A New Report on RFID usage in American libraries from ALA TechSource has recently been published (price $43 and worth every cent) by my friend and colleague Lori Ayre of the Galecia Group. I was privileged to receive a personal copy in the post this week as Lori has been kind enough to mention me in her acknowledgements.
The report takes an overdue look at the state of the US RFID market for libraries, examining the issues of frequencies, standards and data models and detailing the main uses to which the technology has so far been applied – but also encouraging librarians to think hard about how they might get more from the technology than they have been able to up to now.
Like me Lori has become increasingly frustrated at the relative lack of creativity in the library sector when compared with other RFID markets. Interestingly she sees concerns about privacy as being one of the reasons why suppliers have been reluctant to add more than a simple ID to tags in the past.
My own view is more cynical. By using only the barcode RFID suppliers were able to start selling self-service solutions based on existing applications from day one. By making the RFID tag simply a dumb label it was easily adapted to use SIP and replace the self-service and security units that relied on electromagnetic tape and barcodes. There was almost no new work to be done.
So effective was this approach that many librarians still think RFID is just another name for self-service circulation.
Only now, when the demand for self-service is beginning to slow, are suppliers starting to look at other uses for RFID. Their problem – and the librarian’s problem – is that the way in which most RFID solutions were developed is not conducive to this process.
Even the RFID solution providers recognised some time ago that the proprietary models they had been installing were a ticking time-bomb for their clients. Most early adopters were told that the tags they were installing would be able to be read by any other system. Librarians, with their experience of using barcodes, simply assumed that this meant they would be able to be read in the same way as barcodes. I even heard one early adopter from a university library tell an audience that “all RFID tags work in the same way”. Encouraged by such statements UK libraries embarked on an almost breakneck race to be the first in their neighbourhood to implement the technology.
It turned out that what the suppliers really meant was that they could mostly find a way to decode other supplier’s tags using increasingly complex software to analyse and extract data from each other’s tags. One leading supplier recently took me to task for suggesting that RFID tags are not interoperable (they called it a “myth”). For them the ability to extract a barcode number from a tag is all that matters – for them that defines “interoperable”.
It’s that simplistic view of interoperability – and that narrow view of RFID – that has mostly limited a very expensive and sophisticated technology to the operation of issuing and returning books.
The lack of common data standards is one issue – bilateral development is another.
Lori addresses this issue in her chapter on migration to the US standard. In a key paragraph entitled “Remove Legacy Barriers to Interoperability” she explains just how the way market has/is developing can sometimes work against the ambitions of the librarian.
“There are still potential barriers to interoperability even with the new standard. These come in the name of “enhancements” that might be offered by vendors. Vendors will surely seek ways to differentiate their products now that their proprietary solutions have been ‘end-of-lifed’ with the new standards. These enhancements may appear attractive to libraries that don’t understand that using these enhancements will render their systems noninteroperable with other libraries or other vendors.”
She goes on to say,
“When designing your library’s RFID system and working with vendors, be sure to remain cognizant of the effect of any decisions you make on the interoperability of your system. Moving from interoperable to proprietary puts the library in a dangerous and potentially expensive position (my emphasis) that is probably not worth whatever the so-called enhancements are.”
As new vendors enter the market this situation will only get worse – unless librarians make more effort to understand the nature of the beast they have loosed among the stacks. Smartphone companies will soon be allowing borrowers to use their devices to interact with library assets. The increasing use of data standards makes it easier for new players to enter what has up until now been almost a protected marketplace. What is needed is a framework within which new applications can be developed in non-proprietary ways. Lori suggests that one close to my heart may be the key.
The Book Industry Communication Library Communication Framework (or blessedly ‘BLCF’ for short) offers a way forward but will rely upon the co-operation of ILS vendors to make the idea work. Winning their co-operation will depend on librarians demanding it. ILS and RFID vendors in the USA are busy building the very bilateral arrangements that Lori warns us against. I gave my views on the matter earlier this year.
Why not NCIP or SIP I hear a cry? It’s a simple answer – both are limited to continuing the narrow relationship between RFID and circulation. BLCF allows the technology to develop in other ways – to deliver greater benefits. Until I saw a jewellery warehouse using an RFID tunnel to check-in deliveries no-one appeared to have considered using the same mechanism for checking in books. That was 6 years ago now and still only a handful of libraries have even seen that solution in action.
There are myriad ways in which RFID could be making the library a more useful and interesting environment – as well as improving and accelerating business processes but all we do is more of the same. Lori’s report shows us a way forward and the steps librarians need to take to make that future happen.
Let’s not disappoint her.