RFID from the buyers’ perspective


Library customer sweet spots and objections to overcome

RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) is the latest technology to be used in library theft detection systems. Unlike EM (Electro-Mechanical) and RF (Radio Frequency) systems, which have been used in libraries for decades, RFID-based systems move beyond security to become tracking systems that combine security with more efficient tracking of materials throughout the library, including easier and faster charge and discharge, inventorying, and materials handling.

Advantages of RFID systems

Rapid charging/discharging

The use of RFID reduces the amount of time required to perform circulation operations. The most significant time savings are attributable to the facts that information can be read from RFID tags much faster than from barcodes and that several items in a stack can be read at the same time. While initially unreliable, the anti-collision algorithm that allows an entire stack to be charged or discharged now appears to be working well.

The other time savings realized by circulation staff are modest unless the RFID tags replace both the EM security strips or RF tags of older theft detection systems and the barcodes of the automated library system—i.e., the system is a comprehensive RFID system that combines RFID security and the tracking of materials throughout the library; or it is a hybrid system that uses EM for security and RFID for tracking, but handles both simultaneously with a single piece of equipment. [3M has developed readers that can do both concurrently except for videotapes and audiotapes. These have to be desensitized and sensitized in a separate operation]. In either case, there can be as much as a 50 percent increase in throughput. The time savings are less for charging than for discharging because the time required for charging usually is extended by social interaction with patrons.

RFID security and the tracking of materials throughout the library; or it is a hybrid system that uses EM for security and RFID for tracking, but handles both simultaneously with a single piece of equipment. [3M has developed readers that can do both concurrently except for videotapes and audiotapes. These have to be desensitized and sensitized in a separate operation]. In either case, there can be as much as a 50 percent increase in throughput. The time savings are less for charging than for discharging because the time required for charging usually is extended by social interaction with patrons.

Simplified patron self-charging/discharging

For patrons using self-charging, there is a marked improvement because they do not have to carefully place materials within a designated template and they can charge several items at the same time.

Patron self-discharging shifts that work from staff to patrons. Staff is relieved further when readers are installed in bookdrops.

High reliability

The readers are highly reliable. Several vendors of RFID library systems claim an almost 100 percent detection rate using RFID tags. Anecdotal evidence suggests that is the case whenever a reader is within 12 to 14 inches of the tags, but there appears to be no statistical data to support the claims.
There are fewer false alarms than with older technologies once an RFID system is properly tuned. The libraries contacted that have experience with both EM and RFID security systems, report a 50 to 75 percent reduction.

Some RFID systems have an interface between the exit sensors and the circulation system to identify the items moving out of the library. Were a patron to run out of the library and not be intercepted, the library would at least know what had been stolen. If the patron card also has an RFID tag, the library will also be able to determine who removed the items without properly charging them. However, the author has not been able to identify a library that has implemented this security feature.

Other RFID systems encode the circulation status on the RFID tag. This is done by designating a bit as the “theft” bit and turning it off at time of charge and on at time of discharge. If the material that has not been properly charged is taken past the exit sensors, an immediate alarm is triggered. Another option is to use both the “theft” bit and the online interface to an automated library system, the first to signal an immediate alarm and the second to identify what has been taken.

High-speed inventorying

A unique advantage of RFID systems is their ability to scan books on the shelves without tipping them out or removing them. A hand-held inventory reader can be moved rapidly across a shelf of books to read all of the unique identification information. Using wireless technology, it is possible not only to update the inventory, but also to identify items which are out of proper order.

Automated materials handling

Another application of RFID technology is automated materials handling. This includes conveyor and sorting systems that can move library materials and sort them by category into separate bins or onto separate carts. This significantly reduces the amount of staff time required to ready materials for reshelving. Given the high cost of the equipment, this application has not been widely used. There were approximately 40 systems in use in North America as of the first quarter of 2004.

Long tag life

Finally, RFID tags last longer than barcodes because nothing comes into contact with them. Most RFID vendors claim a minimum of 100,000 transactions before a tag may need to be replaced.

Disadvantages of RFID Systems

High cost
The major disadvantage of RFID technology is its cost. While the readers and sensors used to read the information are comparable in cost to the components of a typical EM or RF theft detection system, typically $2,500 to $3,500 or more each; a server costing as much as $15,000 may be required and the tags cost $.60 to $.85 each. It may be some time before the cost of tags comes down to $.50 or less, the figure which polling of librarians has determined is the key to their serious consideration of the technology. Gemplus, a European manufacturer of RFID tags, has predicted that it will bring a $.50 tag to market within two years, but there is considerable skepticism in the industry.

Vulnerability to compromise

It is possible to compromise an RFID system by wrapping the protected material in two to three layers of ordinary household foil to block the radio signal. Clearly, bringing household foil into a library using RFID would represent premeditated theft, just as bringing a magnet into a library using EM technology would be.

It is also possible to compromise an RFID system by placing two items against one another so that one tag overlays another. That may cancel out the signals. This requires knowledge of the technology and careful alignment.

Removal of exposed tags

3M, which recommends EM for security and RFID for tracking, argues that EM strips are concealed in the spines (30 percent of customers) or the gutters (70 percent of customers) of books and are, therefore, difficult to find and remove; while RFID tags are typically affixed to the inside back cover and are exposed for removal. The author found no evidence of removal in the libraries he visited, nor did any of the library administrators contacted by telephone report a problem. That does not mean that there won’t be problems when patrons become more familiar with the role of the tags.
If a library wishes, it can insert the RFID tags in the spines of all except thin books, however, not all RFID tags are flexible enough. A library can also imprint the RFID tags with its logo and make them appear to be bookplates, or it can put a printed cover label over each tag.

Exit sensor problems

While the short-range readers used for circulation charge and discharge and inventorying appear to read the tags 100 percent of the time, the performance of the exit sensors is more problematic. They must read tags at up to twice the distance of the other readers. The author knows of no library that has done a before and after inventory to determine the loss rate when RFID is used for security. Lacking data, one can only conjecture that the performance of exist sensors is better when the antennae on the tags are larger.

Perceived Invasion of Patron Privacy

There is a perception among some that RFID is a threat to patron privacy. That perception is based on two misconceptions: (1) that the tags contain patron information and (2) that they can be read after someone has taken the materials to home or office.

The vast majority of the tags installed in library materials contain only the item ID, usually the same number that previously has been stored on a barcode. The link between borrower and the borrowed material is maintained in the circulation module of the automated library system, and is broken when the material is returned. When additional information is stored on the tag, it consists of information about the item, including holding location, call number, and rarely author/title. The RFID tags can only be read from a distance of two feet or less because the tags reflect a signal that comes from a reader or sensor. It is, therefore, not possible for someone to read tags from the street or an office building hallway.

Perceptions, even when mistaken, may have real consequences. It is, therefore, important to educate library staff and patrons about the RFID technology used in libraries before implementing a program. The best way to do that is to emphasize that RFID technology is not one technology, but several. E-Z pass is RFID that is meant to be read from a distance. It would be impractical to affix tags of that size and cost to library materials. The same is true of the tags used on pallets in warehouses.

Several states are considering legislation that would pose restrictions on the use of RFID by retailers and libraries. It is, therefore, important to monitor legislative activity and to be prepared to inform legislators about the differences between retail and library applications. Library administrators should be sure to keep their boards informed.

With permission by the Public Library Association, American Library Association.