For the last 10 days I have been watching responses to this year’s library RFID survey rolling in (328 as I write this) and been dipping into some of the replies and suggestions that librarians from around the world have been making about the potential for the technology over the coming year.
I guess January is the right month for speculation as I noticed Marshall had also been doing some crystal ball gazing. One paragraph in particular caught my eye:
“I anticipate some experimental use of Near Field Communications (NFC), especially in the area of patron self-service, though not necessarily new production-level implementations. While QR codes continue to spark interest, I do not anticipate that they will enter the mainstream of library automation in any way that will challenge existing identification technologies such as barcodes or RFID tags. I do anticipate steady movement in the implementation of RFID-based technologies in libraries, though not necessarily any new breakthrough products. “
Everyone it seems agrees that RFID is going places – but there’s very little agreement about where that might be…
Last year’s RFID Conference in London certainly confirmed Marshall’s view that NFC is beginning to make an impact. Applications are certainly being developed to assist with self-service but with smartphones becoming equipped with both NFC and RFID (not to mention QR codes) the potential for these devices to effectively act as systems integrators has not been lost on companies in both the USA, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. We will see much more from them I think.
But that’s very much in the future. The really fascinating lesson I’ve re-learned this week is that there is no such thing as a standard model for RFID use in the library.
I knew of course that companies in India, China and South-East Asia have been very active in designing RFID solutions for libraries. Some using UHF, some the more common 13.56MHz HF tags with which most of us in Europe and North America are more familiar. What I had not realised was the extent to library management systems (LMS or ILS) have already developed their own RFID solutions.
To take just one example – Australia. I learned that Civica installed UHF based RFID in a number of sites some time ago. Thinking back I can remember a discussion I had with Civica’s head of development when he visited Birmingham (UK) for a Library and Information Show back in 2008. He was telling me about a plan to combine security and issue into a single operation managed by the security gate itself. To make that work would require the use of UHF to generate a sufficiently large read field but he believed it could be done.
I expressed two concerns about that idea. First – using UHF would prevent the adoption of any kind of data standard (certainly for the foreseeable future) and second by integrating RFID so tightly with the LMS clients would have nowhere else to go should they ever decide to leave Civica.
This wasn’t entirely a new idea – although the UHF part certainly was – DS (now Axiell) had delivered something very similar to their UK sites when they began deploying RFID solutions. The difference was that DS also supported the SIP protocol – meaning that anyone switching from DS would only lose the extra functionality that had been developed for Galaxy users. All the mainstream self-service functions supported by SIP 2.0 would remain intact.
I’m not sure whether there are any implementations that still offer this enhanced functionality but like most other UK LMS providers Axiell mostly offer SIP supported functionality to their clients nowadays.
Which brings me neatly to the really big question. What happens now that SIP 3.0 has been published?
When BIC announced their intention to develop a new protocol to support LMS/RFID integration back in 2010 they made it clear that the reason for so doing was to provide a means by which existing LMS solutions could take advantage of the new data standard. With tags able to support many more elements the deficiencies of SIP as a data transport mechanism were becoming glaringly obvious. RFID suppliers could see many ways in which they could vastly improve their product offer – especially in the “offline” processing of stock – if only there was a way to get the information they would need onto the tags. Other third party suppliers that had been using SIP as a “workaround” for their solutions for years were also keen to see a new protocol that would support much more than circulation.
So when 3M announced SIP 3.0 – just three weeks after the BIC announcement – it was promoted as an alternative to the BIC protocol. But the reality has proved otherwise. SIP 3.0 – just like NCIP – remains firmly rooted in circulation and security, and based on existing models of LMS/RFID communication. Which is where most librarians and vendors feel comfortable.
But in conversations with my fellow consultants in Australia and the USA, and current and ex CEOs of some of the world’s leading RFID suppliers, I’ve been hearing a different story.
One thing on which most of us agree is that the advent of data standards capable of supporting more than a barcode number is a game changer. Where we don’t agree is in how the game will evolve.
Over the years I have been made painfully aware of a lack of understanding that sometimes exists among librarians about the relationship between LMS and RFID systems. Even the few framework agreements I have been allowed to see appear largely ignorant of how even self-service actually works, let alone anything RFID might be capable of anything more sophisticated.
As a result I am perhaps overly concerned about what might happen when new solutions arrive on the market. Will desperate librarians seeking to keep their service alive invest in solutions that offer to reduce their costs and deliver self-service loans – but destroy the overall integrity of their online information service? I saw one that will do just that in November last year. The salesman who tried to persuade me to buy it did not seem to feel that having absolutely no knowledge of existing library management systems might be a problem.
And maybe he’s right. Perhaps I do worry too much. Certainly some of my colleagues have been trying to persuade me that if the LMS companies don’t wake up and smell the coffee the market will speak for itself. RFID suppliers, so the theory goes (those that see the opportunity at any rate), will become so frustrated that they will begin to develop their own independent solutions. LMS companies will simply be told that they are no longer required.
I’m certain that RFID suppliers will seek to do this – but not so sure they will all succeed. (Some will – some are already taking steps). So my “belt and braces” (safety first) approach has been to protect libraries against possible disaster by keeping in place the safety net of a data protocol for RFID/LMS communication – until it can safely be switched off.
Who’s right? Of course only time will tell. In the meantime I just hope those responsible for spending the money will at least pause to consider whether they fully understand both the opportunities – and the risks.