Day One – Amersfoort, Almere and Amstelveen
Following a most enjoyable visit to Lyon for the 80th World Library and Information Congress in August I accepted invitations from two companies operating in the RFID market to go and visit their installations in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Having previously worked in both countries (for three different companies!) it seemed too good an opportunity to see not only how RFID is being used but to renew my acquaintance with the two library communities. I was also eager to see how public libraries in particular were facing up to the challenges that seem at times to be overwhelming their UK counterparts.
My hosts for the first day were the recently renamed Nedap Library Solutions (@nedaplibrix). Having met with Sharon Beening and Ruud Owens in Lyon – and having had some contact with an earlier UK incarnation of Nedap’s library division I wanted to understand more about a company that works extensively with business partners in the UK and elsewhere but which does sell directly into the UK market.
Up until 2014 there had been few Nedap users in the annual survey – despite their obvious considerable presence in the Dutch library market – and I wanted to know more about the development of their product portfolio –especially since the Netherlands developed a national data standard for RFID some time before the UK.
Ruud and Sharon met me outside Utrecht – the town I had been pleased to call home during the time I spent founding Ameritech’s (now SirsiDynix) Benelux office almost 20 years earlier.
Our first port of call was the Eemhuis in Amersfoort. The Eemhuis – named for the region in which it is located, Eemland – is one of a number of new cultural ventures in the Netherlands variously bringing together libraries, archives, museums, art galleries and theatre under a single roof. I have already waxed lyrical elsewhere about the first of such ventures that I saw in 2012 in Bilbao – the Alhóndiga.
In the Netherlands “Kunsthuizen” (Culture Houses) are springing up all over the country creating vibrant new spaces that are clearly very popular with their clientele.
Once inside the first impression is of space. A long staircase leads to a café situated on the top floor of the main building where I had my first coffee of the day with my hosts and we discussed some of the differences between Dutch and British public libraries.
Dutch citizens pay an annual fee to join the library and often pay additional charges to borrow certain types of materials. Those that cannot afford the fees can apply for assistance. Typically libraries offer a range of tariffs. One I saw in Tilburg charges between €39 and €60 per year depending on length of loan period, number of books to be borrowed etc.
When it comes to RFID the model is often different too. Nedap work closely with partners in both the Netherlands and elsewhere. In Amersfoort another company – Aturis – has supplied much of the hardware and furnishings while Nedap supply the software. A large sorting unit near the entrance shows how this works in practice where Nedap’s software drives Aturis hardware.
Aturis supply all the current RFID library toys – sorters, tunnels, self-service kiosks, staff workstations, handheld scanners, and intelligent bookshelves with Nedap providing the library expertise and technical knowledge to hook it all up to a library management system (LMS).
Nedap also supply Amersfoort with customised issue stations designed to complement the overall library design.
For me the excitement mounted as Ruud advised me that our next destination was Almere, a library that has been the subject of considerable interest on both sides of the Atlantic since it opened.
I had seen Almere’s famous “retail model” used to great effect in Norwich’s Millennium Library some years ago but the bookshop type displays are used to great effect not only in Flevoland’s flagship library but in many other libraries across the country.
Almere possesses a truly stunning library. Innovation is everywhere – from the simple genius of the Serendipity Machine to the “Boekstart” briefcase received by every new reader upon joining the library.
Older children receive sturdier versions (minus the bears) that may be filled with items selected by the library staff reflecting the reader’s interests. Overall there is a strong sense of community in this “third space” where everyone seems to feel a strong sense of belonging to something rather special – which they do!
Nedap have made their own contribution to the building’s modern design by incorporating their self-service offerings for loans and renewals and returns units in modern minimalist units that contribute to the overall design concept of the building.
Day one of my “whistle-stop” tour concluded with a visit to Amsteveen to see one of Nedap’s innovations – RFID-enabled returns shelving.
Ever since I was a child using my local library in Plumstead (London) I have known that the most interesting items are the ones that other readers have just returned and I am told that statistics now prove that newly returned stock remains the most popular place for library users to browse.
Turnaround time between return and availability for loan is something of a holy grail for librarians. In larger libraries – like Almere – the volume of returns is so high that the fastest way to achieve this is by using a high speed sorter and responsive staff but in smaller libraries – like Amstelveen – they use a different approach.
RFID enabled shelves allow readers to return items simply by placing them on the “In” shelves. Scanner/readers in the shelf separators send item information to the Library Management System (LMS) which advises the user whether to place the item on the shelf or in the returns slot (if the item has been reserved or recalled by staff for any reason). I was a little sceptical about the probability of borrowers following instructions carefully but was told that mistakes are rare. Perhaps paying for your library service helps generate a stronger sense of social responsibility – even ownership.
The borrower receives a receipt to prove return and any items that have not been reserved are immediately available for loan to the next borrower – at the same station. While I was trying to take a picture of the unit I was constantly interrupted by browsing readers eager to see what was exciting the interest of the denizens of Amstelveen.
And so came to a close my first day revisiting the libraries of the Netherlands. My thanks to Ruud and Sharon for ferrying me around, answering my impertinent questions and generally being the perfect hosts.
Day Two – Brussels
The MuntPunt is a library and communications centre in the heart of Brussels. Part of its function is to provide Dutch speakers living in the capital with a public library service and to provide its RFID solution a Dutch company – iTrack bv – was selected. iTrack’s CEO Marc de Lange met me at the Muntpunt together with the Head Librarian Leen Lekens.
