RFID in Libraries – the technology enters the mainstream


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I attended the 6th CILIP RFID in Libraries conference in London late last year and was struck by how much has changed since the 1st event. Back in 2004 a few early adopters told us how they had implemented RFID in their Libraries, and no-one was looking much beyond more efficient self service as the reason for introducing the technology.

In 2010 a wide ranging conference agenda included items on the changing relationship between the Library Management System and RFID, the latest developments in the area of standards, and case studies showing how the technology is already moving on from simply delivering self service.

Andrew Walsh, a subject Librarian from Huddersfield University suggested that using RFID for stock control is all well and good, but the potential exists to do far more. He wondered why we aren’t yet using RFID to bring the Library to life for our users; to reveal the information behind the physical item in the way that some museums are starting to do. An RFID tag could give access to book reviews, author interviews and readings, and offer readers the opportunity to review or recommend things themselves. As well as tagging books we could  tag the borrowers (via smartcards) and show them personalised messages, recommend services to them, give them access to reading lists and much more.

David Fray, City Libraries Manager, presented an interesting case study which explained how Newcastle, rather than shoe-horning RFID into existing plans for a building had built their new Library around the technology. Their aim is to achieve 100% self service and RFID is seen as key to the enterprise.

Staff at Cardiff University’s Biomedical Sciences Library, a collection of around 16,000 items, have been piloting “smartBlade”, a system that uses sets of RFID readers mounted at regular intervals on the bookshelves to constantly monitor the book stock. The system can deliver real time item location information to users (that book you’re after should be there, but it’s been misplaced and is actually over here). They now have possibly the tidiest library in Wales, and users who are pretty sure of finding what they are looking for.  Currently this technology is likely to be prohibitively expensive and you have to pity a supplier who is launching a system like this just as the economy goes into meltdown, but it’s a use of RFID  to watch.

The centrepiece of the day was a keynote talk from Marshall Breeding. Marshall runs the go-to site for news and comment on Library Automation and is well placed to deliver an overview of the current state of play. The suitability of traditional models of Library Automation to deliver modern Library services is under question more than ever.  One area where this is increasingly apparent is in the management of e-resources. One of the key trends currently, particularly in Academic Libraries is the shift from print to electronic resources, with increasing reliance on subscribed licensed content. Marshall pointed out that, while our Libraries are now truly hybrid, traditional monolithic Library Management Systems are largely focused on managing physical, mainly print resources. In order to deal with complex e-content and to try and get maximum value from these expensive strategic assets Libraries rely on a plethora of additional modules and systems to supplement the core LMS. Electronic Resource Management systems exist to manage back office processes, and Discovery is increasingly decoupled from the LMS and delivered through the sorts of 3rd party “vertical search” systems that we have been discussing in this blog for the last year or so. The role of the traditional LMS is shrinking as self service kiosks and 3rd party discovery tools take on much of the business of end user contact. However, there will continue to be a need for LMS functionality at the core of Library Automation; these new systems, including our RFID driven self service systems still need data, and often processing, from the LMS, and Marshall’s conclusion was that “thicker” APIs are the best way to deal with this process. The traditional LMS’s are starting to be differentiated not by the quality or number of their features (they all have similarly dense levels of functionality), but by the extent and quality of their support for interoperability; what really matters is how well (or not) they can be integrated into the increasingly complex IT environments that exist within Libraries and their parent institutions.  His presentation can be downloaded from here, and I would recommend taking a look.

The afternoon was largely given over to sessions about standards for RFID in Libraries. There are a couple of broad areas under discussion here; how data is stored on RFID tags, and the mechanism that RFID systems use for communicating with the LMS and other systems.

The storage of data on tags is the area where change is beginning to happen. At the moment suppliers in the UK are all offering their own proprietary solutions and as a consequence their tags will only work with their own equipment. A data model standard, ISO 28560 has been in development for the last couple of years and  is now ready to be published.  This standard defines what information can be encoded on an RFID tag, and how the information should be encoded.

Mick Fortune points out in his invaluable blog that ISO 28560 is a monolithic standard that was designed to manage the library supply chain from publication to circulation. Since no publisher has, or is ever likely to use it, nearly  50% of the elements it contains are unlikely to be used by anyone, so in order to simplify matters a UK data model has been developed to be used in conjunction with 28560-2 (the version of the ISO that will be adopted in the UK); it identifies 13 elements that could be useful and 3 that are mandatory in order to comply with the standard.    

I think the key point in all of this is that once the standard is published and, crucially, adopted by suppliers and Libraries, any tag should be readable by any suppliers’ equipment, and Libraries will in theory be free to select different system components from different sources. The standard is the key to interoperability, it will open up the market and give us choice, it will give our RFID systems a degree of future proofing, and it can be the platform for developing new services, for example around inter-lending.

The second thread in the discussion about standards is  how RFID systems communicate with the LMS. At the moment everyone uses a protocol called SIP, which was developed by 3M many years ago as a simple way to allow the LMS to exchange data with barcode driven self service units. These days we are onto SIP2, but it is still very much old technology, and it’s deficiencies in the age of RFID are becoming very apparent. SIP hasn’t evolved fast enough to keep pace with evolving Library needs, so some system providers have begun to develop their own alternatives. The danger is that we will end up with another set of mutually exclusive proprietary solutions, so to try and prevent this situation from developing the BIC/CILIP RFID in Libraries Group has set up a Working Group with the aim of developing a standard extensible data framework for communication between terminal devices and LMSs. In a reassuring echo of Marshall Breeding’s conclusion earlier that API’s are the way to go, the framework is being developed around web services. It’s early days, but we need to watch developments carefully, and encourage our suppliers to do likewise.

Finally, most right minded folk love a gadget, and there were a few covetable shiny things on show. Most striking for me was a sleek little hand held device that incorporated a barcode scanner, an RFID reader and a wireless connection to the LMS, thus freeing up the peripatetic Librarian to get out there amongst the books and the readers. Want one!

image credit – midnightcomm