Last week I was lucky enough to visit my first UHF RFID library installation at the University of Pécs in Hungary. My host for the morning, Tamás Markó is the current head of the Informatics Department and oversaw the implementation of RFID in the magnificent new library building.
The system was supplied by ODIN Technologies of Budapest who have a growing number of clients in Hungary and its neighbours. Interestingly ODIN also operate in Tokyo – another market showing a keen interest in using UHF for library installations.
Pécs followed the example of other Hungarian libraries in choosing to use UHF tags rather than the 13.56 MHz HF tags used by the majority of UK libraries. Cost was one factor in making the decision – UHF tags typically cost only 30% of the cost of HF tags – but my host acknowledged that a major factor in making his choice was the precedent of other libraries having done the same. There is something very comforting in seeing an operation working – it is after all the reason why most UK librarians chose to follow the example of their peers in choosing HF for their libraries.
So what are the obvious differences between UHF and HF?
Well for a start the tags look very different to HF. Over a million tags like the one pictured left were inserted into stock by the staff at the university which runs libraries on a number of sites across the city. Barcodes are still in use since many sites do not yet have RFID facilities. Since UHF tags carry no data (unlike HF) the library managements system (LMS) – Voyager – has had to build a new table in the database to match the unique ID in the tag created at the time of manufacture with the item ID already used internally – the barcode number.
The communication of tag information is also rather different. Voyager and ODIN have created their own protocol for exchanging data. Endeavor was rather late to implement SIP and many sites – including Pécs – don’t use SIP for communication. Whether this will change with Voyager now being in Ex Libris ownership – or with the future of SIP being rather uncertain – remains to be seen.
Another striking difference – for me – was the positioning of the self-service units. Tamás was kind enough to walk me through the issue process at one of the units positioned on each floor of the library building. Units are positioned as far from the shelves as possible to reduce any risk of reading items not being borrowed. The units themselves also use a ‘V’ shaped wedge to limit the number of items that can be placed on a reader simultaneously.
Every floor still has a large issue desk with at least two staff attending to the needs of library users. The library is in fact a joint venture between the university and the public library of Pécs and I found that staff in most areas worked in pairs from both organisations. The presence of so many issue desks prompted me to ask what percentage of items were circulated using self-service. The answer – about 5% – might surprise many UK librarians.
I asked if staff liked the self-service units and was not too surprised to hear the same view I have been hearing for some time now in libraries all over the world – “they are worried about losing heir jobs.”
The actual process of issuing items and clearing security is also very different. All library users carry an RFID access card which is used to trigger the loan process. Items for loan are placed on the reading table and are read only after the user places their membership card on a small reader adjacent to it.
The security process is entirely managed by the LMS. Since UHF tags carry no data they cannot be used – like HF tags – to carry a security bit. In most HF based systems items presented for issue will be checked against the LMS to determine whether or not they may be borrowed and if they are the RFID unit will be instructed to set a data bit to “clear” to allow the item to leave the library without setting off the alarm system.
With UHF this doesn’t happen. A small scanner set into the ceiling near the exit gates constantly monitors all the items it can ‘see’ in the exit area. This includes a number of items in a display case opposite the gates. False alarms were common until staff issued all the items on display to a ‘dummy’ borrower. A borrower passing the gates must wait for the scanner to read all their items as well as all the items in the display cabinet – check with the LMS that all the items it can detect have been issued – and then allow the gate to open. Library users have to scan their membership card as well. It was not clear to me what happened when more than one user tried to pass the gates with prohibited items at the same time.
I’m looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with Tamás when we both speak in Berlin later this month. I’ve already thought of some more questions I should have asked!