Our tour in fact began outside the library where Marc was eager to show me the bullet-proof book drop iTrack designed and built to ensure that only library items are returned through the sliding panel protecting the book drop. The area next to the library has its share of anti-social inhabitants during some periods of the day and no-one wanted to risk empty beer bottles, or worse, being delivered at 3am!
A valid reader ticket must be scanned before the slot will open to allow the deposit of returned items (seen just above the instructions for use in this picture).
An interesting design feature is the transparent screen which allows readers to see exactly what is happening “behind the scenes” as items are returned.
This idea has been taken a step further in Tilburg where instructions have been stripped down to the minimum as can be seen in this short video.
In each case the wooden shelf in front of the return slot hides a scanner. Readers place items one by one the shelf where they are scanned and their identity confirmed on screen before the system will accept their return. The system will automatically reject multiple items or any attempt to fool the system by returning a different item to the one read. This is achieved by a second scanner inside the return slot.
All items received, whether from the external or internal units, are transported via an elevator to a lower floor for sorting as may be seen here. This reduces noise in the main part of the library. With 27 bins the potential for noise is considerable so another innovation introduced by iTrack switches each conveyor unit off as soon as it has transported an item thereby reducing the overall sound levels except at the very busiest of times.
My visit ended with a tour of the building taking in the theatre, play space (for video games etc.) and the Grand Café – the original building to which the MuntPunt is now attached. Itrack have also designed self-service circulation points – which were in constant use – and security gates from which the panels can be rapidly detached in case of the need for an emergency evacuation.
Day Three – Tilburg and Gouda
My second day with iTrack began at their offices in Tilburg where I was introduced to some of their latest gadgetry for use in the library before setting off to a local branch of Tilburg libraries to see another version of their self-service returns unit (as shown earlier in this article).
In Tilburg the retail model that has proved so popular in Alemere was in once again in evidence (above left) as it was in our next port of call – the converted chocolate factory that is now the main library in Gouda (more famous in the UK for its cheese of course).
This was, by some distance, my favourite library. The library is housed in a former chocolate factory famous for making chocolate figures (especially at Christmas time) and the sweet cigarettes that I used to “smoke” as a 6 year old – and which are probably now banned from sale everywhere!
To preserve the link with its past the whole building uses an industrial theme throughout. Metal shelving (above right) is used for the main collection while stacks of wooden pallets are used to display popular titles (above centre). Not only does this work well from a design perspective but it no doubt helped to keep costs down!
Here items aren’t borrowed and returned but rather “loaded” and “unloaded”. (below left) and even the existing 3M RFID loan stations were redesigned and refurbished by iTrack to keep costs down (below right).
But this is not an austere building. There is plenty of humour here too. Throughout the building explanatory notes on the floors tell the visitor about the work that was done in each area during chocolate production (left) while upstairs the study carrels look like very comfortable containers (right).
Even the warning signs in the auditorium warn children against the perils of running riot in the library…
Gouda’s library was an uplifting experience for me and shows what can be done even in times of austerity to create vibrant public spaces for everyone to enjoy.
From an RFID perspective it was also a good example of the work that can be done by smaller suppliers to create modern technology-driven management solutions often working with limited budgets.
From a personal perspective the trip was good in parts. Since my own conversion to the potential that RFID might offer I have been striving to persuade others that – with a better understanding of how the technology might work in a library context – RFID could be so much more than a labelling system.
There are, it seems to me, two major obstacles that have prevented the technology from delivering its full potential over the 20 years or so that libraries have been using it. The first – and probably the greatest – was the lack of any concerted effort by library communities around the world (with some honourable exceptions) to develop a common approach to using the technology (common data standards, national data models). The second is the continuing dependence of most RFID solutions on 3M’s SIP protocol – and that protocol’s focus on circulation.
Knowing that the Netherlands had agreed a national data model some time ago I was hopeful that RFID use there might be more adventurous than in the UK – perhaps some more co-operative projects or at the very least more installations with a mix of hardware from different suppliers. In fact I saw neither – which to be honest was a little disappointing but not entirely surprising. Like the UK there is no agency tasked with ensuring that the national data model is actually being used and, again like the UK, rumours persist that suppliers haven’t always supplied systems that use it.
But the data model only overcomes one of the obstacles to greater exploitation of RFID. Certainly a single data model, based upon one of the two international data standards, would go a long way towards encouraging developers to create RFID applications that will work in any library but a bigger problem is the growing diversity of communication solutions on offer.
Like the majority of UK and US installations LMS/RFID connectivity is generally achieved using 3M’s ageing Standard Interchange Protocol (SIP). Like most of their global competitors both Nedap and iTrack use SIP for almost all third party communication and primarily use only the borrower and/or item barcode IDs to interrogate the LMS to and determine the validity of self-service transactions.
In many markets SIP extensions are used to fill any information gaps that may be required to carry out more sophisticated tasks but its limitations tend to limit the extent to which RFID companies can innovate. Functions not directly concerned with circulation aren’t directly supported by SIP and some management system providers use Application Program Interfaces (APIs) to enhance services like inter-library loans, accessioning, collection monitoring and the promotion of special collections.
In fact I saw no evidence of APIs being used to deliver additional functionality to Dutch and Belgian libraries and little innovation in terms of new services or the automation of management tasks. What I did see were two companies, with very different approaches, striving to innovate within the same constraints as their UK counterparts. There is much to admire about the way each has gone about this task. New approaches to self-service design and solutions to particular problems abound – but I still believe that there is still much more potential in the technology that is still not being exploited.
iTrack bv can be found at http://itrack.nl/