With the demise of the printed word widely predicted, librarians are busy trying to find a new "role" for libraries. Add to this the challenges of reduced budgets and often a lack of IT expertise - and that challenge begins to look overwhelming.
Faced with this seemingly impossible task of delivering improved
and innovative services with fewer resources many have turned to
RFID for help.
In many of the world's libraries RFID is seen as an adjunct to
their existing automated systems. Libraries were one of the first
services to embrace computer technology and most now use management
systems of some kind (often abbreviated to ILS, LMS or even ILMS)
to look after the day to day running of the library - everything
from buying, tracking orders, receiving, shelving and, of course,
It is that last activity - lending - that has proved the most
attractive to RFID providers and for many years some libraries have
been replacing both their barcodes and their security systems with
RFID in order to loan (or 'circulate') their stock.
New international data standard -
Concerns about the lack of a data standard somewhat limited the
growth in some markets (although many countries developed their own
standard), but with the publication of an international
standard for data - ISO 28560 - earlier this year, those concerns
has been removed and interest and investment in RFID is once again
on the increase.
For most of the last 15 years the world library market has been
dominated by a handful of RFID suppliers providing self-service and
security systems to libraries that had already invested heavily in
management systems. The demand for self-service has been a major
driver for RFID adoption in libraries since it enables them to
release staff from routine tasks as well as increasing
The downside of this focus on self-service was a lack of
innovation in other aspects of service provision. Only in the last
few years have we begun to see RFID based solutions being deployed
to manage other tasks - like receiving new stock, carrying out
inventory checks and checking for misfiled items. That's slowly
beginning to change as new suppliers see the potential to develop
applications for a single market - rather than for each
individually - and librarians begin to realise that they, at last,
have a choice to make. But other changes are happening too.
The key question librarians need to answer is "am I providing
the resources my readers want?" Ways to answer that question
include counting the numbers coming through the door and looking at
the statistical reports of loans, but one measurement that has
always proved elusive is the use of items within the library
itself. This includes reference material that cannot be loaned (and
so never appears in the reports) but also the lending stock - some
of which may be consulted in the library without ever being
There have been several RFID based solutions to this problem,
the most ambitious being to make the shelves "active". Sensors are
placed on the shelves to detect the removal of any item for
The deployment of active or "smart" shelves creates a number of
other possibilities too. Taking inventory can potentially be done
at the click of a mouse. Readers might be guided to their catalogue
selections by a combination of phone or tablet map and flashing
lights at the shelf.
Most of the projects I've seen so far have been experimental but
they have one important feature in common - they no longer link to
the management system.
Freeing RFID from its dependence on pre-existing systems will, I
have no doubt, prove irresistible in the long term. Finding new
ways to interact with stock - like the projects at Oslo Public
Library, Cardiff University and the National Library of Singapore -
are key to prolonging the useful life of print and managing the
integration and probable transition from physical to virtual
resource provision. (The potential for using an item as a tool for
discovery was a concept I first saw deployed in Denmark (for a
pharmaceutical company) as early as 2007).
The only word of caution I would offer here would be to make
sure that any projects are mindful of their impact on other
systems. If your library already uses RFID for self-service linked
to a management system (or plans to) - it may not be a good idea to
have to add another tag - with another data model. Too many tags in
an item could result in a degradation of all the services being
provided - as well as costing more than necessary! Using common
data standards and frequencies, if possible, could help prevent
With tablets and smartphones now able to interact directly with
RFID (NFC and the vast majority of library tags share the same
frequency) the next few years are likely to see an explosion of new
ideas and services in libraries using RFID.
Which could be their salvation.
about RFID in libraries at Mick Fortune´s blog.