overcome the problems were making the system increasingly unwieldy to use. The fourth service to join the consortium had added a long list of new requirements that would be difficult and probably costly to implement.

My conclusion was that the system would always need some modifications to accommodate emerging local requirements but that this ought to be readily achievable given compromise and a reasonable degree of co-operation between authorities. To manage this problem required strong governance and an agreed set of rules by which such delicate matters as “who pays what” and “who decides which modifications are made”.

My principal recommendation was that the consortium should improve its governance structure before any more authorities joined the project. I made many other recommendations concerning the maintenance and development of the product but these were less significant.

SEDAR still exists, but only in a very limited form – and the dream of a national LMS is still in abeyance.

Irish libraries approached the idea of a national LMS from a different perspective with their Local Government Management Agency (LGMA) taking the lead on behalf of all public libraries in the Republic. In 2013 I was asked to help the librarians identify a provider that might meet the requirements of a document for a single national LMS that I was told had been prepared by IT professionals working on behalf of the agency.

Irish libraries chose to implement a single LMS.

The problems the librarians were facing were firstly that there did not appear to be any existing system on the market at that time that would operate in the way defined in the requirement (something I was able to confirm) and secondly that there was no real consensus among the different library authorities as to the kind of solution they wanted. They had also only allowed 30 days to resolve their dilemma.

In the event it took almost a year to reach some kind of accommodation and produce an enormously complex specification that satisfied everybody. I have no idea how the evaluation was finally made as my involvement ended with the issue of the tender but the project continues and appears, after some teething troubles, to be going well. It’s a brave experiment that I believe was only made possible because of the existence of a single agency taking responsibility for system acquisition and maintenance. Governance and funding working as one.

Even the problems encountered by the Irish could be overcome by the existence of strong central governance and funding but in the UK we have a completely different situation. Libraries compete for a share of the local budget and tend to do best where funding is maintained at a reasonable level. Where funds are cut and the service pared to the bone they don’t do so well. Building a national model on such diverse and shaky foundations – with no central backing or funding – seems almost an impossible task. Delivering a 21st century library service is the real aim – and it will be difficult – but the first task for the British Library is likely to be to either establish what exactly is meant by a “Single Digital Presence” or abandon the concept altogether and focus on what can already be improved and identify what is to be delivered in the (near) future.

It is the fragmented nature of the public library service that led me some time ago to the conclusion that to try and build a national platform by starting with the library authorities would be too difficult. Even OCLC with its enormous reach and resources had achieved only limited success for its equally limited (but entirely laudable) aims.

When I helped set up Voices for the Library (VFTL) back in 2010 I believed that austerity would inevitably lead to a dogfight for local funds that would be unlikely to be won by librarians. Our aim, I recall saying, should be to try and get the public to view their library service with the same passion and affection as they viewed the NHS. Ah, but I was young(er) then…

My experience with VFTL taught me that there were far too many visions of what a library service might offer for me to be able to make any realistic positive contribution to their future welfare.

There are probably fewer than 30 companies providing automated systems in the UK. There may be ten times that number of library authorities , including trusts and volunteer-run libraries. Easier by far then to try and build closer co-operation and better interfaces between existing systems. Build the future service one system at a time.

It seemed to be a much simpler task. All BIC would have to do was convince suppliers to use new and open protocols, attract the attention of the Taskforce and the SCL – which we did. Librarians would then naturally support our efforts by insisting on BIC standards – which mostly they haven’t.

Ah well. 3 out of 4 isn’t bad.

 

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.